Austin Wong stepped on the ice at Bell MTS Iceplex Tuesday looking like a kid without a worry in the world.
In less than 72 hours, he’d gone from sitting at his Alberta home thinking he was going to be bypassed in the NHL draft, to skating with the other top prospects of the Winnipeg Jets at their summer development camp.
“It’s almost like a dream come true,” Wong, 17, told the Free Press in the dressing room afterwards. The seventh-round pick of the Jets this past Saturday in Dallas was the 215th player selected out of total of 217.
“I was just at home with my dad (Saturday), just watching on the couch. I kind of waited for a while, almost stopped watching, just was hanging out. Then I got a text from my buddy who was actually at the draft saying Winnipeg, with an exclamation mark. I just started freaking out, super excited,” said Wong.
Raw emotion, to be sure. But what you may not know is this feel-good moment comes at a time when the Wong family is going through a nightmare, still reeling from a tragic accident that occurred in their backyard earlier this month and has forever altered several lives.
On the evening of June 15, Austin’s older brother, Tyler, and nine friends gathered around a campfire near Calgary when something went horribly wrong.
Several pieces of wet wood were thrown in the middle, apparently with some kind of chemical unknowingly on them, and the result was a small explosion that left the three closest young men badly burned.
Ryan Vandervlis, 20, suffered critical injuries. The centre with the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League has slowly been making progress and emerged from a medically-induced coma earlier this week. He continues to be heavily sedated at a Calgary hospital and faces months of rehabilitation.
Jordy Bellerive, a 19-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, and Matt Alfaro, a 21-year-old who plays for the University of Calgary Dinos, also suffered serious injuries.
“In starting a campfire, the accident occurred, and Mr. and Mrs. Wong were present and acted quickly to transport those injured to a Calgary hospital. We are earnestly praying for three of Tyler’s closest friends — Ryan, Jordy and Matt — along with their families, for comfort and healing during this time of hurt,” the Wong family said in a statement.
The Wong family drove the injured part of the way, meeting paramedics on the highway to speed up the process in the chaotic situation.
Wong didn’t want to discuss the incident on Tuesday, but there’s no doubt it continues to weigh heavily on him. He’s also good friends with those who were hurt, and the joy felt by the family over the past few days is likely muted given everything else going on in their world.
It’s also clear the bond between brothers is a tight-knit one.
Tyler, 22, went undrafted after playing four full WHL seasons in Lethbridge but was signed by the Vegas Golden Knights as a free agent last summer, recording the franchise’s first-ever hat trick in a pre-season game. He spent the bulk of the year playing for their AHL affiliate in Chicago, with three goals and four assists in 54 games. He also played six games in the ECHL.
“It’s been huge for my development, being able to have a brother like that. He’s always helped me out and everything, we’ve always skated together and practised. I’ve been able to practise with high-level players because of my brother, so I’ve almost been able to develop faster,” the younger Wong sibling said.
Austin has taken a slightly different development path, playing for Okotoks last season of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. That’s where the Jets began scouting him.
“Yeah, talked to a couple scouts before, had a good relationship with them. Almost had an ongoing conversation with them. I wasn’t too surprised to hear it was Winnipeg,” Wong said.
He’s set to play one more year of junior hockey before heading to Harvard University in the fall of 2019.
“A big part of it was the schooling, but also a huge part was just the way I got to know the coaches and the way the programs ran and how many great players have come out of Harvard, I believe that’s the right fit for me,” Wong said.
He’s been described in some scouting reports as a “human-wrecking ball” on skates and admits he tries to model his game after NHL players like Tom Wilson and Jordin Tootoo. The 5’11, 190 pound winger had 25 goals, 29 assists and 235 penalty minutes in 55 games with Okotoks last season.
“I think I’m a hard-worker, a bit of a power forward. Able to score, but I like to think I’m able to play any role that I’m put in. I like to be a two-way forward as well. I love to hit, love to take the body. Sometimes get some penalty minutes, but try to keep that to a minimum,” said Wong.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said they decided to take a chance on Wong with their final pick, intrigued by the various tools he has.
“Offensive, hard-hitting, competitive. He’s a player that competes and can finish checks. In a position in the draft there, we thought it was a good value pick that we can get a guy that competitive with the skill level and the compete factors that he has,” Cheveldayoff said.
Wong is determined to prove the Jets management made a smart choice, beginning with this week.
“It’s what we’ve always dreamed of, getting drafted and going to these NHL camps. So it’s definitely huge for me and my family,” said Wong. “I always thought it could happen to me, but probably not. But now that I’m here it’s almost like it’s not real, I’m just so happy to be here.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.