Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram in action during the 2017-18 WHL season. (Gary Ahuja Langley Times file photo)

Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram in action during the 2017-18 WHL season. (Gary Ahuja Langley Times file photo)

Cranbrook’s Bowen Byram looking to continue ‘giant’ season in playoffs

Local rookie playing for Vancouver Giants set to make WHL postseason debut on Friday in Victoria

He may be on spring break, but Bowen Byram certainly doesn’t have a clear schedule right now.

Speaking with the Townsman just minutes after getting off Sportsnet radio in Vancouver on Wednesday morning, the 16-year-old WHL rookie defenceman is about to start his very first playoff experience with the Vancouver Giants.

After a regular season that was capped off later that afternoon by being named the league’s Western Conference ‘Rookie of the Year’, Byram says that he had a blast this season.

“It was a lot of fun [and] it went by really quickly,” Byram said. “I can’t believe we’ve already played 72 games this year. Last year [the Giants] struggled a bit, so to make the playoffs and just have a good season was very important for the organization.”

A Cranbrook native, who grew up playing in the Key City before leaving for Lethbridge to play Bantam AAA hockey, Byram was selected by Vancouver third overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. Last season, he got his toes wet with 11 games as a 15-year-old, while playing the season at Yale Academy in Abbotsford.

As a full-time rookie this past season, however, the defenceman broke out by putting up six goals and 21 assists in 60 games. He also spent some time with Team Canada Red at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, where he helped secure a silver medal while playing alongside Kootenay Ice rookie Peyton Krebs.

At the end of the season, he was also presented with the ‘Milan Ilich Rookie of the Year’ trophy as the Giants’ best freshman, and was the WHL’s ‘Rookie of the Month’ for February.

While Byram is humbled by the accolades, when asked about his favourite moment of the season, his answer is team-focused.

“I think [what stands out is] probably the game we clinched the playoffs,” he said. “It was a [Saturday] night game against Kamloops and we beat them 5-4. We were up 4-1 and they came back and made it interesting, [but] I think that was probably the highlight of the year for me.”

While Byram only had a single assist in the game, the win was very significant for the Giants organization as it marked the end of a three-year playoff drought. Clinching the postseason at home, the Langley Events Centre exploded knowing they would get playoff hockey for the first time ever.

The Giants have an impressive history, which includes a WHL Championship in 2006 and a home-win at the 2007 Memorial Cup, but the team moved out to the suburbs in 2016 and have yet to get a playoff experience there. Although grabbing attention in the highly-saturated Lower Mainland sports market is difficult, Byram feels that the Giants have earned a spotlight this year.

“Since the start of the year when we started winning some games, I think people around the city realized we were going to be a team that could make a playoff push,” he said. “So, it’s been pretty cool hearing the buzz around [Vancouver] and hopefully, we can make a deep playoff run.”

With the Vancouver Canucks battling for the bottom spot of the NHL standings, the Giants are a tantalizing bandwagon for the area’s hockey fans. Their first-round matchup, however, will be a challenge as they play the Victoria Royals.

The Island team is stacked with offensive talent, including Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Philips (a first-team WHL All-Star) and Anaheim Ducks prospect Tyler Soy. Philips ended the season with 112 points in 71 games, while Soy racked up 92 points in 66 games.

“They’re a really good team and they have a lot of good players, [so] we’re just going to have to stick to our game and not play river hockey with them because they’ve got a lot of skilled guys,” Byram said of their opponent. “If we work hard and keep it simple, we’ve got a good chance against them.”

In 10 games against the Royals this season, the Giants have a 3-4-1-2 record and their last three games were all decided by a single goal. Playing in nine of the matches, Byram had three assists. While it should be a tight series, he thinks that his group can be competitive against anyone in the conference.

“There were a lot of teams [in the West] who loaded up at the deadline, [so] I think that anybody in the Western Conference could be anywhere in the standings,” he said. “There’s not too much separating the eight teams that got into [the playoffs]. We just [have to] keep an even keel.”

In addition to Byram, the Giants have a lot of talent on their roster. Overager Ty Ronning scored 61 goals this season and signed a pro contract with the New York Rangers, while former first-overall Bantam Draft pick Tyler Benson (an Edmonton Oilers’ prospect) had a career-season with 69 points in 58 games.

Those two players have served as role models for Byram, who hopes to someday lead the Giants in the way that they have this season.

“I’ve grown friendships with both of those guys [and] got to be pretty close with them,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for me is just taking away the hard work they put into the game. Every day, they’re working on something and they’re the hardest working guys in practice, so I think that just proves to everyone why they are in the position they are going into next season.”

While it’s still a ways away, Byram is expected to eventually find himself in the same spot as Ronning and Benson, as a future-NHLer. Considered by many to be a high pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, according to News 1130’s Rick Dhaliwal, Canucks head coach Travis Green was “very impressed” by Byram while scouting a game against the Kelowna Rockets just last week.

Asked by the crew at Sportsnet 650 about the 2019 Draft, Byram said that he tries not to think too far into the future and just wants to focus on playing hockey.

The first game of the Giants’ series with the Royals is taking place in Victoria on Friday night at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Holding over 7,000 people, the arena should be packed throughout the series.

“The crowd in Victoria is pretty hostile towards us sometimes, so it should be pretty fun,” Byram said. “I’ll probably have a bit of nerves, but hopefully I can get them out of the way quickly.”

As for the debut at the LEC on Tuesday, Byram is pumped to see what the little arena with a capacity of 5,276 will sound like.

“I think it’ll be pretty crazy,” he said. “I expect it to be full every night and pretty loud too. It’s a bit of a smaller rink, so that should be pretty neat for the fans and for us.”

While the noise likely won’t be loud enough to travel all the way to Cranbrook, where Kootenay Ice fans are experiencing another year on the outside looking in, the support for one of their own should be felt across the region.

Although right now Bowen Byram is a Vancouver Giant, he is well on his way to becoming a Cranbrook legend.