Produced by the Western Hockey League in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
From team to player and vice versa, the start of the relationship between the Prince Albert Raiders and Aliaksei Protas was one founded on a trust that the latter would become a key cog in the team’s WHL Championship aspirations.
One full season later, the relationship has produced dividends for both sides. The Raiders enter the summer months as WHL Champions and Protas has furthered his dream of reaching the professional hockey ranks, rapidly climbing the rungs on the NHL Draft ladder.
“Coming from Belarus, I didn’t know anything about Prince Albert,” Protas said. “I quickly learned that Prince Albert is very good city with the best fans in the league.”
Fans and Raider staff also quickly learned that the 6-foot-5, 192-pound rookie was set to become an invaluable part of the championship roster composition. Of the 11 games he played in October, the then 17-year-old Protas figured into 10 of them, including a nine-game point streak.
He also started to win over NHL scouts, mixing his size with his offensive skill. Still just an 18-year-old with the ability to play three more seasons in the WHL, Protas is ranked 44th among North American skaters heading into this week’s NHL Draft.
“It’s an honour,” Protas said of his ranking. “It’s always been my goal to be in the NHL to win Stanley Cup. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m looking forward to the draft.”
Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid conveyed the importance of letting Protas ‘have fun’ throughout the season to keep him in a relaxed environment far from home. At the same time, he helped the import forward transition his game to what NHL teams would find value in.
“He understood the game real well; he’s a smart guy,” Habscheid said. “The game they play in the NHL was different than playing in Europe so we just wanted him to try to get used to playing the way he had to play in the NHL.”
In games where the score sheet didn’t bear his name, Protas was still just as effective, playing important roles as his team roared to a league-best record and the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy in the regular season.
“I knew I was playing in very elite league in North America that would give me the best chance to learn hockey in order to reach my goal of being a NHL player,” Protas added.
Following an impressive regular season that saw him lead all Raiders’ rookies with 40 points (11G-29A), Protas stepped up his game in the 2019 WHL Playoffs.
Opening the scoring in Game 2 of the team’s first-round matchup against the Red Deer Rebels, Protas struck for his second goal of the game to open the third period. That goal, an example of a great second effort that saw Protas finish off the play from his initial shot, served as the game-winning goal.
His presence was felt once more in the Eastern Conference Championship. Facing a tied series after four games, Protas recorded back-to-back hat tricks to help the Raiders advance to the 2019 Rogers WHL Championship Series.
“The energy in the locker room was excellent,” Protas said of the mood before both games. “[It] gave all of us a huge spark so I think it’s just team effort.”
History now reflects that Protas wasn’t just along for the ride, but helped push his team when they needed it. Points in six of the seven games in the WHL Championship had Protas high on the radar once more.
Both Protas and Habscheid had a desire for the former’s skating to improve.
“As he gets stronger and matures and learns about his body, his skating will come along with it,” Habscheid added.
If he catches on to that as quickly as he transitioned to the North American game, there’s no telling what Protas could accomplish.