Ben McCartney

WHL Next Generation is a 22-part series highlighting a handful of the future stars of the Western Hockey League. From first-round bantam draft picks to later-blooming selections, get to know the names of players set to establish themselves as the newest crop of exciting talent to grace the WHL. From August 1 through September 11, get the inside scoop on the incoming crew of 16-year-olds.

The 2017-18 season will be a bit of a homecoming for Brandon Wheat Kings prospect Ben McCartney.

It’s been two years since the Macdonald, Man. product made the decision to leave home at the age of 14 to attend Okanagan Hockey Academy in B.C.

“You grow up a lot. Maturity kicks in. I had the opportunity to live with my grandparents, so that helped me out a lot,” McCartney said. “Getting on the ice every day, having the top-end training, getting coached by the best there. It’s a hockey player’s dream to get the opportunity to go out there.”

The fiery winger made the most of the opportunity, too, posting 33 points (18 goals, 15 assists) in 23 games with the OHA Bantam Prep team in his first year at the school.

While it wasn’t the flashiest of seasons, it was enough to get the attention of his home province WHL team, the Wheat Kings, who picked him in the second round, 43rd overall at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

“It was interesting. I was watching the draft that day and I saw my name get brought up with the Wheat Kings and it would be just nice to be close to home, to have my family be close to games and be able to watch,” McCartney said.

He didn’t waste any time making an impression on the Wheaties’ coaching staff.

The hard-working forward made his presence felt by notching a hat trick in his very first scrimmage at rookie camp last season.

“That was a dream come true right there,” McCartney said of the scrimmage, which was the start of a successful weekend for the then-15-year-old winger.

Heading into that weekend, McCartney had yet to sign a WHL Standard Player Agreement with the Wheat Kings.

But by the time McCartney and Team Green won the Rookie Camp title with a 4-3 shootout win over Team Black, the team had seen all they needed to and signed him that same weekend.

“It took lots of work. It was a hard weekend. It was just cool to see the other players and the top players from our draft, so it was fun,” McCartney said.

Since then it’s been a season to remember for the 5-foot-10, 159-pound scorer.

After leaving Wheat Kings’ camp, McCartney headed back to B.C. for his first season with the OHA Midget Prep team where he exploded for a whopping 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) in just 29 games.

In addition to playing at the academy, McCartney was able to suit up for two regular season games and three playoff games with the Wheat Kings, notching his first career WHL goal in game two of the team’s first round series against the Medicine Hat Tigers.

“I learned that preparation is key in that level. You’ve got to fight for your spot every day and kind of just stay mentally engaged throughout the week’s hard days,” said McCartney, who added that he likes to compare the way he plays hockey to St. Louis Blues star forward Vladimir Tarasenko.

McCartney also had the opportunity to represent his home province at the 2016 U16 Western Canada Challenge Cup and suit up for Team Canada at the National U17 Summer Development Camp in Calgary last week.

“One of the hardest camps I’ve ever been to, to be honest. Just the way the Hockey Canada staff ran that thing was so professional and it was cool to meet some new blood from Quebec and Ontario,” McCartney said of the Hockey Canada camp, where he notched a goal in three games.

“It was unbelievable. Some of the best hockey I’ve ever played.”

Now, the 16-year-old’s focus shifts towards the 2017-18 season and the prospect of joining the Wheat Kings’ roster full-time come September.

“I’ve just got to go in there with a positive attitude. The one thing you can control is your compete level. You can’t tell the puck to go in, you’ve just got to keep on grinding and go hard.”

First pre-season action for McCartney and the Wheat Kings is on Sept. 8 when they play host to the Regina Pats at Westman Place. Puck drop on that game is at 7:30 p.m. CST.