Throughout the off-season, BTN is getting to know some of the incoming rookies in the Canadian Hockey League.
Sometimes an aspiring hockey player can feel like he's in the real estate game — it's all about location, location, location. Zach Bratina feels validated that he became the Plymouth Whalers top priority-selection pick this spring after playing for a lower-profile minor hockey team.
The left wing from Lindsay, Ont., opted to stick it out last season with his Central Ontario Wolves midgets ("we didn't do that well. But they all helped me get to where I am") after being told he needed to showcase his wares in a bigger centre. Nevertheless, the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder fought through it and was rewarded when the Whalers took him 19th overall. Now he's set to join a team which has four NHL first-round picks in its lineup.
"No one really expected me to do that three years ago because of the team I was on," Bratina says. "Everyone was telling me to move this year and I tried to and when I couldn't my chances went straight down, but I battled through that and went in the first round.
"I couldn't be happier with any other organization," adds Bratina, a verstale athlete who also excels in lacrosse. "I have only heard good stuff about [Whalers coach-GM Mike] Vellucci. I feel like he's kind of coach who really develops his players."
The Whalers are usually deep enough that they can afford to be patient with their 16-year-olds. Budding Boston Bruins star Tyler Seguin took until November to score his first OHL goal in 2008 before showing why he was marked for the NHL. Current Ottawa Senators prospect Stefan Noesen was in and out of the lineup in 2009-10 before breaking out with a 77-point season in his draft year and 82 this past season, when he became Plymouth's linchpin. Bratina, who like many tall young forwards will need to improve his agility and first-steps speed, will likely playing a supporting role for Plymouth. However, he views Noesen as someone he can emulate.
"He's a fairly big guy and he puts up a lot of points and that's something I'm looking to do on the team."
Bratina's showing at a hockey combine last summer can stand as the answer to any questions about competitiveness. He ended up having the highest rating of any teenager who attended, earning his team a training session with NHLer turned fitness guru Gary Roberts (be warned, his name comes up a lot on BTN). That's where his track and field background came in handy.
"I was surprised, but while I was doing it I felt really good about it," Bratina recalls. "The toughest part was probably the VEET [endurance] test. You run to a spot, you get like a 10-second break, and you run again and see how many times you can do it."
1. You are 16 and have a lot of work to do, but what is a specific skill you will really focus on improving during your first year in the OHL?
"Definitely making my shot a bit harder. It's more difficult with these bigger and older goalies. If I'm working I'm in the gym, I'll always add some forearm stuff because that helps your shot. I'm always stickhandling in the garage at home, like almost every night."
2. Whom in the NHL have you taken as a role model, someone who plays a game you aspire to?
"I try to play a little bit like [Minnesota Wild centre] Zach Parise. He works really hard but he also has the skill to put the puck in the net when he wants to."
3. A lot of hockey parents labour under the impression their child has to play hockey 12 months a year, but you've said playing other sports really helped you as a hockey player. I take it you weren't referring solely to playing lacrosse?
"I played tons of sports. Lacrosse was big, but I played basketball and did track and field as well. Throughout school, I've played every sport there is, volleyball, basketball, soccer. They helped my running and sprint, the soccer, track and basketball. Track is like working out and basketball really improves your hand-eye coordination.
"I'd say you definitely have to play a bunch of sports before you have to pick the one you like the most. It helps with everything."
4. Outside of family, who has had the biggest effect on you?
"Probably my coaches thoughout my life, especially Ron Davidson this year. He was a really good coach. He helped me out a lot ... in the past, we've kind of had some negative coaches because our team wasn't that strong and they'd lose their stuff on us. Ron Davidson was always so positive with the whole team and helped me work on my skills. He played in the Olympics [for Canada in 1980 under Tom Watt] and he always had lots of good advice and taught me a lot this year.
"Also, my entire family has been great, driving me to the arena those times my parents [mother Karen and father Dan] couldn't."
5. Favourite TV show or movie?
"I recently watched a movie called The Next Three Days [a crime drama directed by Paul Haggis]. That was a pretty good movie. It was a really good story."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet .