Most teenage hockey players head to the BC Hockey League – or other junior ‘A’ leagues across North America – with the goal of getting noticed by college scouts, eventually earning a scholarship to play in the NCAA.
For most players, it takes a season or two to lock up that elusive commitment. For others, it unfortunately never happens at all.
For Grayden Slipec, it took two games.
The 16-year-old centre and Surrey Eagles rookie committed to the University of North Dakota on Oct. 14, just two games into the BCHL’s 2021-22 season. Slipec had two assists to that point – both coming in his first-ever game, against Coquitlam – but the points were largely inconsequential in the school’s recruiting efforts – he’d been on their radar long before that.
And the feeling was mutual.
Slipec, a Semiahmoo Peninsula resident who lives “right next door” to South Surrey Arena, certainly had no shortage of options when it came to mapping out his hockey future. He was among the province’s top players for his age, and was already drafted by teams in two different junior leagues before deciding to suit up for his hometown Eagles; in the 2020 Western Hockey League bantam draft, he was picked in the second round by the Kamloops Blazers, and earlier this year he was selected by the USHL’s Chicago Steel in that circuit’s Futures Draft.
But Slipec passed on both opportunities to play for the Eagles; playing for Kamloops would have meant giving up his NCAA eligibility.
“I went on a few (university) visits, and when I got to North Dakota, I just knew it was where I wanted to be,” he told Peace Arch News. “I know a lot of guys wait a little bit to decide, but I knew I didn’t want to go anywhere else, so I just thought, why not do it now?”
Slipec didn’t specify how many other university options he had, though he no doubt had more than few – it’s not often BCHLers are recruited feverishly enough to land a scholarship at just 16, let alone at a school like North Dakota, which is among the NCAA’s top programs.
“NoDak was interested, that’s all that mattered,” he said.
“When I got there, the facilities were kind of insane. They have a chef at the rink all day – it’s pretty unbelievable. I felt that I really connected with the coaches, too, so it felt like a perfect fit.”
Another factor that played into his decision to join the Eagles’ flock was that his older brother, Jacob, was already there. The elder Slipec, 20, is a well-travelled veteran of the BCHL, having played for three teams. He joined the Eagles prior to last spring’s 20-game ‘pod’ season, and this year is one of the club’s alternate captains.
Due to the age gap between the two, this season marks the first time the pair have played on the same team.
“It’s helped a lot with the adjustment (to junior hockey),” said the younger Slipec, who played at both the West Vancouver Hockey Academy and Burnaby Winter Club in recent years, and with Semiahmoo Minor Hockey before that.
“It’s really been nice to have him on my team. We’re pretty close – we go everywhere in the summer together, we train together. We’re pretty competitive, but it’s good. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Eagles head coach Cam Keith hasn’t been shy about praising the youngster, either. Prior to the start of the season, Keith singled out the younger Slipec specifically when talking to PAN about players he was excited about this season, saying that the rookie was “a kid who has had every single (NCAA) team in the country offering him a scholarship already.”
Last summer, in a news release announcing that Slipec would play in Surrey, Keith said “he’s an NHL prospect right now” who can “do something amazing every night.”
“He has the potential to be the best local player who has ever worn a Surrey Eagle jersey,” the coach said.
Through 10 games this season, Slipec has two goals and six assists. The team sits sixth in the BCHL’s Coastal Conference with a 5-6 win-loss record.
The Slipec brothers will only have this season to play together, as Jacob ages out of junior hockey this spring. And the next time they’ll hit the ice together, they’ll be rivals – Jacob is slated to play next season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which plays in the same conference as North Dakota.
In the meantime, the pair will focus on the current season with Surrey, with the younger Slipec saying he has two goals for the rest of the season – to keep improving personally, and win a BCHL championship.
“We’re the youngest team in the league, so there’s a lot of learning for us. and I’ll probably be learning things the whole year – from playing more games and from my teammates,” he said.
“Everyone’s just bigger, stronger, faster at this level – you have to adapt to it. The start of the year hasn’t been exactly what we wanted, but I think by the end of the season we’ll be better, and be a good playoff team.”