Courtesy Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun
Lynden McCallum certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
The Brandon Wheat Kings forward was named player of the week on Monday, three days before he plays his final Western Hockey League game. The honour followed his four-goal outburst against the Regina Pats that earned Brandon the East Division title, two goals against the Prince Albert Raiders on Saturday and a three-point night against the Swift Current Broncos last Wednesday.
McCallum hadn’t been notified he was the league’s player of the week, finding out the news when he spoke to his father Bruce on the phone on Monday.
“It’s obviously a cool honour and it’s something that is special,” McCallum said. “That’s just a byproduct of being on a good team. That’s the kind of stuff that happens. Ben (McCartney) was the player of the week last week and it just shows so well on our group of guys.”
He was also named to the East Division’s weekly all-star team with McCartney and defenceman Braden Schneider.
Brandon, which is on a seven-game winning streak, plays the last of its 24 games inside the East Division hub in Regina on Wednesday against the Saskatoon Blades, and it will signal the end of the line for the six-foot-one, 172-pound overager McCallum, who turned 21 in January.
While it’s no doubt been a surprise to many observers that McCallum is leading the league with 19 goals in 21 games after scoring 18 goals in 59 games a year ago, he has been a very effective player in the past as an older player.
After being sent down by Brandon in his rookie season in 2017-18, McCallum responded with 74 points in 37 games with the U18 Wheat Kings, and 14 more in nine playoff games as his team made it to the league final before losing to the Winnipeg Wild.
“I always believed in myself and tried to have high standards,” McCallum said. “I wouldn’t go to the extent that I planned on leading the league in goals or anything like that, but I tried to do the right things and I developed a system of trying to be consistent every day and have that help me with my performances. I think the goals have just been a byproduct of trying to do the right things every day.”
The undrafted forward started the 2017-18 season with the Wheat Kings, playing in five games. He was sent down to the U18 AAA Wheat Kings on Oct. 27, 2017 in what former general manager Grant Armstrong later called the toughest cut he had to make all season. He earned a full-time WHL spot in his 18-year-old season in 2018-19.
“It goes by way quicker than you think,” McCallum said. “It literally goes by in a blink of an eye. I know that’s a cliché but it feels like yesterday that I signed with the Wheat Kings and played in my first game against Regina at our home opener. You close your eyes and this bubble is winding down. It’s been way too fast but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
McCallum, who is joined by fellow overagers Marcus Sekundiak and Reid Perepeluk, also serves on Brandon’s leadership group as an alternate captain.
With eight rookies on the roster this season, McCallum did what he could to share the wisdom he accrued over three full seasons with the Wheat Kings.
“I took it pretty seriously,” McCallum said. “I think it’s important. The Wheat Kings are such a great organization and such a storied franchise, that culture needs to live on and the young guys did such a great job of learning on the fly and adapting to how we do things. I just had to do the right things every day and lead by example and be a good guy, who anyone could talk to if they needed to.”
A big part of his motivation is because he remembers how hard the league can be for newcomers.
In 46 games with the Wheat Kings as an 18-year-old rookie, McCallum contributed four goals and three assists, 67 fewer points than he earned at the U18 level a year earlier.
“It’s a tough jump,” McCallum said. “I remember coming out of midget, and there are obviously some great players playing midget hockey, but it’s just not quite the same. The speed and the strength are an eye-opener when you’re a young guy, and that’s the hardest part of being a young guy. Our young guys did a fantastic job of making the transition.”
He said every aspect of his game has improved since he graduated from U18, but the biggest advancements have come in his play without the puck.
“In midget I was a pretty offensive player and not necessarily as good in my own end and through work and paying attention I think I’ve become a lot better defensively, and just a lot smarter in trying to defend and be in the right spots,” McCallum said. “Offensively, last year working with (former head coach) Dave (Lowry), he really had me working on my game inside and trying to get in and around the front of the net. That’s where goals are scored and I made a big jump in that department as well.”
McCallum was a different player in his 19-year-old season, contributing 18 goals and 15 assists in 59 games. It took him just 12 games to eclipse his rookie goal totals.
“I’ve always tried to pride myself on being a guy who innovates and always tries to find ways to raise the level of his game,” McCallum said. “I’m trying to continually get better and better and better. I thought last year I had a year with some ups and downs but I showed some flashes a little bit of what I can do in the league, and this year was about trying to do it consistently every night.”
After going three games without a goal to start the abbreviated 2021 season, he has scored in 13 of the 18 games he has appeared. (He missed two games due to illness.)
He’s enjoyed every step along the way.
“I’ve been happy,” McCallum said. “I’ve just been trying to stay in the moment and not think about it too much and just take it one game at a time and try to do the things that I know I have to do to be successful. It’s been a lot of fun, and there have been a lot of guys who have had individual success this year, and that’s a direct result of how good our team had been. When the team does well, everyone on it does well.”
After going 3-2-1-0 in their first six games, the Wheat Kings have gone on a remarkable 15-1-1-0 run in their last 17. McCallum said the unique setup that allowed the team to have just one week of practice after emerging from quarantine had an early impact.
“We have such great players on this team and everyone had been off for so long that it took us a little bit to find our niche and get clicking together,” McCallum said. “Once we did, we didn’t really look back.”
He said his legs came back pretty quickly as the team scrimmaged in practice, and he felt fine in the team’s first victory, a 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Ice on March 13.
A huge part of the experience this season has been the communal living in the University of Regina’s Paskwaw Tower residence. Combined with the team’s success, McCallum is having a blast.
“No exaggeration, this has honestly been some of the most fun I’ve had in my life,” McCallum said. “They’ve done a great job of setting it up. Being on the ice every day, getting to play on such a great team and a winning team makes the hockey side of it super fun and super enjoyable, and the way our living arrangements are set up with four guys in an apartment and we have two floors in the apartment building right next to each other so you can get to anybody’s room in a matter of 20 steps to be able to hang out together and play cards and watch movies and have fun.
“It has really been something that I’ll never forget.”
He lives with Neithan Salame, Riley Ginnell and Connor Ungar, with each having their own bedroom and sharing a communal living room and kitchen.
“It wouldn’t have really mattered who we had as roommates because everyone on this team is a great guy but we had tons of fun in our room,” McCallum said. “Gins is a pretty funny, goofy guy and he’s good for a laugh, and it’s the same with Ungs and Nate as well. We definitely have our fair share of stories that we’ll be able to look back on.”
He’s philosophical about what he’s lost and what he’s gained this season.
On one hand, he never had an opportunity to skate out in front of his home fans for a final time. On the other, he’s enjoyed what’s likely been the most unique player experience in WHL history.
“It’s all about the perspective and how you look at it,” McCallum said. “I think that given the circumstances, there are tons of junior hockey players who didn’t get to play at all this year or only got to play very little, so we’re incredibly lucky that the WHL was able to organize this for us and do such a great job of putting it on. We were part of something that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives. I think that’s pretty cool.”
He is quick to add that Brandon crowds are something special. As a homegrown product, it meant a lot to him to look up in the crowd and recognize people.
“Playing in Brandon in front of a hometown crowd was honestly gave me goosebumps,” McCallum said. “To be able to score a big goal or ignite the crowd was something that was really special.
“Obviously my parents and grandparents got to come to every home game and that was something that not a lot of other players get to have. That was really special for me. It was tough not to be able to play in front of fans this year. I’m going to miss the local crowd for sure.”
McCallum hasn’t made up his mind on what will come next. The siren song of pro hockey will no doubt come calling, but he has also accumulated four years of scholarship money that could send his life in another direction.
“When I get back to Brandon, I’m obviously going to have some discussions with my agents and some teams and see what it is going to be best for my next chapter,” McCallum said. “While I’ve been here, I’ve just been trying to live in the moment.”
Unfortunately him, those future moments won’t include a long playoff run. The WHL announced last week that four division banners will be handed out instead of a league trophy.
While a talented Wheat Kings team won’t be able to compete against the other powerhouse clubs around the league, they did earn the one championship they could. McCallum takes solace in that.
“We would have liked to have gone on as big of a run as we could have this year, but that opportunity wasn’t presented so we made the most of it,” McCallum said. “We set out to win what we were given the opportunity to win and we did that and it feels pretty good.”
It won’t be his perfect ending, but it’s the end nonetheless for McCallum, who has 41 goals, 24 assists and 70 penalty minutes in 131 career WHL games.
He jokes that would play as a 21-year-old if he could, calling his Wheat Kings career a crazy ride that’s ending way too fast. He’s grateful to all the people who made his childhood dream come true.
“I want to thank absolutely everybody in the Wheat Kings organization that I’ve had the pleasure to cross paths with, being just first class and giving me the opportunity to be a Wheat King and live out a childhood dream,” McCallum said. “It’s just been super special and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”