October 14, 2019

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Rising WHL star hoping to be regular player for Winnipeg Ice this season

Elite athletes are not uncommon around Shaftesbury High School.

Gold-medal-winning curler Kaitlyn Lawes and NHLer Cody Eakin once walked the halls there and Todd MacCulloch dunked a few basketballs in the school gym on his way to the NBA.

The latest example could create his own legacy one day.

Matt Savoie, the No. 1 overall pick by the Winnipeg Ice in last spring's Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, has moved to the Manitoba capital full time from his home in St. Albert, Alta.

Elite athletes are not uncommon around Shaftesbury High School.

Gold-medal-winning curler Kaitlyn Lawes and NHLer Cody Eakin once walked the halls there and Todd MacCulloch dunked a few basketballs in the school gym on his way to the NBA.

Matt Savoie was the No. 1 overall pick by the Winnipeg Ice in last spring's Western Hockey League Bantam Draft.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Matt Savoie was the No. 1 overall pick by the Winnipeg Ice in last spring's Western Hockey League Bantam Draft.

The latest example could create his own legacy one day.

Matt Savoie, the No. 1 overall pick by the Winnipeg Ice in last spring's Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, has moved to the Manitoba capital full time from his home in St. Albert, Alta.

On Wednesday, he reported for training camp medicals at the Ice's gleaming new facility at the Rink Training Centre. Next week, he will be starting classes at Shaftesbury while also preparing to take the next step in a hockey career that many pundits believe will take him to big league stardom.

YOUNG PHENOM PLAYS BEYOND HIS YEARS

Matt Savoie is expected to make his Western Hockey League debut as a 15-year-old next month. To hear his dad tell it, his youngest son has always been ahead of schedule.

"He's the kid that was riding his bike at 1 1/2 years old with no training wheels," said Scott Savoie Wednesday. "He's that kid."

Matt Savoie is expected to make his Western Hockey League debut as a 15-year-old next month. To hear his dad tell it, his youngest son has always been ahead of schedule.

"He's the kid that was riding his bike at 1 1/2 years old with no training wheels," said Scott Savoie Wednesday. "He's that kid."

Matt's arrival at the major-junior level is a year early and Scott Savoie admitted he doesn't anticipate everything will go smoothly.

"Expectations are going to be tricky because I think people are going to expect a lot from him this year," said Savoie. "But you have to keep in mind he's a year younger, No. 1, but he's also not going to play consistently... he might play two games and then he may not play for a month. We'll see, how that goes...

"Matt likes to push himself and he likes a challenge and I think this will be a really good challenge and he seems to succeed where ever he goes," said Scott Savoie.

The 5-9, 178-pounder will have a full calendar.

In addition to games with the WHL's Ice and the RHA prep midgets, Savoie is also expected to suit up for Canada at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in November and he could also get the call to play for his country at the World Youth Olympics, Jan. 9-22 in Switzerland.

Ice director of scouting and hockey operations Jake Heisinger watched Savoie play in-person more than a dozen times last season and he came away convinced he's capable of thriving against older players in the junior ranks.

"When you are doing the things he is doing as an underage, it does stand out," said Heisinger. "Guys playing with their peers can't even do some of the things he does. He has the ability to change a game and we talk a lot about it -- 'Can a guy be a driver on his team' -- and the way he plays, he's a driver night in, night out. And that's what separates those elite players."

Speed, puck skills and smarts make Savoie very difficult to defend.

"When he gets the puck, he's an immediate threat," said Heisinger. "He's very explosive. When he gets going, he can get to top speed in a hurry and when he's entering the zone, you have to be aware because if he decides to attack or he decides to dish it, he's gonna make something happen. He's capable of doing that every time he has the puck."

Ice head coach James Patrick believes Savoie can adjust to facing bigger, stronger players in junior.

"I think you have to play him in the right situations," said Patrick. "When a player is a special player skill-wise, speed-wise and hockey sense-wise, they can make those adjustments. You also have to give them the right opportunities to succeed."

Ice GM Matt Cockell expects Savoie to play in Winnipeg's regular-season opener in Brandon on Sept. 20 and, although no one is commenting publicly, it's reasonable to expect to see the young phenom play 30-plus WHL games this season while practising with the Ice regularly and playing approximately 20 games for the Rink Hockey Academy's prep midget squad.

"(Playing) the games this year was huge," said Savoie, a 15-year-old centre who played for the Edmonton-based Northern Alberta X-Treme midget prep team last season. "Both college and the WHL are good options, but I just thought this, with the process going on here and what they just built and the program they have – it's unbelievable. It's an opportunity you can't really pass up... It's the people, the facilties, everyone here, everything – it's amazing."

But wait, what's the rush? Aren't recently drafted 15-year-olds ineligible for full time action in major-junior hockey, limited by Hockey Canada regulations to five regular-season games before their 16-year-old seasons?

The Savoies, dad Scott, left, and his son Matt visit the Rink Training Centre Wednesday afternoon.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Savoies, dad Scott, left, and his son Matt visit the Rink Training Centre Wednesday afternoon.

The short answer is yes. In Savoie's case, it gets more complicated.

Savoie has been age advanced in two of his past three seasons and his family petitioned Hockey Canada last winter for exceptional status, which would have allowed him to play full time in the WHL as 15-year-old.

Hockey Canada denied the Savoies while acquiescing to a similar request from Shane Wright, a 15-year-old forward from Burlington, Ont. No public explanation was given. As part of the vetting process, Savoie was tested by a psychologist.

Savoie responded by announcing he was going to go the U.S. college route, making a commitment to University of Denver, starting with the 2021-22 season.

In June, he turned his back on the NCAA and signed a WHL player agreement with the Ice, who won the draft lottery and chose him first overall. WHL guidelines currently permit the league to allow 15-year-olds to play extra games in special situtations, but a move is afoot to allow 15-year-olds more opportunity without making a formal request to Hockey Canada.

Matthew Savoie playing for the Northern Alberta X-Treme midget prep team last season. Savoie was age advanced two of this last three seasons.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JUSTIN KUEBER

Matthew Savoie playing for the Northern Alberta X-Treme midget prep team last season. Savoie was age advanced two of this last three seasons.

"It takes a lot of time and thinking, discussing with your family and your agent to seeing what the best route is," said Savoie. "This is what we felt was it."

Scott Savoie, Matt's father, said the decision to apply for exceptional status came with the the help of advisors Kevin Epp and Kevin Korol (now Matt's agents), who suggested Matt's first-year midget stats compared favourably with previous No. 1 bantam picks Matt Barzal and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who were a year older at the time.

"This is a development year. I'm just looking to improve and get to know all the guys on the Winnipeg Ice, get to know the coaching staff and the systems. Just getting more familiar with things." – Matt Savoie

As a parent, Scott Savoie admitted he had a major concern about the WHL prior to draft day.

"A big part of it is at that time Prince George had the (projected No. 1) pick," said Scott Savoie, 46, and an electrical foreman for the City of Edmonton. "They had no coach. Rumour was their GM was going to Edmonton as an assistant (coach). And the question (put) to us is, 'Are you all into the WHL?' And my answer is, 'What parent in their right mind is saying yes, we're 100 per cent into a team that has no coach and potentially no GM?'... You'd have to be out of your frickin' mind.' "

Scott Savoie admitted he had major concerns about the WHL prior to draft day.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Scott Savoie admitted he had major concerns about the WHL prior to draft day.

Moving away from home and family is big change for any 15-year-old but Matt believes he's made the right call. His 17-year-old brother Carter is a high-profile member of the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Sherwood Park Crusaders and has committed to play for the University of Denver, starting in 2020-21. Carter's WHL rights are also held by the Ice.

"This is a development year," said Savoie. "I'm just looking to improve and get to know all the guys on the Winnipeg Ice, get to know the coaching staff and the systems. Just getting more familiar with things."

Scott Savoie allowed his sons the freedom to choose their own path.

"There's lots of factors, right?" said Scott Savoie. "The WHL is a good route, college is a good route. Everybody has to find their own way. Carter, my older boy, he's a guy who needs to touch every step along the way. He's a good player and he's doing well in junior A and he's excited to be going to Denver — he's got a bunch of buddies going with him.

"And Matt, well, he likes to leap up two or three steps at a time. We don't want to hold him back. We want to give him the opportunity."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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