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Teenage WHL Draftee Launches Junior Career

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Evan Groening Crop
Evan Groening of Niverville is taking some major steps towards a career in professional hockey.

A local high school student is taking his first steps toward playing professional hockey. In August, Evan Groening of Niverville had the opportunity to sign contracts with both the Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL).

Currently, Groening has begun to play with the Virden Oil Capitals in the MJHL.

“Although I did sign a WHL contract with the Brandon Wheat Kings, I will be playing for Virden to help my development,” says Groening. “I am living with a wonderful billet family and attending Virden Collegiate.”

The training and experience in Virden put Groening in line to be called up to play for the Wheat Kings, a team renowned for producing notable NHL stars like Dustin Byfuglien and Jordin Tootoo.

Since being interviewed for this article, Groening was called up for a game with the Wheat Kings on October 30.

Despite being in a position to follow in the footsteps of hockey greats, he resists feeling the pressure to perform.

“I was really excited to be drafted by the Wheat Kings because of their history to develop so many star players, but I don’t feel nervous to be there,” Groening says. “It just feels exciting when I’m there because of their history of developing top calibre players. When you walk into the players area, it’s like having a hockey history lesson, seeing all of the big names and faces on the walls. It’s an honour to play in the same facility they used.”

This excitement comes hand in hand with the regular challenges of training, camps, and games. Being connected to both the MJHL and WHL gives Groening the chance to connect with team members and training staff in an arena space and training level that very few teenage players ever get to experience.

“There is so much to appreciate about this organization, from the coaches, trainers, equipment managers, and staff,” he says. “Everyone works together to make you the best player you can be. Being able to skate with some of the guys that went to NHL camps really opened my eyes and gave me perspective on where I need to take my game.”

In a regular week, the teen’s schedule keeps him fully immersed in hockey six days at a time, all the while juggling school and other responsibilities.

“While I am playing in Virden, I attend school for the first half of the day and then go straight to the rink where we practice five times a week and have our off-ice workouts,” says Groening. “We have two games per weekends, and then Sunday is usually a day off. We also have a few team meetings in a week where we review game tape and strategy.”

The opportunity to elevate his hockey training came right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when sports facilities needed to focus on keeping players healthy and safe.

The WHL appointed a special taskforce in each of its six jurisdictions to work directly with government and health authorities. In June 2021, they created a return-to-play protocol and in September both the WHL and MJHL announced they would require staff, players, and officials to be fully vaccinated.

Throughout these times, Groening felt grateful to be able to continue to train safely.

“This summer I attended both main camps for the Brandon Wheat Kings and the Virden Oil Caps, where there was very stringent rules and regulations in place because of COVID. I had to have a very thorough medical exam just to be able to attend.”

Groening has now played one exhibition game and one regular season game with the Wheat Kings and has kicked off the regular season in Virden. In his short time with the teams, he is already seeing his skills sharpen from the valuable experience of competing alongside his more seasoned teammates.

“Compared to the Canadian Sport School Hockey League where I played last year, it is a big step up,” he says. “The players are older, up to 20 years old. They are bigger, stronger, faster, and the overall pace of the game is much quicker.”

Stronger and faster is exactly where Groening hopes to be in five years—and he’s putting his all into leveraging as much knowledge and skill as he can in the hopes of being welcomed into an even higher league one day.

“Overall, this opportunity means so much to me and gives me a chance the become the best player I can be,” Groening adds. “It’s tough to say what the future holds, but in five years my goal is to be in the NHL. Right now my immediate goal is to have a successful year in the MJHL, and as of for next year I hope to play for the Wheat Kings full-time.”

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