BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The seeds of Brayden Watts' passion for hockey were planted early.
His grandparents started hauling him to Condors games before he could walk and by three he was wheeling around on inline skates, mimicking what he saw when watching the Condors play.
He was playing ice hockey before age six and over the next couple of years it became apparent that Watts was a player to watch.
"He had a special gift, you could see it," said Paul Willett, the director of hockey at the Bakersfield Ice Sports Center, who racked up 1,048 points in more than 916 games of a 14-year career.
That "gift" was nurtured and developed over the ensuing years and on May 1, Watts, a 15-year-old winger, was a third-round pick of the Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan, Canada) Warriors in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft.
The WHL is one of three major junior hockey leagues (ages 15-20) in Canada where the majority of pro hockey players are groomed. Watts is the first player from Kern County to be drafted into a junior major league.
Watts pretty much knew he was going to be drafted, but never thought it would be so early. He was the 62nd pick overall and the third American player taken west of the Mississippi.
"I was expecting to go late, eighth-round or something like that," he said. "I was not expecting to go in the third round."
Watts attended rookie camp in Moose Jaw -- about 50 miles north of eastern Montana -- earlier this summer, and will be there again when training camp opens on Thursday.
The road to Moose Jaw
"I started (playing) in house, went to (Dragons, a club team) when I was seven, played with like 9 and 10-year olds as a young player and went from there," Watts said of his hockey progression.
Numerous former Condors serve as coaches for varying age groups of Dragons with Willett handling the Bantam team (14 and under).
By the time Watts progressed to Bantam, Willett was already setting the wheels in motion to further his career.
Enter Bob Bartlett, manager for USA scouting and player development for the Moose Jaw Warriors, who previously served as director of hockey operations for the Condors for several years.
Willett and Scott Hay, also a former Condor and now general manager of the Ice Sports Center, knew that Watts needed a higher level of competition than the Dragons could offer. Most Dragon teams play at the single A level and Willett and company knew Watts needed to be tested at the highest level -- triple A elite.
"They were asking me where he should go and I suggested the program in Phoenix," Bartlett said. "We've had a lot of success in Phoenix. We had seven players come out of that program."
Watts played as a 13-year old for Willett in Bakersfield, then left home, moved in with a family in Phoenix, and played there last season.
"You have to give him a lot of credit leaving home at 14 years old and leaving his family here in Bakersfield," Willett said. "Back a long, long time ago I did it myself at 15 and I know it was definitely a difficult challenge and he embraced it."
Not surprisingly, Watts did admit to being a bit homesick early on.
"It was kind of cool at first, but once you stay there for about a week you start getting homesick," he said. "But luckily the family I was staying with, they took me in like I was their own. I was really blessed with that, too."
Once in Phoenix, Bartlett said it was pretty much up to Watts to determine his fate in what would be a pivotal season.
"Once you get to that 13-14 year age group you have to be willing to make that move to triple A and when you get there make some decisions as to whether you want to be a hockey player and make some sacrifices," he said.
"We were excited when he got to Phoenix and the higher competition but not really sure what would happen when he made that transition. He went from Bakersfield to one of the top three or four players there in a couple of weeks."
From Watts' perspective, he knew immediately he was in a high rent district.
"It's crazy fast," he said of the level of play. "It's way faster. Everybody actually knows the game. I learned so much in one year. It's crazy."
By January, it was apparent the Moose Jaw Warriors were not the only team with eyes on Watts.
"We were committed to drafting him before Christmas last year, hoping he would be there (around the fifth round or later)," Bartlett said. "We came to the conclusion shortly after Christmas that if we wanted Brayden we'd have to go higher. We committed to him in the third round and it worked out."
The Warriors took defensemen in the first two rounds and when they picked Watts he became the highest American player drafted in team history.
Bartlett said the Warriors are going to take a good long look at Watts in exhibition games later this week, but that his stay in Moose Jaw will likely be short.
"Canadian kids can play 10 games as 15-year olds," Bartlett said. "American kids can play in preseason games, then after their (AAA) season is over."
If all goes to plan, Watts will be back with Moose Jaw late in the Warriors' season where his chances to make the team as a 16-year old will be evaluated.
"He's a kid that has a real good shot at playing for us as a 16-year old," Bartlett said. "Most are 17."
Making decisions on 14-year old players "is always a gamble," Bartlett said but quickly added the Warriors did lots of homework.
"What we really liked about him: A, he can skate; B, we like his work ethic and character," Bartlett said. "He bumps everything in the corners, never leaves his man; his man is always coming out of the corner behind him.
"We call a him prototypical WHL guy. He doesn't mind using his body, he's a physical kid, and he shoots the puck a ton. He just has a cannon for a shot."
That said, there is plenty of room for growth.
"He's 5-11, a buck sixty (160 pounds) and raw," Bartlett said. "But we obviously think very highly of him. He's a good hockey player."
Despite all of his talent, Watts may never have been able to put it on display were it not for his grandparents, Ed and Debra Watts.
They exposed him to the sport early and took him into their home a few years ago.
"My parents split up and it kind of got all hard," Brayden Watts said. "They took care of me and I'm blessed for that."
For Ed and Debra Watts, it was never a burden. They were more than happy to help their grandson however they could.
"For us, we thought it would be kind of a fad thing, that he would try a lot of sports," Ed Watts said of the hockey. "But he never got tired of it. He won't play any other sport. I tried."
While supportive, Watts said he never pushed.
"Nobody ever pushed him," he said. "I've seen kids pushed by their parents and it ends up biting them in the butt."
What the elder Watts did was provide all the support -- as a surrogate parent as well as financial backer -- to get his grandson to this point.
Basic fees for playing on a Dragon travel team in Bakersfield is $2,600 and Ed Watts said you can pretty much double that with travel costs and an added tournament or two. Those costs skyrocketed for the elite triple AAA level in Phoenix where teams practice more often, play more often and travel more.
Money well spent, he said.
"My dream was to be a firefighter and I got to live my dream for 35 years," Ed Watts said. "This is his dream and all I want is for him to get an education, enjoy life and ride this hockey thing as far as he can.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he'd be where he is today. I've talked to Stanley Cup winners, agents ... are you kidding me? This is a kid who plays hockey in a barn out in a desert."
It's been a lot to absorb for Brayden Watts as well.
"Wearing a Moose Jaw Warriors jersey," he said with a shake of his head, "I never thought I could do this. It's amazing."