Sat Jun 23 01:26am EDT
PITTSBURGH — The famously changing weather patterns in Calgary have nothing how fast John Weisbrod's mood shifted after laying eyes on centre Mark Jankowski, the Flames first-rounder.
"I can tell you, I was in a bad mood, I was driving 2½ hours through snow in Quebec," the Calgary assistant GM said of the December scouting trip he took to see Jankowski play at Stanstead College, the rural Quebec boarding school which became a scouting hotspot this season.
"I had flown to Quebec to see another player and I was sort of using the day off, 'oh, I'll go see this kid.' By the middle of the second period I was laughing out loud, sitting in my seat by myself. I was calling [Flames GM] Jay [Feaster] saying, 'we better not trade that [first-round] pick.' It all worked out pretty well.
"There were at least 16, 17 [NHL] teams there. Once I got excited about him, I started combing the rink. People knew who he was. He was obviously coming from an unconventional background. We knew that would help downgrade him in some teams' minds and it did long enough to get him to 21. We knew he was playing in a league where people would undervalue him, playing weaker competition, playing in obscure places."
The Flames' top pick in 2011, Sven Bärtschi, played home games with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks in a NHL-calibre building in front of crowds of up to 11,000. That's more than 50 times the enrolment at Stanstead, whose Wikipedia page states it has about 200 students. But former coach Mark McNamara and current coach James Rioux have built a good prep school program. Jankowski's stock just took off after he arrived there and shot up from 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds to a 6-foot-2½, 170-pound package of playmaking and skill. That was enough to secure NCAA interest from coach Nate Leeman of the Providence Friars. His stock kept rising but it was only in the past week that Jankowski decided to skip Stanstead's graduation this weekend to attend the draft.
"I'd be going back and forth," said Jankowski, a great-nephew of Hockey Hall of Famer Red Kelly. "One day I'd want to go to the draft and one day I'd want to go to graduation. It was just the chance of being a first-round pick. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"If it was more the third round or the fourth round, I would have stayed back and gone to graduation," he added. "I've been going to Stanstead for two years and with the relationships I've built with my friends, it'd be pretty tough to leave them. But the whole atmosphere here was unreal. I know I made the right decision."
'Pumping questions at him'
Jankowski, who's from Dundas, Ont., wrote his calculus final on Thursday morning before leaving for Pittsburgh. That was nothing compared to the oral exam Weisbrod and the Flames scouting staff gave him on Friday.
"I wanted to get a better bead on him," Weisbrod said. "We met him just 3 o'clock this afternoon, our whole crew, brought him into the room, our whole scouting staff. It wasn't just Jay and I. Everyone was pumping questions at him. He really handed himself well and gave some of our scouts a little bit more confidence."
That could speak to Jankowski coming from a three-generation hockey family. His father Len Jankowski ("he taught me to toe-drag," Mark said) played for Cornell University. His grandfather, Lou Jankowski, played for the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings during the Original Six era.
'Never give up'
Now he's got another connection. He joins Philadelphia Flyers star Claude Giroux as having the distinction of being completely passed over in the Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft in his home province before finding at home in Quebec and becoming a first-rounder. Giroux did so in major junior with the Gatineau Olympiques. Jankowski did so far from the madding crowd.
"It's a honour to be in the same breath as Claude Giroux," Jankowski said. "He's a role model of mine, to never give up even if you're not drafted in the OHL draft."
Stanstead's obviously didn't have a murderer's row schedule. The way Jankowski handled being the big fish in a small prep school pond helped sell people on his virtues.
"When you watched him in that league, he made everyone around him better," said Leeman, who began recruiting Jankowski while at Union (N.Y.) College before moving on to Providence. "He shared the puck so well and his vision was so good. I thought there were times when Mark could go end to end and score and instead he moved the puck off and I think that's what really made him special.
"He's come from committing to a college early in the season to being a first-round pick and you wouldn't know it from talking to him," Leeman added.
'He's Joe Nieuwendyk'
It could be 3-4 years before Jankowski is ready to make an impact in the NHL. He's such a rough diamond that he will need one year in the USHL just to be ready for the rigours of college hockey.
"He's still got to cross the crocodile-infested waters to be a player," Weisbrod said. "But the physical attributes that this guy has, from the athleticism, skating, hands and the fact he'll likely be playing at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. Like I've been saying to our scouts all week long, 'He's Joe Nieuwendyk.' I don't want to share anyone's business but he wouldn't have made it through today. There were at least two teams that would have taken him in the first round after us."
Jankowski is planning to join the Dubuque Fighting Saints. That seems like a good destination, given that Dubuque had two first-rounders on Friday in centre Zemgus Girgensons (No. 14 to Buffalo) and defenceman Michael Matheson (No. 23 to Florida).
"I'm probably going to go to the USHL next year," he said. "Just talking with my family and Coach Leeman, I think that's the best decision. [Fighting Saints coach] Jim Montgomery has a really good program and I really think he's going to help get me ready for the NCAA."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.