In May, Winnipeg Ice general manager Matt Cockell was labelled foolhardy — a gambler likely to be burned by his aggressive deal-making.
On Friday morning, it could have been Cockell’s opportunity to gloat, as Matt Savoie and Conor Geekie, the two premier prospects available in the WHL Bantam Draft, faced off against once another during an intrasquad game at the WHL team’s training camp.
He played it cool instead.
"To have the No. 1 and No. 2 pick from a draft on the ice together is pretty special, and we look forward to them being teammates for a long time," said Cockell, who took Savoie first overall and Geekie second after winning the lottery for the top pick and packaging a plethora of picks to trade up for the second-overall choice.
"We think it’s a really special group here and it’s great to see them on the ice for the first time together."
Savoie, a 5-9, 174-pounder from St. Albert, Alta., will remain in Winnipeg for the 2019-20 season after reversing an earlier decision to play U.S. college hockey while Geekie, a lanky 6-3, 170-pounder, will return home to Strathclair following training camp, where he will play for the Yellowhead AAA Under-18 Chiefs.
Geekie and Savoie had faced each other only once before, going head to head at the 2019 Canada Winter Games under-16 tournament in Red Deer, Alta. Geekie had a goal and Savoie had an assist in Alberta’s 6-5 victory.
"Me and Matt have talked," Geekie said.
"It’s pretty cool to see how all of this is coming along."
Both are natural centres, but Cockell said it’s possible they could play on the same line in the WHL some day.
"I think time will tell," Cockell said. "To play the centre position in the Western Hockey League, there’s a lot of responsibility in that and sometimes, players may start on the wing and as they get older and more mature, then it might be the right time.
"Those are decisions that (head coach) James (Patrick) will make with the staff over time and we’re going to help. Between now and when the players get integrated into our lineup, keep helping them. You don’t want to put too much pressure on those kids early on and sometimes, the wing is a good place for them to start."
Geekie has had a busy summer off the ice.
The shortstop/centre-fielder helped the Manitoba 16U baseball team earn a bronze medal at the Western Canada Summer Games before heading to the 15U nationals in Oshawa recently, where Manitoba finished fourth, falling to P.E.I. in the bronze-medal game.
Following a preliminary-round game against Newfoundland, Geekie earned player-of-the-game honours, only to hand the award over to pitcher Alexander Klassen of Austin, who had a complete game victory.
"One of our pitchers threw a complete game and I batted 3-for-4 and he only gave up two hits in a complete game, so I’m thinking, you know, a guy can go 3-for-4, but when is a kid going to throw a two-hitter in a national event like this?" Geekie said.
FRESH START: overage defenceman Chase Hartje, a trade-deadline acquisition from the Brandon Wheat Kings last season, is expected to be a key part of what the Ice coaching staff hopes will be a major upgrade for its defensive corps.
The Ice gave up a league-worst 324 goals against in 2018-19 and Hartje, who hails from Bemidji, Minn., anticipates a heavy workload.
"Playing top pair against the top players and then, obviously, playing power play," the 6-0, 190-pounder said. "We talked about it quite a bit last year — what they expect out of me. They expect defence out of me, but they also expect me to play offence.
"It was an adjustment, but I like the coaching staff and they made me feel like I was part of the team right away."
And his time with the Wheat Kings?
"It wasn’t very good," Hartje said. "I mean, they didn’t like the way I played. I didn’t get to play the way I like to or in the situations I normally do... I didn’t play hard enough for them."
A side benefit of the trade is his family, now a mere four-hour drive away, won’t have as far to go to use their season tickets.
BETTER TIMES AHEAD?: Centre Jakin Smallwood is entering his second year with the team and he’s hoping for a healthy uptick in his role. He scored 13 goals and 30 points in 67 games last season, playing mostly centre.
His job in 2019-20 could entail centre or wing. The 18-year-old from Leduc, Alta., is proud of how his team battled through a season filled with franchise-relocation talk and a combined 52 regulation and overtime losses.
"It was hard, but we managed to stay positive as a team," Smallwood said. "That was always our philosophy as the season went on, to stay positive and know that we would get better in the future. We kept strong and we stuck through it."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.