Behind Wild prospect Riley Heidt’s rise, and what comes next: ‘I don’t believe there’s anything that will stop him’

Riley Heidt didn’t think anything of it when he was told after dinner one night earlier this month that his junior team, Prince George, wanted him to come to the locker room and sign autographs.

But when the 19-year-old touted Minnesota Wild prospect walked into the dimly lit room, with players’ pads and sweaters hung up neatly in their stalls, a surprise was waiting. Heidt had recently become the WHL Cougars’ all-time leading scorer, and the staff had put together a tribute video of sorts.

“I had no idea,” Heidt says. “It was pretty awesome.”

There was his older brother, Tyler, and sister Miranda, as well as his best friend, Brayden, and billet brother, Ethan. Even his Grandpa Myles and Grandma Jean.

“I can’t believe how far you’ve come,” Tyler said.

“This is just the beginning,” Miranda said.

Heidt’s eyes started to get glassy when his parents, LeeAnn and Trent, popped on the screen from his childhood home in Saskatoon. LeAnn thanked her son for bringing “pure joy” to their lives.

“Never give up on your dream,” Trent said. “Keep going.”

One big part of Heidt’s dream would come true a few weeks later, with the Wild signing the talented two-way center to his entry-level deal on Saturday.

That night, Heidt, a 5-foot-11, 182-pound playmaker, capped the milestone moment by scoring a hat trick.

Riley Heidt celebrates a goal. (James Doyle / Courtesy of the Prince George Cougars)

Heidt still has his eyes set on the playoffs while playing for one of the WHL’s best teams, but the Wild are planning on giving him every chance to make the NHL club out of camp this fall.

His Cougars coaches believe he’s ready. So do the Wild, who have lauded not only Heidt’s skill — racking up 117 points in 66 games this season — but also his pro-level competitiveness.

“He’s 100 percent constantly looking ahead there,” Trent says. “He wants to do everything he can to literally send a solid message that he’s as close to being ready as he can be. I think you’ll see it with him. He’s committed to helping that Wild team win — be a great player for them. He’s so motivated to do that that I don’t believe there’s anything that will stop him. Honestly, I’m very confident about that.”

Riley had no shortage of competition growing up — even in his own house.

His brother, Tyler, 25, played at Merrimack College and the University of Regina and now plays for Reading of the ECHL. His sister, Miranda, 22, played hockey at the University of Saskatchewan. His father played through junior. Mom represented Canada on the world ringette stage.

“I was kind of born into it,” Riley says.

The kids’ battles were in the backyard rink their father built. The three would do edge work, stick handling drills, everything.

“We always skated a lot before school,” Tyler says. “Up at 5 in the morning. My dad would take us to the rink. I remember a lot of times, I didn’t want to get out of bed. My dad would be at my door knocking and trying to wake me up. I wouldn’t want to go. Riley, he’d be mad if my dad didn’t wake him up 15 minutes early.”

“I never had to push him to do anything,” Trent says. “There was no off switch. You couldn’t burn him out.”

And even though he was a big brother, Tyler didn’t push Riley around — in anything.

“I’d try to beat him,” Tyler says. “It’s something I do have to admit. I’d never admit it to him, but whether it’s catching fish, which we do a lot in the summer, he’s always got the biggest fish. It’s funny how that works. I can’t ever find a way to get on top of him in any competition.”

Trent remembers taking Riley to play with an older group when he was around 6. It was a fairly organized game.

“I had a bunch of guys saying, ‘This kid’s gonna get hurt. He’s too small,’” Trent says. “But he was passing the pucks to adults, making plays. I had a guy who played some good junior hockey come up to me and say, ‘Man, when you see a kid identifying a play at that age already and able to make plays when you’re that young and have the puck all the time, that’s special.

“He was right at the novice level, and you’d think he’s light years ahead. I’d take him to a junior game, and he’d be watching and not talking. Some kids there are running around and playing. He’d watch and study the game.”

Heidt, a second-rounder in 2023 for the Wild, says he’s learned a lot from watching clips of current NHL players. Sidney Crosby is one of his favorites, for his two-way game and leadership. He also watches Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov once told The Athletic he keeps a “library” of skills observed in others, and Heidt has a similar approach.

“When I’m watching a game, I always try to watch the best players, and they’re all good at different things,” Heidt says. “I was trying to take a little from every one of them.”

Mark Lamb did a lot of work leading up to the Bantam draft in 2020, when Prince George had the No. 2 pick.

By the end of it, Lamb and the rest of the team’s staff were unanimous.

“We were gonna pick Heidt,” says the Cougars’ general manager and head coach, a former NHL forward and assistant coach with the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers.

In three full seasons, Heidt has continued to raise his game, jumping from 58 points to 97 points to 117. And he’s made strides in his defensive game, too, at a plus-34 this season. The staff asked if Heidt would join their penalty kill unit in the past year and he jumped at it, becoming one of their best.

“He’s really dived into that area of the game and he’s taken a lot of pride in it,” Lamb says. “A lot of these high-end kids come out here — they put up so many points, but it’s the way they live and go about their business. The way they get to the next level is learning how to play away from the puck. And he’s putting in a lot of work there.

“He’s got all the tendencies to be a pro. He’s got all the talent he can. He can do it all. Now it’s just the process. It’s just taking the time to finetune all the things he can do in junior to make him an NHL player. He’s not that far away.”

Lamb talks about Heidt’s skill — how he’s a dynamic passer and playmaker. And how he’s more of a threat as a shooter than other pass-first guys. Lamb has heard Patrick Kane comparisons, and he gets them to an extent. There are players who have been among the top scorers in the WHL or other junior leagues and not stuck in the NHL, though. Adam Beckman, another Wild prospect, is still finding his way, for example.

Why does he think Heidt will be different?

“Because he can do it over and over again,” Lamb says. “He led our team in scoring as a 16-year-old, too. He’s not just doing it this year. He’s older and smarter and more mature, and our team is better now. You’ve seen all these glimpses of what he can do in past years. It’s not a surprise where he is right now.”

Heidt says part of what sparked this career-best season was his time at Wild development camp.

He got a taste of the next level working with other top prospects, like Hunter Haight. The exit meetings with the team’s brass were encouraging. He could see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it showed in his progress from development camp to the fall prospect showcase/main camp.

“You could see his skill set,” says former Wild assistant and current AHL Iowa coach Brett McLean. “What blew me away at the prospect tournament and main camp was his competitiveness. It wouldn’t surprise me if he came in next year and pushed for something. The skills are there. The competitiveness is there. Whether the strength is there, who knows? I don’t know how much more he can do in junior — two points per game?

“He was very impressive because he had a pro-level compete to add to the skill set. That’s special.”

Matt Hendricks, the former NHLer and now Wild assistant to director of player development, has seen Heidt play live many times over the past year. He was impressed with Heidt’s attention to detail defensively, which is so important as a center. How do you attack the offensive zone? How do you defend yours?

Hendricks says Heidt has been “hungry for knowledge” from the team’s staff, wanting their opinions on how to improve. He’s going to the net front more. He was open to taking on penalty-kill responsibility, wore a letter and led by example.

unnamed 3 scaled

Riley Heidt has improved offensively and defensively. (James Doyle / Courtesy of the Prince George Cougars)

“He’s extremely talented offensively,” Hendricks says. “He’s got a high compete level and plays with that chip on his shoulder. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s hard on pucks, hard in corners. He comes out of the battles with pucks more often than not. He just creates. The big thing in what I learned, whether it’s college or junior — there are a lot of players that can create. What sticks out to me is he creates offensively but has a lot of pace in his game. He’s not slowing down to make things happen. He plays fast hockey.”

The Heidt signing came together pretty quickly late last week. Trent sent out a group text to the family Saturday morning saying Riley planned to sign at 10 a.m.. Tyler could sense that his brother played a little more relaxed that night in racking up a hat trick, but he texted Riley the next morning to ask about the celebrations of his goals. On the first one, Riley told Tyler he was taking a bow. On the third? It looked like Riley was cupping his hand around his ear so he could hear the crowd roar.

“I think he was actually pointing to his head,” Tyler says. “Telling guys to take their hats off.

“He always comes up with something.”

Heidt says his goal is to make the Wild out of camp, but there’s a long way to go. He hopes there’s a Memorial Cup run before that, too.

“He’s writing his story for us,” Hendricks says.

(Top photos: Luke Schmidt / courtesy of the Minnesota Wild, and courtesy of the Heidt family)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top