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The last game day of the Western Hockey League regular season started early for Riley Heidt.

Around 8 a.m. on March 23, he headed into the Prince George Cougars rink, a second home over the past three years. In the locker room, he posed for photos to commemorate signing a three-year, $2,850,000 entry-level contract with the Minnesota Wild.

But he still had work to do for the British Columbia-based Cougars — and he still might. That night, two days shy of turning 19, Heidt bagged his first hat trick of the season in Prince George's 5-2 win over the Kamloops Blazers.

"That was a night I'll never forget," Heidt said. "It shows all the hard work, and that's the first step for me."

That "first step" is toward Heidt's goal of making his NHL debut for the Wild. His contract with Minnesota shows the Wild are hoping the 5-11, 183-pound center will one day put up NHL numbers like he has in the WHL.

"A lot of guys get the puck and go into the offensive zone and they actually have to slow down to make a play. Riley does not have to do that," Wild director of player development Brad Bombardir said. "He sees the ice really well while continuing to play at high speed."

The No. 64 pick in the 2023 draft was third overall in points this WHL season (117), scoring 37 goals and recording 80 assists in 66 games, up from 97 points the season before.

"He comes to camp and we always tell all these guys, don't let us send you home," Bombardir said, noting Heidt's competitiveness — the "chip on his shoulder," especially after not being named to Canada's World Juniors roster last winter — could translate to the next level.

Because he is not yet 20, Heidt has two options for next season: make the Wild roster, or return to the WHL. Minnesota cannot activate him and send him to the AHL affiliate in Iowa until he ages out of juniors next season.

The Saskatoon, Sask. native comes from a hockey family that would play on a rink built by his dad in their backyard, competing with his older brother and sister, who both played in college. Prince George picked Heidt second in the 2020 WHL draft. When he became the Cougars' all-time points leader in February, the team surprised him in the locker room with a tribute video featuring his family and friends.

After skating at the Wild's development and training camps last year, Heidt got a better sense of what it would take to make the leap from WHL to the pros — "a completely different ballgame," he called it. This season, he wanted to complement his offensive numbers with defensive improvements and took pride in being on the ice for the Cougars' penalty kill.

"I like to bring speed with my hands and trying to create plays," Heidt said. "I love setting up my teammates and I believe I'm a really good shot as well. But I think my thinking process is probably my biggest strength."

If Heidt does head back to the WHL, it might be something the Cougars are excited for, but their opponents? Less so.

"The numbers he put up is crazy," said Ryder Ritchie, the Wild's 2024 second-round pick who played against Heidt in the WHL. "So skilled, so offensively gifted, so smart, so definitely someone who you want to play with."