By Tyler Lowey, Times Reporter
For one night, former UFA Bison Tyler Wong had the hockey world eating out of his hand.
The undrafted winger was debuting with the Vegas Golden Knights expansion franchise in their pre-season opener against the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks Sept. 18 at Rogers Place.
At the 4:58 mark, Wong took an aerial pass from 2017 sixth overall pick Cody Glass, faked to the backhand and beat Richard Bachman up top, short side for the first goal in Golden Knights history.
The legendary and iconic night was only just beginning.
With the period drawing to a close, Wong was battling for position to the left of Bachman, when a point shot from Brad Hunt pinballed its way through a maze of Canucks, landing at the side of the net where Wong was positioned; he easily deposited the rebound into the open cage.
Wearing No. 80 in the Knights road threads that resembled an All-Star uniform of years past, Wong sniffed out the hat trick in the third period.
Canucks d-man Philip Holm was looking to exit his own zone following a defensive faceoff, when Wong picked off his pass that was headed up the seam of the ice. He quickly snapped one from the middle of the slot past replacement goalie Thatcher Demko’s blocker. He would add an assist to finish with four points.
Not only did he bury the first goal in Knights history, he put an exclamation mark on the 9-4 victory with the Knights first hat trick, becoming an instant celebrity.
“My phone blew up after the game,” said Wong. “It was cool to have a lot of people reach out to me. I had a lot of texts and phone calls congratulating me, in disbelief with what just happened.”
Articles were published that evening, wondering who the undrafted, 21-year-old kid was. He along with his franchise was trending on Twitter for a while, but to Wong, it was just business as usual.
Offence has never been an issue for Wong. He isn’t too far removed from owning the City of Lethbridge, where he spent six seasons with the Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League.
Last year, in his second season as captain, he racked up 51 goals and 109 points in 69 regular season games. In 317 WHL regular season games, he supplied 143 goals and 298 points, finishing with a plus-12 rating.
He is also no stranger to the spotlight. Wong powered the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference final, after scoring the winner in Game 7, short-handed in overtime, against the Medicine Hat Tigers in Round 2.
His unforgettable junior career caught the eye of the Chicago Wolves, the American Hockey League affiliate to the Golden Knights.
The Wolves reached out to Wong in the summer and offered him a one-year deal, with an invite to Golden Knights camp.
“My first impression of Tyler from rookie camp and the main camp was how hard he works more than anything,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “He literally never takes a shift off. He goes at everything with 110 per cent effort. Sometimes, at pro camps, guys will get a sense of entitlement and not work as hard. That’s not the case with Tyler; he goes full throttle every time he’s on the ice.”
Wong would appear in two more pre-season games with the Golden Knights before getting reassigned to Chicago.
The Wolves opened their regular season with a pair of losses on the road to the Texas Stars.
Lining up on the right wing, Wong netted his first pro hockey goal in five games during the 6-5 overtime loss to the Stars.
At the end of the 2015-2016 season, Wong was called up by the Toronto Marlies for three games following the end of the Hurricanes season. They did not offer him another contract at the end of that season.
Now that Wong is settling into life as a pro, he certainly hasn’t forgotten where he has come from.
“I had lots of fun in Strathmore. We had a really strong group of guys and a pretty good team. I remember we made it to the final of the Mac’s Midget tournament. That was probably the highlight of my career until my time in the WHL happened,” said Wong. “I remember it being a big jump to go from bantam AAA to midget. I had to get used to playing bigger, faster players, and that is something that I’ve experienced moving up at every level since then.”
Following an amazing bantam career, where Wong netted 143 points in 66 games, Wong posted 15 goals and 32 points in 26 games with the Bisons.
Wong has shown that he has the ability to grow, learn and develop at every level. Now, making his biggest jump, Wong looks to be a mainstay in the Wolves lineup this season.
“It’s a massive jump,” said Young, referring to players leaving the WHL for the everyday grind of pro hockey. “He’s not the big fish in the pool anymore. Every night, he’s going up against the best players from their own junior teams and not 17-year-olds. You have to be ready to play; if you don’t work hard, then you’re not going to make it to the next level.”
“Everything about the game is faster and quicker,” said Wong. “It’s a huge step up, but I just want to keep progressing at the same rate, working my way up the depth chart.”
Wong has already caught the attention of people in the organization with his greatest ability, putting the puck in the net. If he keeps this up, Strathmore might see another former Bison on Hockey Night In Canada sooner rather than later.
“If you can skate in this day and age, you are going to have a chance. Size doesn’t matter like it used to anymore,” said Young. “Tyler is a goal scorer and we expect him to score. We want to see him become more responsible on both sides of the puck moving forward. If he does both those things, a tenacious player like Tyler has a great chance to make it one day.”