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Top prospects trade sticks for bats

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

BUFFALO, NY - The relentless parade of pre-draft responsibilities and the stress of the unknown paused — if only briefly — for some of the top prospects on Wednesday.

A group of six players headed out onto sunny Coca-Cola Field, home of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, for batting practice— an NHL Draft tradition. It’s a day to step away from questions about draft stock, expectations and on-ice strengths and weaknesses.

“It keeps your mind off the draft,” said Pierre-Luc Dubois, one of the players expected to go early in this weekend’s draft. “I’m not nervous about it, more excited. Things like this helps not to think about it, have fun and enjoy the moment.”

Dubois was joined by Auston Matthews, Mathew Tkachuk, Jesse Puljujarvi, Olli Juolevi and Patrik Laine — all virtual locks to be selected top 10 in Friday’s first round. But Wednesday wasn’t about the draft, it was about having fun with their peers.

“It’s just fun to be with all these guys,” said Tkachuk. “We all have the same goal, and that’s to play in the NHL. This is a big step and it’s cool that we have some fun activities along the way.”

As the prospects took part in batting practice, Matthews and Tkachuk’s skill stood out.

“I haven’t swung a bat in a while. Just wiffle ball,” said a surprised and modest Tkachuk.

“Coming into it, everyone wants to hit it deep but the wind was blowing a bit today. Nobody could overpower that today. Couple close ones, but nothing over.”

These young men are known more for their prowess with a stick and puck than bat and ball, but some have more baseball background than others.

For Tkachuk, stepping onto the field brought back a childhood memory. The son of long-time NHLer Ketih Tkachuk once attended an MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis.

“My favourite teams growing up were always St. Louis and Boston,” said Tkachuk. “I went to one All-Star Game and saw David Ortiz there and Albert Pujols, and Pujols was my favourite player growing up. I actually got a chance to go out on the Cardinals field when I was real young and kind of watch them go through this same thing. I couldn’t hit back then but it was still fun to see.”

Matthews, the presumptive first-overall pick, has baseball in his past too. The centre and top-ranked skater played little league, and his father played ball in college. His father would come to his games and help Matthews with his swing.

“I was pretty good,” said Matthews. “I could hit the ball pretty far, so it was either a strikeout or a home run.”

That swing and power was on display Wednesday, as Matthews made good contact. Rumours swirled that Matthews in fact had practiced a bit before Wednesday’s group outing.

“I guess that’s the rumour coming out,” Matthews laughed. “But I have no comment on that.”

Photo by Getty Images.

And then, there were the Finns.

With little to no background in baseball, Puljujarvi, Juolevi and Laine approached the plate hesitantly but excitedly.

“It wasn’t too bad. They’ve never really played ever before and they actually didn’t look too bad out there,” said Tkachuk.

“It was great. I had never hit a baseball, so it was pretty exciting,” said Juolevi. “I was sure I wouldn’t hit any balls, but it was actually pretty good.”

There were varying opinions on who the best Finn was, with both Juolevi and Laine pleading their own cases.

“I was the best guy,” Juolevi smiled.

Regardless of who reigned victorious among the Finnish trio, they left a good impression with the rest of the group.

“I don’t think they ever hit a ball before coming here, but they weren’t too bad,” said Dubois. “They were pretty good, honestly.”

After dozens of interviews with teams at the Combine earlier this month, countless media interviews and appearances and all of the training and rehearsing, it was nice for the players to get out and have a little fun before one of their bigger life moments takes place in a couple days.

“Everybody is excited for Friday, but these small things are really fun too,” said Dubois.

There were lots of smiles on the field as the players tried to hit the ball out of the park. With the relaxing day over, their sights turn to being home-run hits for whichever clubs call their names Friday.

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