Saginaw, Mich.- What a year it’s been for the Yager family.

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, Moose Jaw Warriors alternate captain Brayden Yager was brushing off the sting of a second-round playoff exit and looking ahead to the 2023 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville, Tenn.

Since then, he’s been selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the 14th overall pick, attended his first NHL camp, competed for Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship, clinched a WHL Championship and has continued to fill the net for the Warriors at the 2024 Memorial Cup.

It’s been such a whirlwind, it hasn’t even begun to sink in for his parents, Cam and Maureen.

“It didn’t really slap us in the face until it’s like, okay, we’re going to Saginaw,” Cam said. “It’s like, holy smokes, we’ve been to Sweden, we’ve been to Portland… All things that you wanted to be a part of and things that you wanted him to achieve and accomplish- all in the same year.”

It’s the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifices their family made to give Brayden the tools to chase his dream.

While the 19-year-old has developed into one of the jewels of the Penguins’ prospect pool, you can still see shades of the youngster from Prince Albert, Sask., who grew up re-enacting Jordan Eberle’s famed last-second goal at the 2009 World Juniors and hanging over the railings at the Art Hauser Centre in hopes of getting a fist bump from his favourite Raiders players like Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey.

Courtesy Yager familyCourtesy Yager family

“When you see his smile, that just reminds me of that young boy that was just out having a blast playing hockey,” Maureen added.

Having a blast- but taking it extremely seriously as a precocious kid whose first big dream was to represent Saskatchewan at the prestigious Brick Invitational tournament in Edmonton, Alta.

Cam, a former goaltender who spent a season with the Detroit Falcons of the Colonial Hockey League, remembers Brayden cutting out sweets, taking up cross-country running, and urging his dad and older brother, Connor, to help him out with drills and skills at home.

And he was getting pretty good.

“At one point, I pulled my goalie equipment out and he was shooting on me in there with steel-toed boots,” Cam recalled. “I didn’t want to get my toes broken! And then he made that team, and I think that was really pivotal for him because he set a goal, and within a short timeframe, he achieved that goal. So now, it’s easier to buy into setting goals.”

The 2014-15 Brick Invitational featured several of Yager’s current teammates and opponents and 25 current NHL prospects and players, including 2024 NHL Rookie of the Year nominee Connor Bedard.

yager-brickCourtesy Yager family

But as he returned home to Prince Albert, which didn’t have ice available year-round at the time, the family decided to make the move to Saskatoon, where Brayden could work with people like skills coach Shane Endicott, a Seattle Thunderbirds alum who suited up for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 2000s.

Cam, Connor and Brayden hunkered down in the Bridge City and got to work, while Maureen, waiting on a job transfer, made the commute from Prince Albert as much as she could before moving to Saskatoon full-time about four years later.

“If the boys had something, a game going on, or something significant at school, I would commute back and forth midweek as well,” Maureen said. “It was definitely a little harder because you’re away from your family. But I knew they were in good hands, so it was good. It all worked out, but was probably a little bit of a tougher time for me- still got in on all the important things.”

The jump to the WHL saw numerous accolades for the 6-foot, 170-pound centreman, including WHL and CHL Rookie of the Year honours and back-to-back Most Sportsmanlike Player titles.

Yager’s parents are usually watching him the closest in handshake lines and take pride in what he’s done when he’s not wearing a Warriors jersey.

He’s spent several seasons volunteering with U7-U11 age groups with the Moose Jaw Minor Hockey Association.

“When Brayden was young growing up, he really looked up to the WHL players that he got to watch,” Maureen added. “He has always really appreciated the fact that they would give him time, whether it’s high five or they come out to hockey practice.

Now, with Brayden being in the WHL as well, he can kind of pay it back to some of the up-and-coming players that are in minor hockey right now. He really enjoys doing that part of it and being able to kind of give back to the community and give back to the kids that come to the games.”

He actually switched his number from 17 to 29 to match Draisaitl, one of the players who took the time to help Yager out as a kid.

Now, 29 is one of the most dangerous players to watch in Saginaw.

Yager is tied with his teammate Denton Mateychuk for the tournament lead with three goals in three games and sits second with six points.

He’s made history by scoring Moose Jaw’s first-ever goal at the Memorial Cup and netted a goal and two assists against Drummondville in the team’s first win at the event.

Yager and his teammates will hit the ice for a rematch against the host Saginaw Spirit on Friday, May 31 at the Dow Event Center with a berth in the Memorial Cup Final on the line.

His biggest fans will be cheering him on- Maureen, from the sea of Warriors family members and supporters, and Cam, from a quiet-ish corner of the rink (some goalie habits never die)- and have a simple message to share.

“How proud we are of him is unconditional,” Cam said. “At the start of the year, he would have set goals for himself. I’m sure that he is exactly where he wanted to be on this day.

Just live in the moment and enjoy it.”