(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — The Brandon Wheat Kings hold the 39th and 99th picks next Tuesday in what promises to be a most unusual edition of the Canadian Hockey League’s annual import draft.

The CHL event traditionally takes place a few days after the National Hockey League’s entry draft, which has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No new date has been announced for the event, which could see Wheat Kings defenceman Braden Schneider and forward Ridly Greig both go in the first round.

Regardless, Wheat Kings general manager Darren Ritchie said the same work has to be put in this year.

“You still talk to the people who you know around the NHL,” Ritchie said. “They do have a bit of an idea who’s coming over. It’s definitely different than years past because the NHL draft is usually (today) and Saturday … This year is a little different with no combine where they meet with the kids as in years past but they still have a good feel and you go the guys who you know and feel comfortable talking with and find out who is coming over.”

The team will likely make both choices despite the expected return of 19-year-old Finnish winger Marcus Kallionkieli, who played 24 games with the Western Hockey League club last season after overcoming an offseason injury. Brandon is allowed a second import pick because Kallionkieli signed an NHL contract with the Vegas Golden Knights, who took him in 2019.

Teams are no longer allowed to trade their import draft selections, so don’t expect any movement in the draft order.

It will be Ritchie’s first import draft as the GM — he was named to the position on July 12, 2019 after Grant Armstrong’s contract expired and he wasn’t retained — but in his former role as director of scouting, the import draft was among his many duties. He has assistant general manager Doug Gasper and assistant coach Don MacGillivray lending a hand as well.

“It’s the same as what I’ve done the past couple of years,” Ritchie said. “It’s no different really. I’m still making the phone calls. Doug is helping, Donny is helping, and obviously we had Grant help a bit in the past but nothing has changed. I’ve done a lot of the work in the past three years.”

A year ago, Brandon selected Kallionkieli and Russian winger Vladislav Firstov, who earlier committed to the University of Connecticut and played there in 2019-20.

In the 2018 import draft, the Wheat Kings chose defenceman Eric Brannstrom of Sweden, who went pro and never played a WHL game. But in the second round, they snagged Jiri Patera of the Czech Republic, who became a two-year starter as the first European goalie in franchise history.

The Vegas prospect aged out of junior hockey and will play pro next season.

While the pandemic is casting a huge shadow over the entire world of sports, Ritchie said his job ultimately doesn’t change because of COVID-19. The WHL has set a potential return date of Oct. 2, but that remains largely up in the air.

“You still have to do your work and make sure guys are going to come,” Ritchie said. “I think it weighs on everybody’s mind. We don’t know what is going to happen. We’re very hopeful that we will start with the date that the league has set out. You just keep doing your work like it’s any other year until somebody tells you something different and you change course.

“For me, every day is the same. You come to work and prepare for training camp or the import draft or all that stuff. We can’t worry about things we can’t control.”


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