Seeing Kelowna-based players being drafted to the NHL is nothing new these days, but one NHL team in particular seems to be developing a taste for prospects from teams on both sides of the William R. Bennett Bridge.
The Detroit Red Wings have taken three players from Kelowna's BCHL and WHL franchises in the last five years - the Rockets' Mitch Wheaton was taken in 2013 and Mitch Callahan in 2009, while the Warriors' David Pope was also selected this time around.
Pope became West Kelowna's third NHL draft pick in the team's seven-year history since relocating from Langley, joining Justin Schultz and Cam Reid.
While watching the draft unfold from his home in Edmonton, Pope was not only picked in the fourth round by a franchise with 11 Stanley Cups, but one he's been cheering for since he was a kid.
"I was extremely excited," Pope recounted. "Playing in the NHL has always been a dream of mine since I first started playing, and being drafted is a step towards that. Detroit's been my favourite team since I can remember, so to have them pick me was a bonus. I was extremely happy."
Getting to actually suit up for Detroit is far from a sure thing, and still likely to be a ways off -Â Pope still has his final season of BCHL eligibility to play with the Warriors, plus an NCAA scholarship to the University of Nebraska Omaha to make good on.
His upcoming years of development will be telling, as Detroit has until 2018 to decide whether it wants to ink him to a contract or not.
The first step in proving he belongs in the franchise's fold took place in the Red Wings' five-day development camp in Traverse City, Mich., which ran July 10th to 15th.
"It was a really good experience," said Pope. "I was lined up against some pretty good players from their farm team and some other junior players. It was good to get on the ice with them and see where I'm at. To be honest, I felt like I fit right in as far as the skill level and handling the puck.
"Thinking the game at high speed is a strength of my game, and I've got pretty good hockey sense. The speed of the game at camp was faster and the guys were a lot bigger and stronger - that's something I noticed right away that I'm really going to have to work on to make that next step."
The development camp also afforded Pope and other attendees the opportunity to learn from Red Wings greats Chris Chelios, Kris Draper, and Tomas Holmstrom; as well as current roster player Darren Helm, who was at camp rehabbing a back injury from last season.
"We were doing a lot of screening and tipping drills with Holmstrom," Pope recalled. "He made a living off of doing that. I learned quite a bit just from 15 minutes of doing drills with them."
The Red Wings' executive vice-president and general manager, Ken Holland, made it known to players at camp that each of them is on a five year development plan. That timeline will conclude as Pope's upcoming NCAA career will draw to a close.
The 6-foot-3 and 200-pound forward has a good idea of what his strengths are, and what he's going to have to work on to become a viable main roster option by the time that plan expires.
"I have to continue to work on my physical strength," admitted Pope, who finished fifth in Warriors scoring last season with 39 points. "That has a lot to do with me wanting to go the college route to get more time to develop. But I think just making steady steps of improvement each year is really important -Â working on the things I need to work on, and basically just showing signs of improvement. My number one asset is my shot. I shoot the puck a lot, and I've got a really good release. I'm a pretty big body, and I skate well. Those are all things that scouts like.
"I like to take it day by day though, work as hard as I can, and not think too much about the future. Right now, my goal is just to have a really good year with West Kelowna."
It'd be understandably easy for a player to let an NHL draft pick and NCAA scholarship go to their head and lose sight of the task at hand - in Pope's case, that task is leading the Warriors past the second round of the BCHL playoffs, and hanging a championship banner from Royal LePage Place's rafters as a personal parting gift. Pope has no intention of letting his recently acquired accolades cloud his vision of what he needs to do to bring his team success in 2013-14.
"I think we're going to have a really strong year," Pope predicts. "We have a lot of good core guys coming back, and we made some good trades in the off-season too. I have high expectations for our team. I think we're going to be contenders this year. I'll definitely be more of a leader. Our rookies will need a good leadership group to set them off on the right foot. Mainly though, I'll just let my play do the talking, lead by example, and bring it every game."
West Kelowna embarks upon the BCHL's 2013 season with its first exhibition game on Aug. 25 against Penticton, then kicks off the regular season with a tilt against Surrey on Sept. 6 -Â both games will be at Royal LePage Place.
Dave Cunning is a former pro hockey player turned writer, coach and personal trainer. You can read his blog at http://davecunning.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @davecunning.