When the National Hockey League convenes in Ottawa for the 2008 Entry Draft in June, it’s safe to say a certain hockey family from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan will make every effort to be there.
And that’s just the way Luke Schenn of the Kelowna Rockets likes it. After all, it’s not uncommon for the entire crew to load up the family car and cruise the highways across western Canada when one of their own is playing hockey. A case in point is a recent seven-hour junket from Saskatoon to Brandon, Manitoba in January.
"I had about three or four days at home in Saskatoon after the World Junior Championship when the Rockets gave me some time off," Schenn, 18, said. "So my mom and dad and my two sisters and I drove to Brandon to see my brother Brayden."
Brayden Schenn, 16, is a rookie making his own mark in the WHL this season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. While Luke has been the center of attention for much of the current campaign, given his prominence as a top NHL prospect, he admits he misses hanging out with his younger brother.
"We decided to surprise him," Luke laughed. "We didn’t tell him we were coming. When we got to the rink in Brandon, we ended up going down by the glass behind the net during the warm-up. When he saw us, he got the biggest smile on his face.
"I hadn’t seen Brayden since August and we didn’t see each other over the Christmas break. We stayed in Brandon for three days and I got to see him play two games."
Leaving the nest
With the benefit of hindsight, one might wonder what 19 other WHL teams were thinking before the 2004 WHL Bantam Draft. Luke Shenn was chosen in the first round by the Rockets with the 20th pick overall.
"More than anything back then, we really liked his passing," said Rockets’ assistant general manager and director of player personnel, Lorne Frey. "As a young guy he was just a great passer of the puck. We could see he had some smarts through his ability to make plays. At that time, we did question his skating, whether he would be good enough, fast enough. Other than that, we knew he was an excellent young guy who made very good decisions with the puck."
Schenn eventually arrived in Kelowna as a 15-year-old. During the spring of 2005, he attended the Memorial Cup in London, Ontario with the Rockets shortly after his midget club, the Saskatoon Contacts, had just won the Telus Cup, Canada’s national midget championship. The powers-that-be in Kelowna felt he would benefit from spending that special week with the team.
"We felt it would be good for him to be around the team and around that atmosphere," Frey said. "We wanted him to be around good players and good guys. Shea Weber was with us at the time, so it was good for him to learn from that leadership and familiarize himself with that success."
Standing guard in Kelowna
In fact, that first experience has evolved into a very apparent mutually beneficial relationship. Over the past two-and-a-half seasons, Schenn has developed into perhaps the most NHL-ready defenseman among a deep crop 1989-born rearguards. The 6’3, 210-pounder anchors a mobile defensive corps in Kelowna, a group that includes the highly touted Tyler Myers. Schenn is a leader, an assistant captain with the Rockets.
"I guess I’ve come a long way since my 16-year-old year," Schenn said. "You just kind of progress. When I was 16, I was just hoping to make the team. After Christmas that season, I got to play with Kyle Cumiskey.
"Even when I was 15, I got to stay with Shea Weber for awhile. Those two guys helped me out a lot and they’re playing at the next level in the NHL. They obviously did something right."
During his rookie season – Schenn celebrated his 16th birthday with 15 WHL games under his belt – he scored three goals and eight points while confirming to the organization that they had made a competent choice by inserting him into the lineup on a regular basis. Schenn appeared in 60 regular season games and then another 12 in the playoffs.
Last season, after the Rockets graduated the final pieces from their three consecutive Memorial Cup appearances, the cyclical nature of junior hockey paid a visit to the Okanagan Valley. The team missed the playoffs for the first time, though Schenn, Myers, forwards Cody Almond (MIN), Colin Long (F/A) and goaltender Torrie Jung (TB) emerged as key components in Kelowna. Schenn played in all 72 regular season games, collecting 29 points and 139 penalty minutes.
"Heading into this season, I knew the expectations would be higher," Schenn admitted. "But I also had high expectations for myself and I also knew I’d have to play a bigger role here."
One of the challenges for the resurgent Rockets is keeping Schenn in the lineup, let alone in the country. He has played in 42 of the club’s 57 games so far, due primarily to his role with Hockey Canada and the national junior team. Offensively, his numbers are solid with five goals and 16 assists and 82 penalty minutes. When the prototypical shutdown defenseman dons a jersey for Kelowna, he plays most of his minutes against his opponent’s top forwards.
"Being more of a defensive player and playing mostly against other teams’ top two lines," Schenn said, "I look forward to that every night because it’s a real good challenge for me."
World championships and the globetrotting grind
It’s a challenge he has met at the highest junior hockey level, where his play at the WJC confirmed he is a trusted and reliable piece of Hockey Canada’s ever-evolving puzzle. The pinnacle of success for many Canadian juniors is WJC gold or a Memorial Cup title. A few players have won both, testimony to being a special player in the right place at the right time. Schenn is halfway to earning both, having played a prominent role for Team Canada at the 2008 WJC in Moscow.
Barring a job in professional hockey next year, Schenn is certain to play at least a top-four role on defense for Team Canada when the 2009 WJC is played on smaller ice surfaces on North American soil in Ottawa. The quality of these learning opportunities through international competition is not lost on Schenn.
"Playing in the Super Series against the Russians and then the WJC, there’s really highly skilled players there," Schenn explained. "That means you’re also playing with real good players. I’ve been able to see what the best really is for my age group."
Schenn understands the high-profile events bring additional, valuable exposure.
"Ever since the two international events this year, people have sort of said that I’m a defensive guy and I think that’s something I look forward to every night," he said. "There are lots of guys who play mostly offense out there, lots of offensively talented defensemen like Drew Doughty. I guess a big part of the game is defense now and the penalty kill is another thing that’s a big part of playing in the NHL.
"There are certainly many different types of defensemen and I hear people say they think I’m a shut down defenseman. I enjoy playing on the power play, too. I’m gonna work to become a more complete guy, so for now it’s important to work hard on all parts of my game."
The rigors associated with representing his country are just part of the program according to Schenn. He recognizes the toll the travel requirements exact and is thankful for the proactive role Hockey Canada plays in helping the players learn how to stay in top condition, both physically and mentally.
"Over the past couple years I’ve been to Europe four times, to Russia once and to the Czech Republic twice," Schenn explained. "There’s been a ton of travel for me lately, but obviously I’m real happy about being a part of all that.
"That’s why we go over to Europe so early, sometimes it’s been ten or eleven days early before a tournament. It helps to get used to the time changes, to get used to sleeping hours. For about the first four days, you’ll be really tired, you go to sleep at 8pm and you’re up at 3am and you can’t sleep anymore. You try to get sleep on the plane on the way over there, but it doesn’t always work out that way. But they really do prepare us well."
The 2008 Top Prospects Game
The Kelowna Rockets were the only CHL to supply three players to the annual Home Hardware CHL Top Prospects Game in January. Schenn, along with defenseman Tyler Myers and forward Brandon McMillan would all suit up. At the player’s luncheon, Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton acknowledged the organization’s achievement.
"We’re very honored," said Hamilton. "I thought all three of these guys deserved to be here. Of course our big defencemen Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn are getting lots of play, but Brandon McMillan has played real well for us, so I’m glad he’s getting the chance.
"We’ve had a real nice run over the last seven or eight years. Just off the top of my head, Shea Weber in Nashville, Duncan Keith in Chicago and Scott Hannan in Colorado come to mind as guys who have played in this game. We’ve had a number of defensemen come through our system. Hopefully the guys here and our next batch behind them will also succeed."
Hamilton, who was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 1977 after his playing days with the Saskatoon Blades, understands the NHL aspirations among the top juniors. However, as the Rockets general manager, he aims to instill balance among the players the organization develops.
"To be honest, the proudest moments are when the guys come through university and into the real world and there’s a bunch of them right now," Hamilton smiled. "I look at the Prince George Cougars where general manager Dallas Thompson and head coach Drew Schoneck are both former players and we’ve got Ryan Cuthbert working with our team now as an assistant coach.
"You know, it’s not all about making it to the NHL as much as it’s about becoming productive young men in society. That’s certainly something that’s really important to my family."
Schenn and his Kelowna mates were among the 40 prospects chosen to attend festivities in Edmonton. On day one, the schedule included rigorous on-ice testing in front of the NHL scouts in attendance. Then it was off to a lengthy luncheon and autograph session, then the Skills Competition that evening. After morning practice sessions on day two, the players took the afternoon off before returning for the game.
Less than five minutes in, Schenn scored the first goal of the game and then promptly dished out a pair of bone-rattling bodychecks. While offensive-minded stalwarts like Zach Boychuk and Steven Stamkos were honored as players of the game for their respective teams, it was Schenn who left an indelible mark on those in attendance. The Pipeline Show, hosted by Hockey’s Future writer Guy Flaming, listed five prospects on its website following the tilt, asking voters to choose which player they felt was the best performer. Schenn easily outdistanced everyone, collecting 59 percent of the vote.
One of the most interested spectators in Edmonton was Jeff Schenn, Luke’s father. He made the six-hour drive to watch the action in person and was philosophical when asked by Hockey’s Future about Luke’s junior hockey success so far.
"It is a success story and it’s neat to be a part of it," smiled the elder Schenn, a firefighter for the city of Saskatoon. "I see people in Saskatoon that I haven’t seen for awhile and they want to talk about Luke and his hockey. People I never knew had an interest in hockey will tell us they have enjoyed watching Luke at the WJC.
"There is excitement and we’re just so proud. The joke around work is that I’m not Jeff Schenn anymore, I’m Luke Schenn‘s dad. So we’re having a lot of fun with it."
And there is more fun in the very near future, courtesy of the WHL schedule makers. If there is one thing Jeff can count on this coming week, it’s an inquisitive jest from his young daughters Madison and Macy.
"How far are we driving today, dad!"
Valentine’s Day, 2008: A family affair in Kelowna
Back on Dec. 12, the Rockets played the Wheat Kings in Brandon, earning a 5-4 victory. In a losing cause, Brayden chipped in with a goal and an assist. Luke was not in the lineup for Kelowna as he had left just days earlier for the Canadian junior team training camp in Calgary.
As a rule, WHL teams seldom play on Monday or Thursday nights. However, some kismet of sorts has resulted in the Wheat Kings visiting Kelowna on Feb. 14. It is the only WHL game scheduled that night. As the Rockets approach 150 consecutive sellouts at Prospera Place, a sentimental storyline awaits. Certainly, if there is a calendar attached to the refrigerator in Jeff and Rita Schenn’s kitchen, chances are there has been a circle around this date for some time.
For Madison and Macy, the occasion will call for a 15-hour road trip from Saskatoon.
"For Luke to move away from home, I think it was tougher on my wife and I than it was for him," Jeff Schenn was saying. "But even later when I heard it was tough for him, my thought has always been that if my kids move away and they’re not homesick, then maybe we’ve been doing something wrong at home.
"It is exciting to watch the progression and to watch him have some success. Things have turned out very well. When he left, it was a hard thing for us to do, but you know, we’re doing it again with Brayden."
While the 2007-08 season appears destined to result in Luke Schenn being chosen early in the first round at the NHL Entry Draft, Brayden Schenn, with 22 goals and 34 assists in 50 games, is a frontrunner for WHL Rookie of the Year honors.
"He’s off to a great start and he’s taken advantage of a great opportunity in Brandon," Luke said of his younger brother. "He’s had good linemates there and his success doesn’t totally surprise me. I knew he’d be a good player in this league and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. I’m real proud of him."
In Kelowna, Luke plays for Hamilton, a former WHLer who played for the Blades in Saskatoon when Jeff Schenn was playing minor hockey. It was around that same time that Kelly McCrimmon, the current general manager and head coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings, played in the WHL as well. The history is not lost on Jeff.
"I think coming into it I thought, Luke and Brayden are really a long ways away from each other now," Jeff said. "But Brandon and Kelowna, the teams have treated both of my boys just awesome and we are very comfortable with where they both are.
"Both of my boys have had a good opportunity to play and I can’t say enough good things about both general managers. They maybe run a different kind of ship, but I think both ships are going in the right direction."
With Luke continuing to play a prominent role in Kelowna and Brayden fitting into the system in Brandon, the future looks very bright for both players.
"Hopefully if things keep working the way they’re working, then maybe Brayden will have the same opportunities that his brother has," Jeff said. "His role model is his big brother and he’ll give him some information from time to time.
"Brayden is a totally different player than his brother, but Luke gets the ins and out about what the WHL is doing and what Brayden should be looking to do."
Game day will be very special for Luke, who admits he’s excited to play against Brayden.
"We’re two brothers who are a ways apart in age, so we never played with or against each other growing up," Luke said. "Well, except maybe some summer hockey, but it’s a big deal for us to be playing against each other and to be in the same league.
"It’s too bad it doesn’t happen more often, but we’re about as far apart as you can be in this league. We’re looking forward to it for sure."
Indeed, WHL observers are keen on the game as the Schenn brothers are set to face off against each other for the first time. It’s an enticing match up between a pair of playoff bound teams from different conferences, pitting a high-scoring rookie forward against a shutdown defenseman destined for professional hockey. It is perhaps a strategist’s dream, but we’ll leave the last word to a proud father.
"I guess I’m just really lucky," Jeff said, "to have my boys playing where they’re playing."