With his Sept. 12 birthday coming just three days before the National Hockey League’s eligibility date of Sept. 15, Graham Sward was on the younger side as far as prospects go and wasn’t deemed worthy of a selection by any NHL team last year.
But on Friday, sitting on a couch at a friend’s house in Winnipeg, the Spokane Chiefs defenseman heard – or rather saw – his name called when the Nashville Predators took him in the fifth round.
“I looked over at the screen, saw my face on it and all my buddies went nuts,” Sward said on a call with reporters on Friday.
“I’m a guy that definitely had COVID affect me the most. I got hurt in that shortened (2020-21) season, and there wasn’t a lot of time to be injured, and I didn’t play a lot,” said Sward, who, at 146th overall, became the first Chiefs player taken by the Predators. “I didn’t get to showcase myself that draft year. … But I think it made me a little bit stronger.”
Sward was one of two current Chiefs players drafted Friday, along with goalie Mason Beaupit, whom the San Jose Sharks took in the fourth round, 108th overall.
“Honestly, I was pretty blanked out. I don’t remember much from when it happened,” said Beaupit, who was in Montreal for the draft, on a call with the media Friday. “One of those moments where it’s so crazy to think about it coming true that I just wanted to get down there and get the jersey on. I wasn’t thinking much, that’s for sure.”
The selections of Beaupit and Sward ended a one-year drought for the organization, from which no players were taken in the 2021 NHL draft.
In 2020, then-Chiefs center Jack Finley was taken 57th overall (second round) by Tampa Bay, and Bear Hughes was taken in the fifth round (148th overall) by the Washington Capitals. Hughes, a Post Falls native, recently signed a contract with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ affiliate in the American Hockey League.
Intriguing, too, in this week’s NHL draft was the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round selection – sixth overall – of defenseman David Jiricek, who, if he plays in North American juniors next year, would do so with the Spokane Chiefs.
The Chiefs selected Jiricek in the Canadian Hockey League’s 2020 import draft at 54th overall. After last week’s import draft, the Chiefs specifically left space for Jiricek to be one of their two import players next season. Jiricek, who as a 2003-born player would be considered 19 for the 2022-23 season, played the past two seasons in his home country, the Czech Republic, for HZ Plzen and also played in various international competitions.
Depending on the Blue Jackets’ wishes, Jiricek could play in the AHL, the WHL, the NHL or in Europe next season.
“Hopefully, we’ll get (Jiricek) over here soon,” Beaupit said. “When you get a player who’s a top-10 selection in the NHL draft, he’s a difference-maker pretty much every game he’s in.”
Pat Falloon, taken second overall by the Sharks in 1991, is the highest NHL draft pick in Chiefs history. That year, San Jose selected three Chiefs players (Ray Whitney in the second round, Kerry Toporowski in the fourth). That trio won a Memorial Cup with Spokane in 1991.
The most recent Chiefs player taken in the first round is defenseman Ty Smith, whom the New Jersey Devils selected 17th overall in 2018. Smith has played 118 NHL games and in those has recorded 43 points, including seven goals.
Sward said he received a congratulatory text from Smith, with whom he played in the 2019-20 season, earlier on Friday. That season, Sward had 17 points in 55 games. But the next year, he played just 11 of the Chiefs’ 21 games, recording a single point.
During the 2021-22 season, in 57 games, Sward had 43 points, second on the team behind Hughes’ 67. Spokane reached the playoffs but was swept by the Kamloops Blazers 4-0 in the first round.
Sward said he recognized “everyone has their own journey” and that his was indelibly impacted by COVID. But he pointed out that his story highlights the value of hard work and taking advantage of opportunities laid out for him.
“I’m excited for the road ahead,” he said. “I can’t wait to get started.”
Beaupit and Sward will be 19-year-old players for the Chiefs next season, which Spokane begins on the road Sept. 23. The team’s first regular-season home game will come Oct. 1 against Kamloops.
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