Ismail Abougouche: The Long Shot
Kelowna Rockets defenceman Ismail Abougouche can say he’s part of a very exclusive club, he’s the only Kelowna Rocket that’s ever been drafted in the 12th round of the WHL Prospects Draft to make the team.
Even more incredible is that at just 16, his first year of eligibility to play in the WHL full-time, Abougouche cracked the Rockets roster.
“I was told I was going to be here for five days, but it turns out I got invited to the main camp,” said Abougouche in an interview after practice this week. “The coaches kept telling me they wanted me here longer and longer, and now I’m on the team.”
Typically the WHL Draft takes place in May, but due to Covid-19, the Draft was pushed back to December 2021.
The Rockets made 10 picks in the draft, but they didn’t make a pick until the third round, having traded away their first and second-round picks to Edmonton and Seattle while gearing up for the 2020 Memorial Cup. Instead, Kelowna made more picks later in the draft rather than earlier.
Each WHL Club is allowed to place 50 players on its Protected Player List, when the Draft takes place teams must stay within that number. When you take a look at previous drafts that is why you’ll see clubs passing on picks while other teams are still selecting players.
With all of the other teams passing on their picks, the Rockets made the final two selections in the draft, drafting Abougouche 259th overall in the 12th round and forward Kayden Longley 13th overall in the 13th round.
A year ago, he never imagined this would be his life today. When the draft rolled around in December, he admitted that it was a long shot he didn’t think he would be selected.
“I played U16 last season and a lot of the other kids that were drafted were playing U18, so didn’t really have high expectations of being picked. But when I saw my name I just said to myself, ‘they must see something in me.'”
He put together a 23-point (7G, 16A) campaign with the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers U16 during the 2021-22 season, leaving him tied for fifth in team scoring and second among their defencemen.
Wanting to make a solid impression at his first Rockets camp, Abougouche said that he hit the ice four to five times a week over the summer, focusing on getting bigger and stronger.
When he was drafted by the Rockets in December, he was listed at 6’1, 165-pounds, but when he arrived for camp he was 6’2 and 188-pounds.
He was joined by fellow Rangers teammate Brendan McFatridge, who was taken by the Rockets in the ninth round of the same draft.
Abougouche said that knowing some of the players attending camp made his first camp a little less nerve-wracking.
“Seeing my captain (McFatridge) also drafted to the same team as me was really nice, knowing someone was here with me. I also had a few buddies that I’ve played with throughout my career that were also drafted here so it was nice seeing familiar faces.”
He admitted that when McFatridge was assigned to the Rangers U18 team it was hard to see his friend go, but that they still talk every day and he’s hopeful that his former teammate will make the Rockets lineup with him as a 17-year-old next season with him.
When friends turn to foes – Kelowna Rockets Rookie Camp Edition.
Rockets prospects and Fort Saskatchewan Rangers teammates Brendan McFatridge and Ismail Abougouche were busy battling it out today. pic.twitter.com/VMkP3DIYau
— Kelowna Rockets (@Kelowna_Rockets) September 1, 2022
When the Rockets made their preseason debut on the road against Kamloops on September 9th, the two remaining 16-year-olds on the roster were Abougouche and forward Logan Peskett. Both Standard Player Agreements and made their debut that night.
Eventually, Peskett and Abougouche replaced the cages on their helmets with visors towards the end of preseason, signalling that they both had made the Rockets lineup.
He said that it’s been good to have Peskett alongside him throughout the journey of being a 16-year-old rookie in the league while adjusting to being away from home.
Moving to Kelowna has provided plenty of changes, like having a crowd bigger than the size of his hometown attend his games. He’s a product of Lac La Biche, AB, a hamlet with a population of 3,120 that’s about 220 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
While playing for the Fort Saskatchewan program he still lived at home with his family instead of billeting, making the roughly four-hour drive nearly every day.
“Two hours to practice, two hours back from practice every single day. It’s a lot nicer to be down the street from the rink, not sleeping the whole way back and forth. I have more time to hang out with the team after school and practice.”
Asked about what he thinks the biggest change thus far has been, ‘Izzy’ as he’s known by his teammates said it’s the fact that it’s October 22nd and there’s no snow on the ground.
As for on the ice, it’s a learning year for the left-shot defenceman. He wants to keep growing as a player and get more comfortable.
He’s appeared in nine regular-season games, posting his first assist in Saturday’s game against the Winnipeg ICE.
“Obviously the speed at this level is a lot faster and a lot stronger than compared to 15 and 16-year-old kids. Just more of a man’s game compared to what I’m used to. I want to earn more ice time and keep proving to the coaches that I can be trusted on the ice.”