Meet the teen hockey phenom who went from a backyard Yukon rink to the top WHL draft pick

Earlier this spring, Gavin McKenna, 14, became the first overall draft pick in the Western Hockey League. The Whitehorse teen who honed his skills shooting pucks in -30 C Yukon weather will play his first WHL game for the Medicine Hat Tigers this fall.

Gavin McKenna, 14, was chosen 1st overall in the Western Hockey League draft this spring

A teenage boy dressed in hockey gear holds a hockey stick and helmet on the ice.
Gavin McKenna, 14, takes part in a CAA training camp in Detroit in June. The Whitehorse resident was the first overall draft pick in the Western Hockey League earlier this spring and will begin his WHL career this fall. (Ken Amlin)

Last hockey season was a good one for Gavin McKenna in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League's U18 division.

He was their top scorer with 65 points in 35 games. 

McKenna's outstanding performance led to him becoming the first overall draft pick by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the upcoming Western Hockey League (WHL) season.

"I kind of knew that I was bound to accomplish something," McKenna said from his Whitehorse home. "But, yeah, it came quick. So, uh, it was a bit surprising."

That's because McKenna is just 14 years old. 

According to the CSSHL, he's just the third player to be granted exceptional player status by B.C. Hockey and Hockey Alberta, behind the WHL's Connor Bedard and Matthew Savoie, who is a top prospect in the 2022 NHL draft taking place Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. 

The status gives players the rare privilege of entering the WHL at such an early age. 

'Really exceptional'

Willie Desjardins, the head coach and general manager of the Medicine Hat Tigers, likes how McKenna plays, and he especially likes how McKenna leads in scoring.

"I want to win championships," said Desjardins. 

He's hoping McKenna, who turns 15 in December, can help do that, even though WHL rules say he can only play five games this season because of his age. 

The 2021-2022 season saw the Tigers come in last in the WHL's eastern conference with only 11 wins and 53 losses.

"So we made some moves and that's the only reason we got Gavin. We traded away other players. We got other picks in the first round."

Desjardins says he can see McKenna's confidence on the ice and wants to set him up to succeed. 

"I look forward to having a guy that is excited when the game's on the line, and a guy who wants the puck like he's not afraid to have the puck. He wants the puck. He wants to be out there. Those things excite me about a player."

A former NHL coach and coach of the 2018 Canadian Olympic Men's Hockey team, Desjardins admits it's not very often he sees a player like McKenna.

"His vision is really exceptional." 

He says it's rare that a 14 year old is chosen as the first overall pick.

WATCH | Medicine Hat coach Willie Desjardins on Gavin McKenna: 

Gavin McKenna an 'exceptional' player, says Medicine Hat Tigers coach

9 months ago
Duration 0:50
Medicine Hat Tigers head coach and GM Willie Desjardins says it's Gavin McKenna's incredible vision on the ice that made the 14-year-old the top Western Hockey League draft pick this year.

"He's got lots of growth, lots of things to do. He's got lots of things to overcome," said Desjardins. 

"It's a process. So where he ends up remains to be seen a little bit. But he's certainly well on his way."

The love of the game

McKenna's parents, Willy and Krystal, both played hockey so it was easy to pass along the love of the game to their only son, who got hooked at a very young age. 

Krystal remembers those years very well, including early ice times almost every day. Not just on the ice, but off the ice as well — specifically, in the basement of their old house in Whitehorse, which was unfurnished.

"We just kind of left it open for him. And the walls got pretty damaged from him shooting balls and pucks and stuff at the nets."

Willy also constructed outdoor rinks in their backyard every winter and McKenna was there, even in -30 C weather. 

A smiling young boy holding a hockey stick leans over the boards of a backyard ice rink.
McKenna, 11, hangs out on the backyard hockey rink his dad, Willy, built him in Whitehorse. He says shooting 100 plus pucks a day on that rink all year was one of the things that helped him get to the WHL. (Submitted by Willy McKenna)

"My dad obviously put lots of hours into building it. So I would have to repay him by spending hours on the ice, too," McKenna said with a smile. 

He also says shooting more than 100 pucks a day in that backyard all year was what helped him get to where he's at. 

The family says the people of Whitehorse and the business community help them fundraise so they can travel at least a dozen times a year to go to hockey camps and tournaments. 

Krystal says they couldn't have done it without that support, whether people were buying raffle tickets or Christmas trees. 

"Anything that we were selling, they were buying … whether they wanted it or not. If we were collecting pop cans for recycling, the neighbors were definitely there."

A young boy wearing a toque stands outside holding a hockey stick and pulling a large hockey equipment bag.
A young Gavin McKenna holds up his stick and equipment bag. Gavin's dad says his son began travelling for hockey camps and tournaments when he was about eight. (Submitted by Willy McKenna)

Making sacrifices

McKenna started travelling for hockey camps and tournaments when he was about eight. Since then, he's gone as far away as Italy and Nashville for training, and most recently Detroit. 

"We didn't really have a choice," Krystal said of the decision to let their son travel for hockey. "He didn't really have a lot of competition here. So we knew that he needed to be challenged."

Willy says he's proud of how far his son has come.

A smiling family of five poses for a portrait.
The McKenna family poses for a portrait earlier this year. Back row from left is dad Willy, sister Madison and mom Krystal, with Gavin, front left, and sister Kasey. (Joe Mason)

"He has to work harder than a lot of teens. But at the same time, he's meeting so many different people. He's making so many different friends."

Last season, McKenna attended the RINK Hockey Academy in Kelowna, B.C., where he got daily ice and gym time — and got scouted by the WHL.

"There's lots of pressure coming from being a first overall pick," he admitted. "Just playing with older guys, a lot more skilled guys, quicker guys, stronger guys. I'm nervous, but I'm also excited to have this opportunity."

McKenna, who knows it's not an opportunity most 14-year-olds get, is spending his summer at home in Whitehorse training for his WHL debut — the Tigers' season opener against the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Sept. 24. 


Juanita Taylor is Senior Reporter for The National in the North. Juanita joined CBC North in 2008 and comes from Rankin Inlet and Arviat in Nunavut.