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Center Weiermair, D-man Zaccari 'play our style,' Portland coach Johnston says

The Portland Winterhawks selected a pair of Southern California natives in the Western Hockey League U.S. prospects draft on Wednesday.

Portland took center Alex Weiermair with the 16th pick in the first round and left defenseman Jason Zaccari with its second-round pick, No. 29 overall.

The first-time draft is in addition to the WHL's annual bantam draft on April 22. Players eligible to be drafted Wednesday were born in 2005 and will be eligible to play in the WHL starting in the 2021-22 season.

A Los Angeles native, Weiermair is listed at 5-11 and 168 pounds. He played this bantam season in Toronto. 

A Santa Ana, California native, Zaccari is listed at 5-9 and 145 pounds. He played this season with the Anaheim Junior Ducks 14U squad.

Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston said both players were near the top of Portland's list entering the draft. Eric Doyle, the Winterhawks' head scout for the United States, did most of the preparation for Wednesday's draft.

"We're really excited to get these guys. Both are talented. They play our style, and both are good kids," Johnston said.

This first-time draft allowed teams to select 2005-born players from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Johnston called the U.S. draft a good development that will help the WHL improve its footprint in the United States. He noted that the 44 players selected are more than the typical 22 to 28 Americans who get selected during the WHL's annual draft of 14-year-old players.

The players selected in this draft will have options, including college hockey, so the draft is only the first step in a recruiting process that will take place over the coming months.

The bantam draft of 2005-born players is for players from the same states as Wednesday's U.S. draft along with players from the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Yukon.

• For the first time, a 15-year-old player from western Canada will be eligible to play full-time in the WHL during the 2020-21 season. BC Hockey this week announced that Connor Bedard, a 14-year-old forward from North Vancouver, British Columbia, has been granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada.

Bedard, like all 2005-born players, is eligible for the April 22 WHL bantam draft. If he makes a WHL roster next season, Bedard will be the first 15-year-old to play in the league full-time.

Johnston called Bedard an elite talent, but added, "It will be challenging to play in our league as a 15-year-old."

Bedard is only the seventh player to be granted exceptional player status in Canada. Three of the previous six wound up as the first pick in the NHL draft.

Five players granted exceptional status in the Ontario Hockey League: John Tavares (2005), Aaron Ekblad (2011), Connor McDavid (2012), Sean Day (2013) and Shane Wright (2019).  Joe Veleno (2015) is the only Quebec Major Junior Hockey League player to be granted exceptional status.

Tavares was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL draft by the New York Islanders and now plays for Toronto. Ekblad was the first pick in the 2014 NHL draft by Florida. McDavid was the first pick in the 2015 NHL draft by Edmonton. A defenseman, Day was the 81st pick in the 2016 NHL draft by the New York Rangers and played this season in the Rangers' minor-league system.

Veleno was the 30th pick in the 2018 NHL draft by Detroit and played this season with the Red Wings' AHL team.

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