Ty Lewis was like a lot of 14-year-olds back in 2013 — a little guy with big dreams.
The Brandon product was only 5-6 and 125 pounds when his hometown Wheat Kings selected him in the third round of the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. Fortunately for Lewis, he’s grown some in the last four years and the sport, particularly at the major junior and NHL levels, has changed in a fundamental way.
Big is still almost always better but smaller, faster skilled players are getting a chance to succeed like never before.
"I was never a big kid growing up and I was kind of a late bloomer physically," says the 19-year-old Lewis, who has blossomed into a high-scoring 5-11 3/4, 185-pound left-winger. "Didn’t start growing until I was 15, 16. I always had to work a bit harder growing up because I was smaller. I’m thankful for that."
Lewis has perservered through some tough times to get where he’s at.
As a 16-year-old, his WHL season was limited to two games by a broken arm that required surgery (seven screws and a steel plate were inserted to repair a radial bone). When he was finally healthy, he was returned to the AAA midget ranks.
As a 17-year-old, shoulder problems limited him to 48 games with the Wheat Kings but he was still able to score 23 points, including 10 goals. It was his draft year and he hadn’t shown enough to warrant being picked by an NHL team.
In 2016-17, finally healthy and filling a prominent role on a rebuilding team, his skill and productivity started to flash as he scored 30 times and totalled 68 points in 70 games.
Pro scouts needed to pay closer attention as Lewis, who was the NHL Central Scouting’s 159th ranked skater among North Americans at mid-season before vaulting to 59th overall in the final rankings. He appears likely to be a mid- to late-round selection when the NHL Draft is held in Chicago next week.
It’s a growing trend in the NHL -- overage players passed over in previous years are getting the call on draft day. In fact, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected five overage players in the 2016 draft, including centre Adam Brooks, a Winnipegger playing with the Regina Pats. Brooks, who was bypassed in two drafts before he became the WHL’s scoring champion in 2015-16 and piled up 250 pounts in 138 games over two seasons, is one of a number of small- to medium-sized players getting closer consideration from the pros.
Now, NHL clubs are loathe to let a smaller player such as Tyler Johnson -- a talented but undrafted WHLer who has emerged as a star in the NHL -- slide through the draft process competely.
Lewis is driving for the same sort of recognition.
"The thing about Ty is his relentless work ethic off the ice in the off-season," said Wheat Kings director of scouting Darren Ritchie. "He’s the hardest working guy. He’s always getting better. He’s on the ice, he’s in the gym, he’s going to keep getting better...
"He’s a young looking guy. He’s got the baby face. I think he can still grow a little more."
Lewis, most probably one of the fastest players in major-junior hockey, comes by his speed honestly. He’s worked at since he was very small.
His father Dave, a long-time Grade 7 and 8 school teacher at Brandon’s George Fitton School, moonlights with a power skating and hockey skills business he calls The Hockey Factory, and Ty has been a dedicated pupil for many years.
"It’s a slow process and it’s a very fine, detailed process but with time and effort players can really improve," says Dave Lewis, who was an undersized forward with the Brandon University Bobcats in the late ‘80s. "His initial goal was to make the Wheat Kings, which was a pretty big goal for him. Now that’s attained, he’s hoping to play at a higher level. Stick with the process, keep working at it and see what happens."
Ritchie, who compares Ty to breakout Pittsburgh Penguins star Jake Guentzel ("he’s that kind of a player," Ritchie says), believes the teen’s skillset translates well to the modern game.
"What he’s really good at is his forecheck," said Ritchie. "Because of his speed, because of his smarts, he turns pucks over on the forecheck. I don’t think people give him enough credit for it."
Dave Lewis says changes in the game have helped to inspire his son.
"I think it’s huge," said Dave Lewis. "When I played, those can-openers (a now outlawed defensive tactic) and hooking guys around the waist on the backcheck, it slowed the game down so much. The bigger, stronger guys had much more of an advantage. Now the pace of the game and the speed and how the game is called allows those (smaller) players to use their skills to be way more effective."
Ty Lewis remains low key about his draft prospects. Although he has an agent, the Saskatoon-based Michael Kaye, he won’t travel to Chicago for the travel but plans to follow it closely from home.
"I’m not too sure what’s going to happen. Hopefully things work out," said Lewis. "I’m going to stay home i think, treat it like a normal day as best as I can. I’ll probably be aware of what’s going on."