The Western League has always been lauded as a rough-and-tumble circuit that also churns out some of the most complete players in the game – Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, even Marian Hossa played a season in the Dub.
So when an underage player gets an early tryout in the league and steps in right away, that’s a pretty good omen for future success.
Michael St. Croix, the fourth overall pick in last year’s bantam draft, did just that this season for the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“He scored in his first game,” noted Edmonton GM Bob Green. “Michael is the type of player who is going to adapt quickly to this league.”
In that two-game stint, St. Croix notched two points. But perhaps more importantly for the 5-foot-11, 163-pound center, he found a comfort level with what will be his full-time surroundings next season.
“Meeting all the guys and seeing what my life is going to be like next year confirmed that this is what I want to do,” St. Croix said.
Playing for the midget Winnipeg Wild this year, St. Croix and his mates are currently driving through the playoffs, hopefully with a berth in the Telus Cup to follow. St. Croix led the team and his league in scoring this season with 56 goals and 103 points in 41 games and cites hockey sense and goal-scoring as his two greatest strengths.
“I try to help and make the players around me better,” he added.
Added Green: “He’s got an extremely high skill level. And the other thing is his competitiveness, the way he battles for pucks. He’s the kind of player you win with.”
And that’s something the Oil Kings could use. As a second-year expansion team currently wading into its first-ever playoff series with the heavily favored Calgary Hitmen, the Oil Kings are building a foundation that will include St. Croix next year, augmenting young defenseman Mark Pysyk (third overall in the 2007 bantam draft) and NHL draft-eligible right winger Tomas Vincour.
For St. Croix, the opportunity to be a key player right away is something he values.
“Mark Pysyk is a great defenseman and he’s playing lots out there,” St. Croix said. “He’s setting the example that you can go there and have an impact right away as a 16-year-old.”
But having a year in midget before fully diving into the Dub is a boon, according to Green, who likes what he has seen from St. Croix’s time in Winnipeg this year.
“That year is really important and that’s why I like the bantam draft,” Green said. “They can get ahead in school and get ready physically. (Michael) has good habits, including maintaining high grades and he knows what he needs to do to succeed.”
In terms of preparation, St. Croix doesn’t need to look any further than the man who raised him; father Rick St. Croix was a goaltender for both the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1980s and now runs a goaltending school in Winnipeg, where he was also an assistant coach with the NHL’s old Jets. And while Michael helps out at his dad’s camp sometimes, the 1-on-1 battles are getting scarcer as the son gets closer to the elite levels of the game.
“Every once and awhile,” Michael said of their skater vs. goalie encounters. “He always puts on the pads at camp and sometimes in the pre-warmups, I try to snipe on him.”
St. Croix laughed as he said it, but Dub goalies better know the pivot’s moves are no joke when he unleashes them full-time next season.
Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every Thursday, only on thehockeynews.com.
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