A late bloomer, NHL prospect begins journey to the pros

Derek Georgopoulos describes the obstacles facing Ben Betker before getting drafted by the Edmonton Oilers.

Not everyone in Cranbrook, population 20,000, may have heard the name Betker, but it’s likely they soon will.

Ben Betker was never the biggest or fastest kid growing up, but no one could deny his love for the game. Back when we were all kids we played for the purest of reasons—fun. However, if someone would have told me back then that Ben Betker would get drafted to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, I would have been the first person to doubt it.

When we turned 13, we put down the mini-sticks and picked up the weights. This also marked the first time in my hockey career that I did not play with Ben. He was cut from the Bantam “A” team, but spent a year with the “B” team working hard and practicing every chance he could get. I  believe getting cut that year still motivates him.

The next year, 2009,  was, at the time, what we all thought to be the most important year of our young lives—the WHL Bantam Draft. Throughout that year, scouts from every WHL team scrambled to find kids they thought would have the best potential in a few years time. This can be a daunting task when the players are only 14 years old.

The draft came and went, and like hundreds of kids across the country, Ben’s name was not called.

Looking back at the draft, it’s all about what you do after your name is either called or not called, and I think that is where Ben set himself apart from other players.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” he said about the draft afterwards. “I was too small, although, I was still motivated to prove myself.”

Ben spent the following year playing Midget “AA” hockey in Cranbrook under the same coach who cut him back in Bantam.

It wasn’t until the year after that Ben’s development as a player took off. Playing for the Kootenay Ice of the  British Columbia Major Midget League (BCMML) under the watchful eye of Simon Wheeldon, a former pro hockey player and Olympian. During practices Ben would always want to do drills against the best skaters on our team, which included, Luke Bertolucci (now with Edmonton Oil Kings), Jesse Knowler (Trail Smoke Eaters), and Dryden Hunt (Regina Pats).

The year went by quickly and Ben improved steadily, becoming one of, if not the best, defensemen on our team. He didn’t just improve on the ice, but off the ice Ben’s body was finally starting to grow. After years of being passed up by teams because he was average sized and skinny, he finally got his big break.

During that summer Ben was in contact with the Westside Warriors of the BCHL (now known as the West Kelowna Warriors). Standing at just over six feet tall, Ben was poised to step into one of the best Junior “A” leagues in Canada and shut down the opposing team’s best players night after night.

While his coach in Westside pushed him to take the NCAA route, Ben chose to get listed by the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

“My coach pressured me a little bit too go to the NCAA, but that is their job to try and get kids to go to school,” he said.

Now Ben had a choice—does he take the quickest route to the NHL, or get a scholarship and play hockey while continuing school? He chose the WHL and signed with the Winterhawks. He finished the year in Kelowna and once the summer started, he began training for the step up to the WHL.

I still remember sitting in Grade 12 Law class next to Ben when he broke the news to me—he and a number of  young players had been traded to the Everett Silvertips in exchange for the 4th overall pick in last June’s NHL entry draft, Seth Jones.

“It was pretty shocking to say the least,” he said about the trade. “But I wasn’t disappointed. I knew I would play more and get better development with a younger team.”

As it turned out, he ended up scoring one goal, adding five assists, and compiling 100 penalty minutes in 68 games. He also had a minus 21 rating to go along with it, which is quite impressive for a rookie going up against the top players every night.

Both the WHL and the NCAA routes have their perks and flaws, but both choices are viable options. Ben chose the WHL and it seems to be working for him so far. Even though he has been drafted, it’s like he’s at the base camp of Mt. Everest—the uphill battle only gets more difficult from here.

Derek Georgopoulos is a Cranbrook native who grew up playing hockey with Ben Betker and is currently with the Fernie Ghostriders in the KIJHL.