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The NHL Draft’s first round a big night for the Western Hockey League

Bowen Byram of the Vancouver Giants was selected fourth overall in Friday's NHL Draft, one of seven WHL players selected. (Brian Liesse/Thunderbirds)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Friday night’s opening round of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena was a banner night for the Western Hockey League.

A year after just two WHL players were chosen, seven heard their names called from the podium on Friday. Three of them went in the top 10 of the draft, led by Saskatoon Blades star Kirby Dach who was nabbed third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Dach said while wearing a Blackhawks jersey and hat. “I’m at a loss of words for what just happened but it’s awesome to be picked by the Blackhawks.”

Friday was the second time in the last three drafts that the WHL had seven players drafted in the first round. Seven were also chosen in the first round of the 2017 draft. The league’s best first round was in 1982 when 10 WHL’ers were selected.

“We’re delighted with the overall results,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said from the draft on Friday. “We’re very, very pleased for the players, their families, and the organizations. I think it shows that our teams have done an excellent job in developing these young men. We’re all very excited at the opportunities they’re going to have at the next level.

Dach had an impressive season for the Blades in 2018-2019. He manned their top center position and Saskatoon ended the year trailing only the eventual league champion Prince Albert Raiders in the Central Division standings. Dach potted 25 goals, 48 assists and 73 points.

As the Blackhawks prepared for the draft, they were impressed early on with Dach.

“He really wants to be a player,” Chicago general manager Stan Bowman said. “In the interview process you try to get to understand them and see what motivates them, what makes them tick. I was really impressed. He wants to be the best player in the game. He’s driven to do it.”

Coming into Friday, there was some mystery as to who Chicago would take at three. The first two picks went as predicted, with Jack Hughes going to the New Jersey Devils and Kaapo Kakko taken by the New York Rangers.

There was sentiment that Chicago would take another WHL’er with the third pick, most notably, Vancouver Giants defenseman Bowen Byram. In the end, it was Dach who was selected.

“I met with (Chicago) at the combine and I’ve been in touch with the team,” Dach said Friday. “I didn’t know what to expect once I got here. When I heard my name it’s a surreal feeling and hard to describe.”

While Byram was passed over at pick three, he had to wait a mere five minutes to hear his name called.

The Colorado Avalanche jumped on the chance to take the high-flying, offensively minded blue liner.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Byram said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, to be in this position. Now that I’m here, I’m very thankful for all the support I’ve had from fans and family members.”

Byram had an outstanding year with the Vancouver Giants, leading all WHL defenders with 26 goals in the regular season. He would go on to lead the entire league in playoff scoring as Vancouver made it to Game 7 of the Championship Series before falling to the Prince Albert Raiders in overtime.

Lethbridge Hurricanes star Dylan Cozens became the third WHL player drafted when the Buffalo Sabres made him the seventh overall pick.

Cozens is another tall center who scored 56 goals over the past two seasons – a career best 34 in 2018-2019.

The one WHL player who slid a bit was Peyton Krebs from the Kootenay-Winnipeg ICE.

Krebs led the ICE with 68 points on 19 goals and 49 assists. Many draft prognosticators had him being selected in the top 10 of the draft but he ended up going 17th to the Vegas Golden Knights. He suffered an Achilles injury a couple of weeks before the draft and it may have had an impact.

Two Kelowna Rockets went in the first round with defenseman Lassi Thomson taken 19th by the Ottawa Senators and forward Nolan Foote being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning at 27. Foot’s father Adam played in the NHL and his brother Cal starred with Kelowna before being drafted by the Lightning in 2017.

Adam is also the head coach in Kelowna, making both the Rockets and the Lightning, a Foote family affair.

“I’ve been there three years and I love the choice I made going the WHL route,” Nolan Foote said. “It’s a tough league, its very hard to play in. Great coaches in Kelowna and a lot of good players come through Kelowna.”

The WHL wasn’t done however, Moose Jaw Warriors forward Brayden Tracey, who potted 36 goals last year, was selected by the Anaheim Ducks with pick number 29.

The NHL Draft continues Saturday with rounds two through seven and more WHL players are sure to be selected, including the possibility that Seattle Thunderbirds’ Henrik Rybinski, Matthew Wedman, and Roddy Ross join the list.