A tale of sticks and pucks and Pickerings
Brother Owen, sister Avery are both going places in the hockey world
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ST. ADOLPHE — Owen Pickering has always had a way of defying expectations.
When he was younger, his mom Dana would worry that her violin-playing oldest son hadn’t practised enough. Apparently, those concerns were unfounded.
“I would always think, ‘Oh, he’s not quite prepared enough for this recital’ and then he’d knock it out of the park,” remembers Dana.
Pickering, 18, has been knocking it out of the park a lot lately.
A little over three years ago, he was 5-7 and 131 pounds and a long shot candidate for major-junior hockey, chosen in the ninth round of the WHL Prospects Draft by the Swift Current Broncos.
CLASS OF ‘22
Prospect: D Owen Pickering
Hometown: St. Adolphe
2021-22 team: Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
WHL Draft: ninth round (177th overall) in 2019
NHL Central Scouting: ranked 15th (21st at mid-season) among North American skaters
• • •
Prospect: D Avery Pickering
Hometown: St. Adolphe
2021-22 team: Balmoral Hall Blazers (JWHL)
College commitment: Colgate University (2023-24)
Today, he is one of the most-hyped late-bloomers for the NHL Draft, a 6-4, 179-pound defenceman projected to be chosen in the first round Thursday and that’s all before he reaches physical maturity. Growing pains, quite literally in Owen’s case, still cause pain in his knees.
NHL talent evaluators, who have been busy trying to project what he might be in three or four years, were caught off guard when the slender Pickering debuted in the the WHL’s Regina hub in the spring of 2021.
Then, during the 2021-22 season, he continued to put his small-man skills on display nightly as a first-pairing blue-liner with the Broncos and after that with Team Canada at the U18 worlds.
His stock has risen steadily.
“Coming into the year I kind of just wanted to get drafted,” says Owen, whose second cousin, Dominion City’s Denton Mateychuk, is also a likely to be chosen in the first round. “I had no expectations. I came into Swift and I just wanted to kind of establish myself as a top defenceman and I got some confidence and was put some good spots in the lineup and then had some success. I think I’ve earned this recognition, but it’s super special and honestly, still pretty surreal.”
Owen’s dad, Tom, didn’t set out to produce an NHL prospect but there were some signs early on of special ability: the skating and the ability to process information quickly.
“I would say to my wife, ‘Can you imagine him with 40 pounds?’” says Tom, an electrical engineer with Manitoba Hydro. “I could see his potential but I didn’t know what would come of it. I knew he was good. He was always a very smart player. He could always think the game as good as anybody else.”
But for all of Owen’s talent and brain for the game, his sister Avery could be poised to equal or surpass his success.
The 16-year could be the best female prospect to come out of Manitoba in more than a decade after recently making a verbal commitment to attend Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., on a hockey scholarship beginning in 2023-24.
Avery had 24 NCAA Division I scholarship offers, including competing bids from Yale, Princeton and Ohio State to choose from.
Avery, a fast and physical 5-9 blue-liner, will be entering Grade 12 in fall with the Balmoral Hall Blazers.
The siblings (13-year-old brother Graeme is also an emerging talent) have an internal rivalry going.
“(We’re) very competitive,” says Owen. “If she’s not going to read this then I’ll say that she’s incredible. Watching her growing up, she’s always been always been really good and training with me up until a couple of summers ago, we were kind of skating together sometimes and my friends are always telling me, ‘Your sister’s better than you.’ I still get those comments.”
An outdoor rink taking up the entire backyard of their St. Adolphe home had played a major role, particularly during the most restrictive days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a little bit of give and take on both sides with my little brother and my older brother both,” says Avery. “We’re all super competitive and it kind of can spill over — just annoying my parents sometimes — and it’s not helpful. But we’ve pushed each other in so many different ways.
“When we have the ODR in the backyard during the winters we’ll just go out there and play keep away for however long. And it just pushes us to develop. My little brother’s been thrown into snowbanks more than once.”
While brother duos in the NHL are almost too numerous to mention, the number of NHL players who have or had sisters playing at the game’s highest levels are a more select group.
The most prominent members of that list include Boone and Brianne Jenner, Cammi and Tony Granato and Phil and Amanda Kessel.
The Pickerings would like to join the club and Avery believes Colgate, highly regarded for its academics and women’s hockey program, is the place to do it.
“I was looking for kind of the best balance between academics and hockey as well because I also have aspirations of playing for Team Canada and the Olympics, so I need a program to help develop me in terms of hockey,” says Avery.
That is not to say the Pickerings are laser-focused on hockey. Owen only gave up violin lessons when he moved away to play in Swift Current while continuing to play elite baseball in the off-season. Avery and Graeme are also multi-taskers.
“We were always were pretty realistic about life and we encourage our kids to follow their passions, but we also encourage them to stay in school because it’s not very likely that this path is going to work out but as time progresses, you have to (reevaluate),” says Dana, a public health nurse in Winnipeg. “As a parent, you’ve got to kind of be all in.”
Avery, who like Owen is an outstanding student, plays baseball for a AAA U15 boys Carillon team while continuing her piano training. The self-taught guitar player started hockey as a four-year-old and played with and against boys until transitioning to the girls game at 13, moving to the Rink Hockey Academy’s girls program.
“With Avery maybe it was a little bit more obvious just because she was a standout even amongst the boys,” adds Dana. “It was really hard decision for us as a family (to switch to girls hockey). When she finished peewee AA and when she was 13 she played spring with boys and she did really well and that’s really with the better players in the province.”
Avery, who skipped Grade 6, displays a maturity beyond her years and she plans to be ready for the college game in 14 months.
“This is kind of the first big step to really elite level hockey and I’m really excited to just go and if nothing else, get to see what the level is like and try to be the best that I can and do my best to fit within it and see how I can how I can try to excel,” she says.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.