Seldom has draft-day intrigue paid off as handsomely as it did for the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2016.
With the 21st overall pick in the Western Hockey League bantam draft, the Wheat Kings had their eye on a defenceman from Prince Albert, Sask. The problem was that the young man’s hometown Raiders picked 13th, and he would be long gone by the time Brandon selected.
Wheat Kings owner, general manager and head coach Kelly McCrimmon was in Brandon because the league final with the Seattle Thunderbirds started a day later, but was monitoring the draft.
Director of scouting Wade Klippenstein was in charge on the draft floor in the ballroom of a Calgary hotel on May 5, 2016, and they agreed on what they were willing to pay if Schneider wasn’t taken.
Eventually, Klippenstein let Moose Jaw general Alan Millar know he was interested in talking and a trade was made.
Brandon sent its first, third and sixth-round picks — 21st, 65th and 131st overall — to Moose Jaw for the 12th overall pick and used it to select Braden Schneider. While Brandon didn’t make many friends in Prince Albert that day, it ended up selecting the next great defenceman in franchise history.
And Schneider is certainly OK with how it all worked out.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Schneider said of his WHL career. “It feels like yesterday when I was called when I was drafted, and when I was called up to play my first game as Wheat King when I was 15.
“I can picture it clear as day. It’s almost weird to think about that it’s all done. It’s been a blast and I’ve enjoyed every little bit of it. I’ll forever be a Wheat King.”
With Schneider certain to play next season somewhere in the system of the New York Rangers — the team that took him 19th overall in the 2020 National Hockey League entry draft — the team captain’s Wheat Kings career officially ended on Wednesday after a 5-2 loss to the Saskatoon Blades.
But before Schneider left the ice, he was able to share the presentation of the Subway Cup as East Division champs with his teammates.
“We knew it was a development year but we came in with the goal to be the number one team at the end of it and to do that is amazing,” Schneider said. “It’s been a competitive, tight race to get to it and I don’t think I could be more proud of our coaches, our staff and our team for gutting it out and getting it done. I take a lot of pride in being able to do that.
“To go out in my last year raising a banner is very special.”
It was a fitting culmination to an outstanding career.
When he was originally drafted, Klippenstein, who departed later that summer for a job with the Colorado Avalanche, called the six-foot-one, 185-pound Schneider the best defenceman in the draft, a top-pairing guy who was hard to play against and could compete in any kind of game.
After Brandon went to the Memorial Cup — Schneider attended as a spectator — and playing into late May, the Wheat Kings chose to cancel their annual spring camp for prospects.
He finally debuted on the ice in Brandon in August 2016 at rookie camp. Schneider had a definite goal in mind at the time.
“I just hope to leave an impression so that next year when I come back, it’s ‘Oh ya, this guy is back again,’” he said at the time. “I want to leave a little footprint.”
The symbolism was undeniable when he was partnered in scrimmages with star Ivan Provorov, who began his NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers. The torch had officially been passed.
Schneider made his WHL debut on March 18, 2017 in a 6-0 loss to the powerhouse Regina Pats in Brandon’s regular season finale. He then dressed for three playoff games as the Wheat Kings were swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the opening round.
He made the team as a 16-year-old, earning a pair of assists in the 2017-18 season opener. As the team struggled to rebuild a blue-line shattered by graduations after the 2016 championship — 14 defencemen played at least one game with that winter — Schneider quickly took on a top-pairing role.
That was amplified at the trade deadline when the Wheat Kings sent their top defenceman, Kale Clague, to the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Looking back at it with the benefit of hindsight, Schneider said that season of increasing responsibility was exactly what he needed.
“It had a ton of ups and downs,” Schneider said. “I was very fortunate to play as much as I did. When I was 16, I was put in a pretty good spot with the trade deadline coming, and our team ended up selling that year so I was very fortunate but it’s a tough league with a lot of ups and downs. You’re not going to play the perfect game every night and you have to be able to adjust and learn … you truly learn a lot about yourself as a player and a person.”
He briefly left the Wheat Kings to take part in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, which was played in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, B.C. Schneider’s Team White went 2-3-1-0 in its six games, losing 2-1 to the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game.
The right-handed shooting defenceman had a goal and an assist in his first experience in Hockey Canada’s program.
Schneider worked directly with his future head coach Don MacGillivray that season. Back in 2016, MacGillivray handled the team’s blue-liners as an assistant coach to David Anning.
“He’s a big, strong kid who skates really well, moves the puck well and is physical,” MacGillivray said in 2016. “He challenges himself, works hard and is trying to get better every day. I don’t think he cheats at all, and I think that’s what is going to make him successful in the long run.
“He’s been really grounded for a first-round pick; he came in with no entitlement. He puts on his skates and words hard like everybody else.”
A year later, at six-foot-two and 209 pounds, he attended the 2019 under-18 championship in Sweden on a fourth-place Canadian team that included Peyton Krebs and Dylan Cozens.
Back in Brandon, his game was evolving.
In his first two seasons, a span of 124 regular season games, Schneider posted 46 points and 42 penalty minutes. In the 2019-20 season, he earned 42 points and 42 penalty minutes in just 60 games.
“When I first came in, I was a big guy who skated pretty well and loved being physical,” Schneider said. “I didn’t have too much flair on the offensive side of things but I think my time in Brandon, I took strides with every part of my game. I’ve gotten stronger and faster but in saying that, I think I’ve gotten more confident and more fluid with the puck on my stick, and being more willing to be that guy who wants to have the puck and carry the puck.
“That was a thing I never truly grasped or just never had the time to grasp. My time in Brandon has really turned me into a good all-around player.”
NHL scouts were certainly watching, and they had a lengthy viewing.
Schneider’s Sept. 20 birthday puts him a few days after the NHL deadline, so he had to play an extra year in the WHL to join most of his 2001-born draft class.
On Oct. 6, 2020, in a draft pushed back four months due to the pandemic and conducted online, Schneider was selected 19th overall by the Rangers.
“It was unbelievable,” Schneider said later that day. “I can’t describe it. I had so many people that I love so much around me. It was one of the most special moments of my life.”
The good times continued.
Schneider was a late cut in 2019 for the world junior team, but remedied that two months after getting drafted when he earned a spot. In six games — he was suspended for one — he had one goal and two assists.
Following Canada’s 2-0 loss to the United States on Jan. 5, Schneider reported to New York’s top farm team, the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, earning an assist in a pair of games.
On Feb. 12, the WHL finally unveiled plans for its East Division hub that would see all the games played at Regina’s Brandt Centre, with the players isolated together in a university residence.
“When I look back at it, I’m excited to get out but at the same time it’s going to be weird. I’m not going to miss it but I’ve enjoyed the experience and being around the guys every day,” Schneider said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this close with an entire group of a team.
“The hockey was fun. It was good, it was competitive, it was everything you want it to be. The guys on our team have been awesome. I don’t think I’ll have a bad memory leaving here.”
The news certainly got even better not long after he arrived at the Regina hub on Feb. 27. On March 4, Schneider signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers.
His base salary is $832,500 in the NHL, with performance bonuses of $400,000. In the minors, he will earn $80,000.
The deal also included a $92,500 signing bonus.
On the ice, after a 3-2-1-0 start to the season, Brandon went on a tear, going 15-2-1-0 to win the East Division title.
“I was looking forward to coming back to the team this year because I knew what kind of team we had,” Schneider said. “A lot of it comes from we have a good core group of guys who are all great people and great competitors and great leaders in their own right.
“It went right because we didn’t take ‘no’ or a loss for an answer, and we took every day, day by day. We didn’t get too high on ourselves after a win or get down when we had a loss. I think it’s a credit to our veteran players and our leadership group to be able to keep everyone even keeled and to lead the way that way.”
Schneider certainly led the way. He was named team captain on Feb. 12, a responsibility he took seriously.
Earlier in his career, he had learned from captains Connor Gutenberg, Stelio Mattheos, Tanner Kaspick and James Shearer, and tried to model himself after them.
“It’s a big role and with such a culture and such a historic place to be playing, it’s important,” Schneider said. “It’s an honour because I truly think the captain here is never just the best player. He’s a good person, and every guy I had as my captain has always been an amazing person on and off the ice. I took a lot of pride in that.
“I’m not saying I’m an amazing person by any means, but it’s a big role and I wore it proudly and was glad we were able to get as many wins and have as good and successful of a year as we did.”
The coaching staff would have minor disagreement with what he said. They do consider him an outstanding person, and that’s a big part of why he got the job.
“This guy is a tremendous leader, a tremendous player,” MacGillivray said after Schneider’s final game on Wednesday. “Every player looks up to him. He’s a hard-working guy and just a great person. I just can’t say enough about the character of that particular player.
“He’s got a bright future ahead of him. The New York Rangers got a good one in him, not only as a player but as a person with what he brings on a day-to-day basis.”
The trust they had in Schneider was reflected in another way in Regina.
He and veteran defenceman Chad Nychuk were assigned to a room that included rookie blue-liners Logen Hammett and Jacob Hoffrogge.
The message was clear on what the coaching staff expected.
“I tried to pass on as much as I could,” Schneider said. “Obviously I didn’t want to force them or tell this is the way it has to be, because they have to figure out parts of it for themselves. I would go about my day and try to help them as much as I could. I always made myself available to them if they had any questions.
“I think moving forward, they know what the Wheat Kings are about and have picked it up in the few months that we’ve been together. I’m excited to follow their careers in the Western Hockey League to see where it takes them because I think they both have bright futures.”
Along with having the chance to play against his younger brother Marek, who skates for the Saskatoon Blades, Schneider had an intensive two-month opportunity to work on his game. Aside from missing a pair of games after being taken down awkwardly by Blades captain Chase Wouters, Schneider was a presence every night, posting a plus-minus of +18, scoring five goals and adding 27 assists in just 22 games.
“I came with a goal to leave this level with more confidence having the puck on my stick and getting the puck up and getting more involved offensively, and I think took a huge step in doing just that,” Schneider said. “I felt like I got a lot more fluid carrying the puck and moving it and having my head up and being the guy who wants to have the puck on his stick as much as he can while maintaining that grit and physical play that I’m known to do.
“I’m very proud of myself with the season but in saying that, I know I wouldn’t be able to do without my amazing teammates.”
He scored two of his five goals in overtime, and another when the Wheat Kings were short-handed.
If he has one regret, it’s that he wasn’t able to play in front of his home crowds again. Schneider, who comes from a terrific hockey city in Prince Albert, came to appreciate what the players encountered at Westoba Place, and also off the ice around the community.
“The fans in Brandon are what makes the Wheat Kings the Wheat Kings,” Schneider said. “We have one of the best fanbases in the Western Hockey League. It’s a hockey town, Brandon, and everyone loves hockey. It’s not the biggest city by any means but everyone knows who the Wheat Kings are. They are a special type of people … We really missed them this year.
“It would have been kind of fun with how much success we had with our team to be going into playoffs and having that wall of people behind us. In saying that, we felt you guys. I’m always thankful for every encounter I’ve had with a fan.”
He’s beyond thankful for the Brandonites he got to know the best.
Schneider billeted with Chad and Michelle Wallin and their children Zander and Sawyer, and stayed with them even in the summer when he returned for workouts.
“They’ve been an amazing family, I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Schneider said. “They’re my family now, and I’m so proud that I was able to share these last few years with them and be a part of their family. They welcomed me with open arms when I first came to Brandon and I really we wish we could celebrate this year with them.
“I know I’ll be back there this summer. They truly helped make me the person I am today and they’ll always be a huge part of me.”
Schneider’s hockey season concluded on Wednesday. The Rangers are not in playoff position right now, and their season is set to end on May 8, the same day as the Wolf Pack finish up. The AHL hasn’t announced plans for a playoff.
Hockey may be over, but for Schneider, Brandon’s influence on him will live on.
He points to a message delivered during a Zoom call by McCrimmon that he thinks perfectly sums up what the Wheat Kings are actually about.
“You saw all those old videos, the Wheat Kings have a great culture as a team,” Schneider said. “They obviously want to be a winning playoff hockey team every single year if possible but the goal isn’t to produce winning hockey teams every year, it’s to produce great people.
“I truly think that everything I picked up, from being a better leader to being a more confident person to helping out as much as I can in the community and with my teammates, I think overall the Wheat Kings allowed me to become a better, well-rounded man who is ready to take on being an adult.”