For the first time in his life, Chandler Yakimowicz shared a locker room with NHL draft picks.
Now he hopes to become one.
Yakimowicz, who will finish up his senior year at Wyoming Valley West High School next month, is projected to be a mid- to late-round selection in next month’s NHL Draft, according to final listings by NHL Central Scouting.
“I think I can see myself playing professional hockey, whether it’s in the NHL, AHL or overseas,” said Yakimowicz, 18, from Kingston. “But it’s the NHL I’m going to strive for.”
For now, the son of Steve and Tracy Yakimowicz will settle for the Ontario Hockey League.
The OHL is part of the Canadian Junior Hockey League where the top junoir players in North America play before signing with top professional leagues.
That’s where Chandler Yakimowicz spent the past five months, after signing a three-year contract with the London Knights just before Christmas. His real present came later, though, when Yakimowicz had a chance to participate in the prestigious Memorial Cup, which ended with Sunday’s championship game.
Before his team was eliminated last week after three tournament games, Yakimowicz received ice time in the Memorial Cup tourney as a fourth-line center for a host London squad that featured NHL picks Bo Horuat, Max Domi, Nikita Zadorov and Michael McCarron.
That had the old Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights teammates Yakimowicz played with earlier this season buzzing. He received dozens of phone calls from people in the Wyoming Valley who watched the Memorial Cup - which had every game of the tournament televised on the NHL Network.
That was just one sign of the huge stage Yakimowicz stepped onto.
“It’s really exciting,” said his dad, Steve Yakimowicz. “It’s funny, because being in the United States, I don’t think we realized how big this (tournament) was. The week before it started, the whole block around the arena was blocked off. We saw how dedicated they were and how big it actually was.”
Six years ago, Yakimowicz played in a tournament in Quebec that drew in the neighborhood of 9,000 fans. But the sold-out arena each night of the Memorial Cup blew away anything he’d ever experienced - in magnitude and pure hockey enthusiasm.
“Really exciting,” Yakimowicz said.
It all seemed so surreal to him, he said.
Back in December, Yakimowicz was suiting up for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Junior Knights and spending his days studying during his senior year at Valley West. His strong play and shooting ability began attracting some attention from USHL scouts. Eventually, Yakimowicz spent two weeks playing in the U.S. National Development Program.
That’s where he got a chance to step into Juniors.
Three OHL teams offered Yakimowicz a contract — including London, which was guaranteed to participate in the Memorial Cup as the host team.
“When they were talking to him about coming up (to Canada), this was a big thing — he could play in it regardless,” Steve Yakimowicz said.
It wasn’t an automatic decision, though.
“It was really difficult,” Chandler Yakimowicz said. “My goal was always to go to college and play college hockey. I started getting attention from East Coast colleges. I went on a few visits, but no (solid) offers from any schools. I was kind of getting worried. Then I got a call from London. I decided my game suits the OHL more.”
If only he could have played a little more.
As one of the younger players on the team, and after joining London in midseason, Yakimowicz didn’t dominate the ice the way he did with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He played in 33 games during the regular season, scored three goals with four assists for seven points and took 45 penalty minutes while developing an edge to his game. In the postseason, his ice time dropped some, and he scored two goals in nine games while finishing as a plus-1.
“I’m not a big, flashy player,” said Yakimowicz, who stands 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. “I’m more like a fourth-line guy who goes out and does what needs to be done to just bring the energy to the team — whether it’s fighting, hitting.”
At first, his diminished role was a bit of a downer.
But eventually, Yakimowicz looked ahead, and saw the players ahead of him on the London depth chart were once in his very position — battling to become part of the action — and many of them are approaching the time limit for staying in Juniors.
“I look at the older guys on the team that came in, in my position,” Yakimowicz said. “Josh Anderson (of the Columbus Blue Jackets) was in my position. Now he’s signed in the NHL. I just look at what the older guys are doing and try to become that.
“I just try to keep my head up.”
Realizing how far he’s progressed in such a short period of time helps lift Yakimowicz’s spirits.
“Just from where I came from, I definitely never thought it would happen this quickly,” said Yakimowicz, who spent the past few months attending Blythe Academy in Canada but plans to transfer his high school credits back to Valley West and graduate with his Wyoming Valley school mates in June. “It was always a goal of mine to get this far. But it’s just crazy how far I’ve come and where I am today. It’s a tribute to my family and the Knights.”
He’s hoping to take another major step soon.
NHL Central Scouting projects Yakimowicz to be the 153rd player taken in the NHL Draft, which will be held June 27 and 28 in Philadelphia.
“Oh, I’d love it,” Yakimowicz said. “I fell in love with the game as a young kid, always playing, always going to practice. I just love to be at the rink.
“I really, really fell in love with the game.”