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Top prospects forged in BCHL fire

It’s getting harder to make the case players don’t improve enough while playing in the BCHL and the proof is right there on the ice.

The recent performances of Penticton Vees standouts Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro at the World Under-18 tournament in North Dakota are one way of showing that elite-level players receive the necessary challenge in the BCHL in proving their NHL draft worthiness and readiness for the next level.

Dennis Cholowski, a defenceman with the Chiliwack Chiefs, saw his spot rise 25 places in the last NHL Central Scouting player rankings purely as a result of what he showed against BCHL competition in the second half of this season.

Jost, committed to the University of North Dakota, and Fabbro, committed to Boston University, are expected to be first-round selections at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Cholowski, a St. Cloud State commit, may find himself taken in the first 30 picks as well.

“In the BCHL, there is so much room for development,” said Jost, whose 15 points at the U18s surpassed Connor McDavid’s previous Canadian scoring record. “People may say if you play in the BCHL you’re going to take a step back but I don’t see it that way at all. I feel I took a step forward.

“I know next year I’m going to be playing against 23-, 24-year-old men. I think that’s huge that the BCHL can push you on to a league (NCAA) that’s older.”

The BCHL’s ‘Smart Hockey’ slogan and educational possibilities held a strong attraction for Cholowski, who is considering electrical engineering studies at St. Cloud State.

“My whole family has been good at school and I like going to school,” he said. “I was very small in my bantam (draft) year… we looked into (the BCHL) and thought it would be a good spot for me. I’ve been able to grow over the last two years; things have worked out great for me.”

At the U18 tournament, which just so happened to be at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., Jost served notice at his future NCAA home that his game had progressed more than adequately.

“I thought the BCHL game really translated well to the U18 game with the speed and the skill,” said Jost. “I didn’t notice a huge difference in the speed or style. I was used to playing against competition like that.”

Fabbro, who had eight assists in seven games at the U18s, concurred with Jost and said he didn’t change much in his approach.

“I went about every game the way I did in the BCHL,” said Fabbro. “With those kind of tournaments, there’s a lot of pressure playing against the top players in your age group. You need to stick to your strengths.”

In choosing the BCHL and Penticton, both Fabbro and Jost mentioned the Interior Division as being an appealing part of the decision. Being one of the toughest groupings in Junior A hockey, both players said they were challenged every game.

“You look at our division and how tough it is; we had 50 wins and we didn’t even make it out of the second round,” said Jost.  “Every night I was getting keyed on a lot. I don’t speak for Dante but he was getting a lot of attention from other teams’ top lines as well. That pushed us.”

Fabbro felt he was firmly tested game in and game out.

“Going in, that was probably one of my biggest factors, the Vees and how they handle themselves but also the division they play in,” he said. “It’s a fun league and it challenges you on the ice. That helps you identify what areas you need to pick up as a player.”

Familiarity with the opportunity beyond the BCHL played into it as well. Fabbro’s dad Steve played NCAA golf at Arizona State and his grandfather Gerry played NCAA hockey at Michigan Tech. For Jost, it was a trip to North Dakota as a midget-aged player that got him excited.

“It’s all about the CHL (Canadian Hockey League, major junior) and the Western Hockey League where I’m from,” said Jost, who grew up in St. Albert, Alta. “I had no clue about college hockey. I was just blown away. I thought, ‘What have I been missing out on?’”

Cholowski would echo that sentiment.

“I knew it was great hockey but I didn’t see a game until last year,” he said, recalling an unofficial visit he made to the school. “They were playing Minnesota; the fans were just crazy and it was a great game. I was hooked right there for sure.”

More Canadians are learning about NCAA hockey because 40-plus games a year, including the Frozen Four national championship, are now shown on Canadian TV. With 30 per cent of the NHL made up of NCAA-bred players, it’s a pool of talent that can no longer be ignored. That’s something Canada’s NHL teams have long known and it’s showing with the drafting of players like Brock Boeser, Andrew Copp, Kyle Connor, Mark Jankowski, Thatcher Demko and those already in the NHL like Johnny Gaudreau.

Jost, Fabbro and Cholowski are not the first and will not be the last BCHLers to generate the kind of attention they have. In the league’s 54 seasons, it’s earned a reputation as a destination for Junior-aged players to get better, get seen and get opportunities in college and pro hockey.

Previous first-round picks out of the BCHL include Travis Zajac, Beau Bennett, Kyle Turris, Riley Nash, Jason Marshall and Kris Chucko. Others, like Mel Bridgman, Joe Murphy and Paul Kariya, became first-rounders after moving on to major junior or college hockey.

Beyond that, more and more league alums are signing pro contracts and amateur tryouts out of NCAA hockey. This season so far, 27 former BCHL players have inked deals with pro clubs. Of those, six were drafted by the club they signed with.

“It’s not where you are when you’re playing Junior hockey, it’s where you are two or three years down the road,” said Jost. “I just saw myself going to Penticton and going to North Dakota after that.

“It’s definitely not hurting my stock. If anything, it’s helping me.”