Player Insight: What is it like to play in the WHL?

Junior hockey is a staple for so many Canadian households. Players are treated like NHL stars in many of these communities and junior hockey unites small towns across the country. Canada is home to the best junior hockey league in the world: the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). The CHL is an umbrella organization representing three amateur leagues in the country: the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). These leagues serve as developmental leagues for young hockey players that want to improve their skills and hopefully pursue a career in the NHL (commonly referred to as the “Show”). These are the best junior hockey leagues in the world, and year after year they graduate some of the best players in the world. NHL Super Stars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, and many others began to hone their skills in these very leagues.

So, what is it like? What is it like to be playing in one of the best three junior hockey leagues in the world? What is it like to face off against future legends of the game? Carter Czaikowski is a former defenseman for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. Carter was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, where he began playing hockey for the Crowchild Blackhawks of NW Calgary before moving on to play for the Northwest Calgary Athletic Association (NWCAA) at the bantam AAA and midget AAA levels. Carter was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft to the Portland Winterhawks. He was the Winterhawks’ first pick in the draft and went on to play three seasons for the team.

I sat down with Carter to find out his experience in the WHL.  

To begin, how did you get into hockey in the first place?

It’s a funny story. My mom put me in figure skating when I was four years old, and I loved it, until we started doing twirls and whatnot. When that started, I tossed my figure skates and grabbed a hockey stick because that’s what I wanted to play. With that being said, I believe that figure skating during my youth was paramount to building a strong skating base and moving forward with my hockey career.

At what point did you realize that you were just a little bit better than everyone else, and had a chance of playing at a high level?

I don’t know if I was better than everyone else as much as I simply loved the competitive aspect of the sport, and always pushed myself to become the best player I could. As far as playing at a high level, that was never my main goal. All I wanted was to grow into the best player I possibly could: if I did that, the level I played at was bound to take care of itself.

I want to take you back to the day you were drafted by the Portland Winterhawks. It’s funny because I don’t know if you remember where you were when you got the call, but I was sitting beside you in the computer lab at St. Vincent and I just remember how happy and excited I was for you. What was that day like for you?

It was a special day for sure. The bantam draft is one of those days where anything can happen, and it is hard to predict what team will pick you, or if you will even be picked for that matter. I was very thankful that Portland saw potential in me and gave me the opportunity to try and take my game to the next level.

You chose to take the WHL route instead of the college route by playing in the AJHL (Alberta Junior Hockey League), why?

My biggest reason for taking the WHL route was the amazing scholarship program the league offers its players. My family and I hold Canadian universities in high regard, and I wanted to complete my post-secondary education in Canada. In addition, the WHL gives its players the opportunity to play against some of the top talent in the world, all while balancing a schedule that is modelled after a professional schedule (72 regular season games). I believed it was the best place to develop as a young hockey player with lofty aspirations.

Can you describe to us what it was like to be living on your own at such a young age? Additionally, can you tell us what a billet is like, and describe life in Portland?

Moving away from home at a young age was an adjustment. To do it at 16 years old, just entering grade 11 of high school, posed some difficulties. But I genuinely believe it allowed me to mature quickly by learning important life skills. I was very fortunate to have amazing billets throughout my junior hockey career. These families take you in at a young age and treat you as one of their own. It is a very special bond and I still keep in touch with each family that I lived with over the years. Before moving to Portland, I did not know much about the city. Upon moving there, I learnt that it is a beautiful place with endless things to do. The people there are very kind, and I was able to make many meaningful relationships in Portland.

Is there something that you think many people do not know about junior hockey?

One thing that most would not know is the difficulty that one faces while playing junior hockey away from home during high school. It was a significant adjustment and I believe over time it allowed me to become a better student because I became diligent with my habits, especially in terms of understanding the value of completing things ahead of time. For example, in the month of October in my grade 11 season, I attended only seven or eight days of class, as our team was on a long Eastern road trip at the time. I was lucky to work with fantastic people who scheduled our schooling, and ensured we were accommodated to write tests from abroad, etc. Sue Johnson, our academic advisor played a big role in my academic career and I am forever grateful for all that she did for me.

During your time in Portland you had some injuries, and were in and out of the lineup – can you describe what that was like and the challenges it posed?

Injuries are extremely difficult to handle in sport as they put you on the sidelines for a substantial amount of time. I remember not being able to do anything for a prolonged period of time, and being the type A personality that I am, this was extremely difficult. However, one thing I learned from these experiences and believe has helped me since, is the importance of patience. There are times when the best thing you can do for yourself is nothing. This is something I initially found extremely uncomfortable, and I still battle with the notion today; however, learning to be patient has helped me grow as a person. Equally, another difficulty is getting back to game speed as your timing and instincts are off after returning from injury. Things that have always been second nature suddenly become foreign, and this can be immensely frustrating as it takes time to regain those instinctual tendencies that are often taken for granted. Through hard work and a relentless mindset, those habits are regained, and game speed feels natural again.  

You played with some special players during your time in Portland (Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cody Glass, Paul Bittner, Nic Petan, etc.), what teammate taught you a few things?

One of my teammates that I learned a lot from was Cody Glass, who happened to be one of my closest friends on the team. Cody and I spent a lot of time together and one thing that I always admired about him was his genuine love for the sport and his “never quit” attitude. He is a special player, and an even greater person, who I know will have great success as a professional.

Mike Johnston was your coach in Portland: can you describe what it was like to have him as a coach? Especially, as he coached in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and had the opportunity to coach Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury, and other high-level athletes during his tenure.

Mike Johnston is a coach that expects a lot from his players but is fair in his expectations. I was lucky to have him as a coach as he taught me a lot about the game, but also in terms of how individuals should carry themselves on and off the ice. Through and through, Mike is a professional, who portrays a level of decorum that you don’t see everyday.

I have to ask about Cale Makar. Obviously, growing up you got to know him pretty well as you two were the star defensemen at what was formerly called Crowchild Hockey Association in NW Calgary. How does it feel that you had the chance to share the ice with Cale, and got to know him personally while growing up? Did you ever think he was going to be this successful playing the game?

Cale is a class act. To this day, he is still the same person he was when we were young. I was fortunate enough to be really good friends with him when we were younger, and we were able to push each other to become better players both in practice and on game days. I am not surprised by the amount of success he has already achieved in his young career due to his absolute passion for the game. Cale, like Cody, is a special person who loves hockey in a way that few do. I am excited to continue watching him grow and achieve great success in the future.

Did you ever think you could make the NHL? If so, was that always your dream?

When I was a boy, like any Canadian growing up, I thought I had a chance of playing in the NHL. Once upon a time, that was indeed my dream. I believe that having that goal enabled me to become a better hockey player each day. The life lessons I gained from striving towards this goal are unparalleled, and I am thankful that I was a boy with big dreams.

If you had to do things over, would you do it again? After having time to reflect, would you still have taken the WHL route?

Absolutely. I am not one to live with regrets and I believe the lessons I learned both on and off the ice, are not learned in many other environments. The WHL is a tough league to play in, and it is something that I was fortunate enough to do.

What has it been like to be away from the game for some time now? Did you ever consider playing U Sport Hockey or college hockey in the US?

Being away from the competitive atmosphere of junior hockey has been a change of pace. Although, I believe my competitiveness in hockey has translated into forming my approach towards my education. I did consider playing U Sport hockey, but I have thoroughly enjoyed playing a different pace of hockey in my intramural league at school and at various other skates I participate in.

Finally, describe to us what you have been doing since leaving the game? And what is the new goal for Carter going forward now that hockey is behind you?

Since leaving the game, I have been working towards a degree in Supply Chain Management at the Haskayne School of Business here at the University of Calgary. I am in my second year of studies and have enjoyed my time here considerably. As for new goals, I am focused on getting into law school in Canada and working towards becoming a corporate lawyer. I have applied many of the lessons I learnt in hockey to my schooling, and I love the competitive nature of my business program. With that being said, I am taking it one day at a time, as I am still focused on becoming the best version of myself each day.

I want to thank Carter for taking the time to sit down with me and tell his story about being a player in the WHL. I look forward to watching him succeed in the future, wherever he decides to take his life next.

Sebastian Farkas is a third year Politics student and Sports and Wellness Editor of The Athenaeum