Hawks' Kieffer Bellows gets ready to leave nest
Practice is over. But on the ice at Winterhawks Skating Center, Kieffer Bellows and Skyler McKenzie are not done. They start slowly, sort of grappling with each other, doing the slow dance in which a pair of hockey fighters engage. Then they go down on the ice, the smaller McKenzie landing on top of his teammate.
Soon, they are back up on their skates, having pulled the practice jersey off of each other. Then the helmets, and then they're trading feathery punches, the type that might crack an egg but not a skull.
All the while, their teammates are skating around and off the ice, paying them not one whit of attention.
What were they doing?
"Just practicing," Bellows says. "Just in case."
Bellows has had one fight during a game this season — against Saskatoon on Dec. 3. How did he do?
"I'll go with a tie," he says.
Bellows isn't a fighter. He's a scorer and a hockey player, and a damn good one at that.
The 6-1, 195-pound left wing has scored 34 goals and totaled 61 points in 46 games in his first season with Portland. Bellows ranks second on the team behind McKenzie (41) and 22ndin the Western Hockey League in goals scored. Nobody among the top 53 has played fewer games.
The son of former NHL great Brian Bellows has missed 16 games — nine due to an upper body injury and seven while representing the U.S. in the 2018 World Junior Championships at Buffalo, New York, over the Christmas holidays.
Bellows, 19, scored nine goals while leading the Americans to the bronze medal, breaking the U.S. record of eight in the tournament set in 1989 by Jeremy Roenick.
"That was a big stage, and Kieffer had a great tournament," Winterhawks general manager/coach Mike Johnston says. "I was really impressed with how he played."
Bellows is in a rare group among Winterhawks — he already has his own Wikipedia page. Part of it is the tie to the legacy of his father, who played 17 years in the NHL, scoring 485 goals and 1,022 regular-season points. A three-time All-Star who won a Stanley Cup championship with Montreal in 1993, the senior Bellows also scored 51 goals and 122 points in 143 playoff games and holds the Minnesota North Stars' career goals record with 342 in 753 games.
But Kieffer, chosen in the first round (19th pick overall) by the New York Islanders in the 2016 NHL draft, has earned a reputation in his own right. As an 18-year-old last year, he was a member of the U.S. team that won gold in the World Junior Championships.
"It's something I'll never forget," Bellows says. "I have the gold medal and the jersey hung up in my room. It was such an unforgettable experience. I wish I could do it all over again."
Bellows did the World Juniors over again, and was among the best players in the tournament.
'The experience from the year before helped so much," Bellows says. "(In last year's tournament) I was a young kid trying to follow the older guys as much as I could and just play whatever role they needed me in. It helped me so much my second year having the experience of winning, and going through the ups and downs on the tournament, learning how much effort it takes and what a toll it takes on your body.
"It was the best experience of my career so far."
Johnston attended the World Junior Championships when Bellows was 18, watching ex-Hawk defenseman Caleb Jones in action. Johnston was also keeping an eye on Bellows, whom Portland had taken in the 2013 WHL draft.
"In the championship game, Kieffer looked comfortable and played well," Johnston says. "Other than that, he was not as impactful. He was looking forward to going back this year and playing a more primary role.
"And he did that, using all the experience and looking comfortable from Day One. He was the key guy for his team game in and game out, scoring big goals and playing great hockey."
But Bellows left Buffalo disappointed.
"It's an honor to break that record of Jeremy Roenick, who was such a fantastic player," he says. "But I feel like I failed because we didn't win the gold medal. It wasn't satisfactory, because we didn't win."
Johnston had shrewdly chosen Bellows in the seventh round of the '13 draft, when he was 15.
"He'd have been a first-round pick, but he indicated he intended to play college hockey," Johnston says.
After leading his high school team to the Minnesota state championship as a senior, Bellows played last season at Boston University, though he remained the property of the Hawks should he choose to ever play major junior hockey.
"I thought college was the right path (to the NHL)," he says.
But he had a change of heart after the season, and Johnston's recruiting efforts paid off.
"I just thought it would be best for my development to come play in the WHL, to play an NHL-like schedule of 72 games," Bellows says. "I'm taking a different route than most kids — going from college to the WHL — but it has helped me a lot."
Bellows grew up in Minneapolis, the middle of three children of Brian and Tracy Bellows. Kieffer has an older sister, Brianna, and a younger sister, Lydia.
Hockey, Kieffer says, "was pretty much my life growing up. I played other sports — football, golf, lacrosse, baseball, soccer — but hockey was something I fell in love with at a young age.
"I still love it to this day, and I know I'm going to love it until I have to stop playing,' he says. "Ever since I laced up the skates, my dad went out there with me and helped me develop my love for the game."
Brian Bellows was there, all along the way. So was Tracy Bellows.
"My dad was a huge influence on my hockey career, and still is," Kieffer says. "At a young age, he was there to go out on the ice with me on the pond and help me develop my skills. My mom was the one waking up early and bringing me to practice. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Brian Bellows had played major-junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League. He was on the Kitchener team that won the Memorial Cup in 1982. Ironically, the Hawks were one of the four teams in the tournament that year.
After being drafted, Kieffer took part in Portland's training camp in 2013.
"After that, it was follow-up and keep in touch with the family, in case there was a change of mind over the years that would put us in position to get him," Johnston says. "We always had a good relationship with Brian and Tracy."
Once in Portland, Bellows stepped right in and has teamed with McKenzie and Cody Glass to form one of the top lines in the WHL this season.
"I thought a bigger, stronger forward with Glass and McKenzie would work well, though you never know how it will fit," Johnston says. "But they had great chemistry from Day One."
"The off-ice chemistry contributes to the on-ice chemistry," Bellows says. "We get along great. We're three players who love to play the game and work hard and try to go out there and play our best every night."
Bellows' size helps while playing with the 5-9, 165-pound McKenzie and the 6-2, 175-pound Glass.
"It's about me focusing on separating guys from the puck, and using the grit that I have to get to the dirty areas," Bellows says.
Bellows is not one of Portland's captains — that honor goes to returning players.
"But he's the type of guy who leads by example," Johnston says. "He leads with his play and with how hard he works."
"My role is to go out there and be a shooter and the player that I am," Bellows says.
Bellows is a big deal with the Hawks and in the WHL, but he doesn't act like it.
"He came to us having played the World Juniors, a first-round pick, a college guy," Johnston says. "But he has been respectful and nice to all of his teammates. He works hard every day in practice. I really liked his attitude. He is very mature guy. I can't say enough about how he has come into our program and interacted with his teammates."
Bellows says he has enjoyed playing for Johnston, head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins for a year and a half before returning to Portland last year.
"Mike teaches kids how to become NHLers in the future, on and off the ice," Bellows says. "He has helped me bring my game to a whole new level. He has helped focus on the two-way game that you need to play in the NHL. I can't thank him enough for that."
Bellows lives with Portland assistant coach Paul Gaustad — a former Hawk and Portland native who played 11 years in the NHL — and his wife, Danielle.
"When I came in to sign (his contract), I was introduced to them," Bellows says. "I asked if they'd be my billets, and they happily accepted. They've supported and helped me so much. They're my second family. They have three boys. I think of them as the three brothers I never had growing up."
In his spare time, Bellows hangs with his teammates.
"I like to see movies," he says. "I like to go the mall. We like to go hit some balls at Topgolf. We really enjoy being with each other.
"Portland is fantastic. The fans are unreal, and the city is second to none. I can't get over the different type of food cultures that are here. I'm trying a new restaurant every single day, and I love it."
"Probably Holy Taco in Lake Oswego, or Portland City Grill," he says.
Bellows says he has no personal goals this season.
"It's all about winning the league and getting to the Memorial Cup," he says. "We can get there. I really believe that. We're close as a team. We're like a family. We have the skill and the work ethic to get there.
"My main goal is to help this team through each game and each playoff series, and then on to the Memorial Cup."
Bellows will begin his professional career after this season. Johnston believes his skills translate to a successful run in the NHL.
"Every team at the NHL level is searching for that extra goal, that game-breaker type of guy," the Hawks' head man says. "At every level, Kieffer has proved he can score. Those guys can change the fortunes of a game.
"Kieffer is a strong, powerful guy. He has a lot of natural ability. It may take him a couple of years to learn the pro game and get used to it, but he has a really good future ahead of him."