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This article was published 13/6/2019 (860 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
HE’S not as well known as Sidney Crosby, someone he’s often compared to, but Matt Savoie showed he was still capable of shaking the hockey world Thursday afternoon.
Less than three months after announcing his commitment to University of Denver via Twitter, the 15-year-old centre from St. Albert, Alta., turned his back on the NCAA and signed a Western Hockey League player agreement with the Winnipeg Ice.
It was a huge coup for Ice general manager Matt Cockell, who gambled on his ability to sell his city and program to a player widely regarded as the best prospect available in Western Canada and a future NHL star.
The Ice chose Savoie first overall in last month’s WHL bantam draft despite evidence he would never report. A shift may have started a short time later when Savoie, his father and brother visited the city and the club’s facilities at the Rink Training Centre.
"It was obviously a tough decision and seeing it both ways I just felt like Winnipeg was the better option for development starting next year," said Savoie via telephone. "That’s what we decided as a family... I just think it’s a great environment for improvement. Everyone knows what they’re doing, it’s a first-class organization. And their new facilities are super nice and it’s just set up for you to succeed there."
Savoie’s arrival as a full-time player in the WHL would come in 2020-21, since 15-year-olds are restricted to five regular-season WHL games.
However, there are provisions in WHL regulations that allow players to play a limited number of additional games as call-ups or on an emergency basis. Saskatoon Blades star Kirby Dach, for instance, played 19 games during his 15-year-old season in 2016-17.
Savoie and Cockell would not comment specifically but it appears likely Savoie won’t be limited to five games.
Earlier this year, Hockey Canada denied the Savoie family’s application for exceptional status, which would have allowed Matt to play full time in the WHL starting this fall.
"Not getting exceptional status was more of a motivator for me," he said. "To know you’re not quite there yet and you need to keep improving to get to the next level."
Savoie played in 31 regular-season games with the Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep of the Canadian Sport School Hockey League in 2018-19, registering 31 goals and 71 points.
The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder, who added three goals and 12 points in five playoff games while helping NAX win the league title, could return to the team but he is considering his options for 2019-20, with the Rink Hockey Academy Prep team getting consideration.
Just as he usually plays against competition a year older, Savoie has also fast-tracked his academic life. He’s almost completed Grade 10, a year ahead of his age group, and is on a timetable that would have allowed him to start college hockey as a 17-year-old.
Those plans have changed but Savoie remains unfazed by any pressure his decision may generate.
"It was a long process but you’ve gotta see the positive of it, right?" said Savoie. "Not many 15-year-olds get to make decisions like this. You’ve gotta see yourself as lucky to get so many opportunities to play high-level hockey and proceed as a player."
A month before the bantam draft, Cockell shipped a fifth-round bantam draft choice and conditional second- and third-round picks to the Regina Pats for the WHL rights to forward Carter Savoie, Matt’s 17-year-old brother and the Alberta junior league’s rookie of the year. Carter, who had previously signed on to attend the University of Denver, remains committed to the Pioneers but Cockell still hopes to make the brothers a package deal.
"As it relates to Carter, we’ll continue to build and have a relationship with the family," said Cockell. "If Carter at some point decided that this was something he’d want to pursue, we’d obviously be thrilled about that. But I think it’s important to be patient and build relationships and we’re really excited about our program and what we’re doing here."
"His plan is still to go to the NCAA and play for the Denver Pioneers," said Matt Savoie. "Our whole family feels that’s the best option for him as a player and a person."
Matt Savoie is the third player from Winnipeg’s 2019 draft class to sign, joining No. 2 overall pick Conor Geekie and goaltender Daniel Hauser (sixth round, 120th overall) of Chestermere, Alta.
"I think the excitement of Winnipeg is a real attraction for players and I’m excited for people who are going to be watching the Winnipeg Ice," said Cockell. "You look at players like Matt Savoie and Conor Geekie and Connor McClennon and Carson Lambos and the leadership of Peyton Krebs, I think that’s a pretty exciting group.
"It’ll be great for people to watch for a number of years but also from a program perspective, it’s a very significant day for the franchise and in some ways validates a lot of the work that we’ve done to make it an attractive program for elite players."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.