Regina, Sask. — Regina Pats winger Borya Valis is confident in many things.
He’s confident that the Western Hockey League was the right choice for him. He’s confident that his NHL idol as a kid, Alex Ovechkin, will break Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record for most NHL regular season goals.
But most importantly, he’s confident that he’ll be a different, more motivated player this upcoming season.
“I can’t wait for this season to start because a different Borya is coming,” the 18-year-old said over the phone from his hometown of Denver, Colorado. “I’ve learned from last year and I’m going to do everything possible for the team to win.
“I’m going to give my 110% every day and show up no matter what: tired, not tired — just 110% every single day.”
An un-drafted player, Valis was signed by the Pats in January of 2021, a season in which he scored 51 goals in 60 games for the Colorado Thunderbirds 16U AAA team. That team was coached by former NHLers David Clarkson and Ken Klee.
Pats U.S. scout Rhett Gordon submitted the first report on Valis the season prior, which was followed up with viewings from Director of Scouting Dale McMullin. After McMullin met with Borya’s father to gauge interest, the Pats listed him in February of 2020.
“The body type that he had — the longer frame…appealed to us [and] it looked like he was still going to grow,” McMullin recalled. “He had a real good feel with the puck in tight areas. An ability to make plays in tight areas as well.
“He showed enough attributes that if he did his part, that he’d have a chance.”
Making the jump from 16U AAA in the U.S. to major junior is never easy, but it’s clear after Valis’ rookie season that he has earned that chance.
Yes, there were ups and downs for Valis in his rookie season with the Pats, but he finished with a very respectable 25 points in 57 games. Like most young players, consistency was difficult to maintain.
Valis scored his first WHL goal in just his third game, but then went nine games before scoring his next one. From November 6 to December 18, 2021, the 6-foot-1, 180 lb. winger caught fire with 16 points in 16 games. In the back half of the season, Valis recorded just eight points in his final 33 games.
“He had to adjust, not only to the speed, and that sort of change, but a little more systems, a little harder [and] people getting in your way to where you want to go,” Pats Head Coach and General Manager John Paddock said. “You’ve got to find a way: either be faster or quicker, or some you can bowl over, some you can’t bowl over. If you can bowl over some, you’ve got to be willing to do that, or you’ve got to be willing to compete to get to the front of the net. So he had those adjustments.”
At Valis’ year-end exit interview, the message from the coaching staff was positive, but also provided motivation for something to build on.
“It was like, ‘Now you’ve got your feet wet, now you know what it’s like, now you know you can do it.’ But there’s knowing you can do it and doing it,” Paddock recalled of that conversation. “If you want to have a chance at having a career, you’ve got to dig in even more…We’re anticipating and believing that Borya is going to take a good step in developing and rounding out his game.
“I do believe he’s a top-9 forward all day on our team and in the league. I don’t go by top-6s. I plan on having a top-9 and those guys all have a responsibility to score, but also not be easy to play against and not be a minus player.”
Taking that next step requires work that has already begun this off-season.
“I’ve been working out every day, sometimes two times a day and skating every day. I’ve gained almost 10 pounds now,” Valis said. “Every day is just pushing myself to the limit…I’ve been eating more protein and carbs and it’s actually helped a lot.”
In addition to his focus on adding size and strength, Valis had another takeaway from his exit interview.
“Next year all the younger kids are coming, so we have to be leaders for the younger kids,” he said. “I’m going to become more of a leader on the team and help guys out and not be the rookie that sits quiet in the corner.”
Valis can’t wait to get back to Regina and get the season started, but it’s also been an interesting time to be in Denver, with the Colorado Avalanche winning their first Stanley Cup in 21 years last month. While the Avs aren’t his team — it’s always been Ovie and the Caps — he’s felt the buzz in the city.
“It’s crazy. Everyone is wearing Avalanche stuff. Hockey [really] expanded here,” Valis said. “Now everything is about hockey.”
Everything being about hockey is just fine for Valis, who still gets goosebumps watching the Stanley Cup Final and seeing the winning team lift the cup, no mater who it is.
While Ovechkin and his Caps were far from reaching that team goal this season, Valis stands by his prediction that the Great Eight will complete an impressive personal goal — passing the Great One in all-time goals. Ovechkin (780 career goals) is currently 114 goals behind Gretzky’s 894, but the 36-year-old is also coming off yet another 50-goal season, the ninth of his career.
“Just [his] will to go all the way…he’s going to [pass him],” Valis said. “He’s been working on it for so long. He won’t stop playing until he does it.”