Many players poised to move on as epic season winds down

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Brendan Leipsic fires a shot against Kelowna in the Western Hockey League Western Conference finals.Brendan Leipsic chatted with some young Portland Winterhawks teammates this week, and gave one clear message: Enjoy the Western Hockey League finals, once again against the Edmonton Oil Kings. It's not easy to reach the WHL finals — even though the Hawks will be making their fourth consecutive appearance. And, enjoy your time in the WHL, since it will eventually end — as it likely will for several Winterhawks, Leipsic included, after the season.

"I told the younger guys, 'It's going to be over sooner than you think,'" he says. "Don't take this for granted.

"Brad Ross told me the same thing, sitting in the locker room at age 17: 'Cherish these moments.' ... I've been fortunate to go to four finals. I've loved my time here in Portland."

Leipsic, fellow four-year Winterhawk Derrick Pouliot, Taylor Leier and Mathew Dumba will probably be playing pro hockey next year, and the Winterhawks will part with three overage players. Four years ... it seems like just yesterday that the 16-year-old Leipsic impressed his teammates with his fiery and tough style, despite not being the biggest forward on the ice. Leipsic teamed with Taylor Peters and Riley Boychuk often on the Hawks' third, checking line in 2010-11, the first season that a Mike Johnston-coached team made the WHL finals.

The 2011 finals didn't go well, as Portland won the first game and then got beat four times by Kootenay. But, it was memorable. Little did Leipsic — and Pouliot — know that it would be the start of such an epic roll.

"We were a young team. Me and Derrick were only 16," says Leipsic, a Nashville Predators' signee who was suspended by the league for Saturday's Game 1 after a spearing penalty against Kelowna. "Our top players were only 18 — Nino (Niederreiter) and (Ryan) Johansen — with (17-year-old Ty) Rattie playing a big part, too. We were happy to be there, but we wanted to win. Getting a learning experience like that can only make you better."

Pouliot, who has signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, remembers his rookie year well. He took regular shifts as a 16-year-old, highly touted defenseman. The WHL finals came after the Hawks beat Spokane for the Western Conference title, and "we didn't know what to expect; not many guys on our team did, really," he says. "It was a good experience. Tough to lose, but Kootenay just outplayed us. Obviously, you can learn from any series, especially that one. Maybe the team wasn't as focused as it should have been."

Pouliot says he was nervous going into the Kootenay series, as a regular D-man with the likes of Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon, Taylor Aronson and Joe Morrow; Brett Ponich sat out the series, injured. "Playing against 19- and 20-year-olds as a 16-year-old is a challenge, physically and mentally," he says. "I've had three years now to mature, you get used to the league. I'm a lot different player now."

It was a focused Portland team the next two seasons. The Hawks, with Johansen, Niederreiter, Rattie and other stars, forced a Game 7 with Edmonton in 2012, but the Oil Kings whipped them on Edmonton's ice.

Leipsic and Pouliot have the same memories: Portland's players were tired, Edmonton scored early and the Hawks just couldn't muster anything. The season ended with a thud.

"But it worked out the next year," Pouliot says. The Hawks dropped a devastating Game 5 at Portland, Leipsic notes. They wanted desperately to clinch the title on home ice, so WHL Commissioner Ron Robison would have to present the Ed Chynoweth championship trophy to them in front of upset Portland fans in the same season that Robinson suspended Johnston for improper player benefits.

But the Hawks ended the Oil Kings' season on the road. Later, the Hawks, led by Rattie and a more mature Pouliot and others, would make the Memorial Cup final, only to lose to Halifax.

Lots of games, lots of memories for Leipsic and Pouliot, the only full-time players who will play in their fourth consecutive WHL final (reserve defenseman Josh Hanson has been on the team for four years, as well, and Nic Petan saw some playoff action in 2011 as a 15-year-old player).

"Josh is a great guy, a great teammate," Pouliot says. "Maybe his ice time has not been what he has wanted (this year), but he's always positive in the room. A good leader on the team. A good team guy."

Leipsic says he bonded with Petan in 2011 — "I did know Nic a little bit (from training camp). We talked and kept in touch" — and the friendship has only gotten stronger as the two have lit up WHL foes the past couple of seasons.

"He's one of my best buddies on the team," Leipsic says, "and it's a big part of the reason we have so much success."

Leipsic and Pouliot talk proudly about how they have contributed to the Winterhawks' terrific four-year run, which has included a 16-4 record in Western Conference finals games and a chance at returning to the Memorial Cup. They both heap praise on Johnston, who has been the leader of the hockey side of the organization.

"He really knows his stuff," Pouliot says. "He's been around the game quite some time. He doesn't make too many mistakes."

Johnston and the Hawks staff have helped develop players really well, Leipsic adds. "I came here to get drafted and sign a (pro) contract, and that's the way it goes here," he says. "We've had 20 or so guys get drafted. It's been a factory here. It's a dream come true when it happens."

The Winterhawks have played the equivalent of a WHL season in playoff games since 2011 — 83 games, including five in the 2013 Memorial Cup.

"You wear down during the season, for sure," Pouliot says. "It's been four long years for us. But you do a lot more to recover at the end of the year, making sure you're well-rested and everything like that."

Edmonton will be playing in its third consecutive WHL finals. Not too shabby for coach Derek Laxdal and stars such as Curtis Lazar and Griffin Reinhart, but one short of the Hawks.

"They know how to win," Leipsic says. "Just like us."

Contract Publishing

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine