Kalder Varga: Falling To The Rockets A Dream Come True

It’s not very often that a player and their family hopes to fall in a draft, but that was the case for Kalder Varga on Wednesday morning as the 2023 WHL U.S. Priority Draft took place.

Kalder, 15, is the son of former Tacoma Rockets player John Varga. The elder Varga spent four seasons with the club between 1991 and 1995.

For John, his son becoming a second-generation Rocket didn’t seem like a possibility until recently.

Players eligible to be drafted in both the WHL’s U.S. Priority and Prospects Drafts must reside in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, or Wyoming.

The Varga’s call Geneva, Illinois home, well outside of the Western Hockey League’s drafting zone.

“At first we didn’t know it was an option for Kalder to play in the WHL,” said John in a telephone call following the U.S. Priority Draft on Wednesday. “It all worked out with perfect timing truthfully, it was at the US National Championships where the conversation started. We heard from agents and scouts that because I had played in the league there was an option for my sons to be eligible for the WHL’s US Priority Draft.”

After completing the necessary paperwork, Kalder opted to be eligible for the WHL instead of the Ontario Hockey League.

On March 29th the order of selection for the WHL’s U.S. Priority Draft’s top six spots was determined through a lottery. All six WHL Clubs that did not qualify for the 2023 WHL Playoffs participated in the lottery, while the remainder of the picks were based on the standings from the 2022-23 Regular Season. Kelowna was set to pick seventh in the first round and twenty-sixth in the second round.

As the draft approached, the Varga family received interest from different WHL teams, but they had high hopes that Kalder would still be on the board when it was the Rockets turn to pick on May 10th.

Kalder went to fellow teammate, Shaeffer Gordon-Carroll’s house to follow the draft online—a resident of Utah, Gordon-Carroll was also eligible to be selected. Already anxious, the pair discovered that the WHL’s website encountered an error that left everyone unable to view the picks being made leaving them to wonder if they had even been picked.

“We were sitting on the couch waiting,” said Kalder. “There was an issue with the WHL’s website so we were anxious to see if we were drafted, I was hoping I didn’t get picked before seven. Out of nowhere my dad got a call, it was Bruce Hamilton from the Rockets telling us that they had picked me.

“I’m on top of the world right now, I’m in awe. You look through his (John’s) stats and hockey cards that are here at home, you dream of one day playing for a team like that. To get the chance to play in the same league and be drafted by the exact same team is an honour, it’s really motivating to do well and get to the next level.”

Gordon-Carroll was selected two picks later, ninth overall by the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Kalder becomes the second former Tacoma Rockets son to be drafted by Kelowna. Current Rocket Turner McMillen, the son of former Tacoma captain Dave McMillen, was drafted by Kelowna in the 2018 Prospects Draft.

For John, who also grew up in Illinois, the process of becoming a Rocket in 1991 was much different and didn’t involve a draft. He said that his son having the chance to follow in his footsteps and play for the Hamilton family and the Rockets organization is a dream come true.

“We’re ecstatic for Kalder to have the opportunity to be drafted by the Rockets, for me it’s a teary-eyed moment right now,” said John. “This is a phenomenal situation to be in as a parent, I cherished every moment I had playing for the Rockets.

“Back then there wasn’t a draft, as Americans we could ultimately declare what league we wanted to play in as free agents. For me, I had other options but Tacoma was definitely the place that I wanted to play. The mentoring that I got from the coaching staff, Bruce and Gavin was very important for my hockey career and as a young adult.”

He appeared in 254 WHL regular season games, all with the Rockets, recording 333 points (154G, 179A) and 387 PIM. He set the franchise record for goals in a season with 60 during the 1993-1994 season.

Drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1992, he went on to play six seasons of professional hockey spending time in the ECHL, AHL, UHL and in Scotland. After retiring, John returned to Illinois. Most recently, he’s been involved in the cheerleading industry with his wife, while continuing to coach hockey with both the Chicago Mission and Fury programs.

Just like his dad, Kalder is a forward. Last season he began to catch the eye of scouts after posting a 91-point (30G, 61A) season with the Windy City Storm’s 13U AAA team.

The 5’10″, 159-pound forward made the jump to playing with the Chicago Mission’s 14U AAA team this season, recording 21 points (11G, 10A) and 15 penalty minutes through 15 games this season. He added another four points (3G, 1A) and three penalty minutes over five playoff games.

We asked Kalder to compare himself to an NHL player and what he thinks he needs to work on to make it to the next level.

“I’m no Mitch Marner, but I try to revolve my game after him,” said Kalder. “I look at Marner’s playmaking ability and how he sees the ice, it kind of compares to me. I’m definitely a playmaker, offensive and fast.

“I need to work on my strength, harassing guys off of the puck. When I get the puck in the offensive zone, I’m looking for guys to pass to and set them up. Sometimes I need to shoot a little more often, so I need to get into the shooter’s mindset a little more.”

Born in 2008, Kalder won’t be eligible to join the Rockets lineup full-time until the 2024-25 season. His dad is well aware of what it takes to make a Western Hockey League roster, he said that this upcoming next season will be all about Kalder taking the next steps as a player to compete for a roster spot down the line.

“I think he’s a playmaker at heart,” said John. “He enjoys setting his teammates up for scoring goals rather than scoring them himself. We’re trying to make him the most complete player possible for the staff there in Kelowna for him to be ready for when that time comes.”

Both John and Kalder are excited to make their first trip to Kelowna in late August, where he’ll skate in his first rookie camp and participate in the Rockets main camp.

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