St. Albert's Mathieu Gautier and Ronin Pusch are heading to the pros after the pair were both drafted by the National Lacrosse League's (NLL) Panther City Lacrosse Club in the entry draft on Sept. 10.
Gautier, 19, and Pusch, 20, have played lacrosse together since the U8 level, and have competed together for the St. Albert Rams; Team Alberta; the St. Albert Miners; and were also hockey teammates as recently as the 2019-2020 season when they played for the U18 AAA Raiders. Gautier served as the team's captain that season.
Panther City, based in Fort Worth, Texas, selected Gautier in the first round with the 9th overall pick in the draft, and drafted Pusch in the second round with the 30th overall pick.
"You play a sport for a long time and being able to get drafted into the professional league is always a great moment,” Gautier said.
“It’s obviously really exciting and it’s [been] one of my dreams growing up. I’ve always wanted to play at the highest level and [with] this opportunity, I get to," said Pusch.
Both lacrosse players saw their pre-draft scouting stock skyrocket over the summer after they helped the Jr. A Miners compete in the Minto Cup — a 121-year-old Canadian national lacrosse tournament. This year's Miners squad was the first team from Alberta to ever play in the tournament final, which they lost in heart-breaking fashion to the Whitby Warriors on Aug. 29 in Ontario.
“Before the draft I don’t think my name was [common] with the scouts or the papers or anything ... the Minto [Cup] definitely helped me out and everyone was telling me I was going to be in the first round," Gautier said. "[It's] still shocking when you hear your name come that early.”
The Miners earned a spot to play in the Minto Cup by winning the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League (RMLL) provincial championship series against the Calgary Mountaineers in mid-August.
In just seven Minto Cup games, Gautier, a forward, produced nine goals and 23 assists. Pusch, a transition player, registered one goal and added three assists.
During the RMLL playoffs Gautier exploded for 22 goals and 35 assists in just nine games. Gautier also had 24 goals and 29 assists in his 14 RMLL regular season games this year.
In 15 regular season games, Pusch had seven goals and nine assists, and produced four goals and four assists through nine playoff games.
Pusch said he was a bit surprised to be drafted as high as he did.
“I was kind of expecting to go a little later, I wasn’t expecting to go that early," he said. "I’m just so grateful I got to go that early.”
Gautier and Pusch will be taking their talent to an almost brand new organization in Panther City — announced as an NLL expansion team in 2020. In the team's first season, 2021-2022, Panther City had a 7-11 record, which was three wins out of a playoff spot.
“I’ve been following them for a bit and looking at them through their social media and whatnot, and they look like they’re a good young team [that has] some depth," Pusch said of his new club.
“I’m a really defensive, lockdown guy who’s great in transition … and if I can bring that to that team, it can be a huge contribution to them."
Gautier said the opportunity to help an organization like Panther City find an identity is exciting.
“They’re still a young team and they’re still just looking to identify their game throughout the league," he said. "It’s an awesome opportunity for me.”
“[I’ll] bring my goal scoring capability and that grit and physical play that I’ve been playing my whole lacrosse career."
Getting drafted to the NLL does present the pair with a new challenge, however, as it may signal Gautier and Pusch will be stepping away from hockey.
Gautier spent last year with the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. In 46 games — his first full season with the team — Gautier had six goals and 16 assists.
Although he said he wasn't "100 per cent" confident that he'll be stepping away from hockey for good, Gautier said "in the future, I definitely will lean more towards lacrosse and pursue that."
For Pusch, who played full time for the Revelstoke Grizzlies of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League in B.C. last year, stepping away from hockey was a difficult decision.
“I had a hard conversation with my coach … I told him what was up, and he was pretty proud of me for getting drafted and all that," Pusch said. "When I told him that I would be leaving [Revelstoke] soon to Panther City, he congratulated me, and told me to do my best.
"I grew up playing both of them and … it is kind of hard to be pushing it away, but a great opportunity in lacrosse.”
The lifelong friends and teammates will hope to crack the Panther City roster for the upcoming season. An official start date for the season has not yet been announced by the NLL.