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D-man Ludvig has made big strides -- and earned contract with Florida Panthers

COURTESY FILE PHOTO: PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS/MATT WOLFE - Portland Winterhawks 2019-20 captain Johnny Ludvig looks to shoot against the Seattle Thunderbirds. At age 14, Johnny Ludvig was not selected in the Western Hockey League bantam draft.

He understood why.

While many of his teammates had hit a growth spurt, Ludvig was "still a slow, chubby little kid."

But it didn't slow his drive.

Ludvig was a 16-year-old playing Junior B hockey in British Columbia when the Portland Winterhawks added him to their protected list. A year later, he played in 51 WHL games as a Hawks rookie.

After that season, Ludvig was overlooked by the NHL. Not being drafted in the first year, he was eligible, and it only added motivation.

"For me, when I get overlooked, it just lights a fire in me. I wanted to prove people wrong," Ludvig said.

He made that comment on Wednesday during a phone conversation from his family home in the British Columbia mountains. Two days earlier, the 19-year-old Winterhawks captain had signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers. Florida made him a third-round pick last summer, the second year Ludvig was eligible to be drafted.

"It's a really good story," Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston said. "He kept getting better and better each season with us."

Ludvig said signing with the Panthers was one of the best days of his life, a dream realized after years of hearing he wasn't quite good enough.

"I've been working for this all year," said Ludvig, who was the 69th pick last summer.

At that point, the Panthers appeared to be getting a physical, stay-at-home defenseman known for being a solid penalty killer and blocking shots. A defenseman for most of his youth hockey career, Ludvig joked that his shot-blocking prowess was developed during a short period at age 8 or 9, when he played goalie.

Ludvig, though, was a different player during the 2019-20 WHL season. He had grown to 6-1 and 205 pounds but had gained more quickness and confidence than muscle.

This season, Ludvig had 17 goals and 45 assists in 60 games for Portland. He ranked third in scoring among WHL defensemen.

In his first two seasons with Portland, Ludvig totaled nine goals and 18 assists in 109 regular-season games and had one goal and three assists in 14 playoff games.

"I would never have predicted there would be that big of a jump," Johnston said.

Ludvig took advantage of the opportunity to play regular power-play shifts, a role Johnston initially wasn't sure would be a good fit for him. Nine of his goals were on power plays.

"He worked hard over the summer on those skills he needed to develop," Johnston said.

Ludvig's work ethic, as much as his improved skating and improved shot, earned him his first pro contract, Johnston said.

Much of that work happened last summer in the Czech Republic, where Ludvig trained alongside Czech professionals. Ludvig's father, Jan, who played 354 NHL games as a forward for the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres, was born in Czechoslovakia.

"It was like a training camp before the training camps in Portland and in Florida," Ludvig said about his month in the Czech Republic, where he focued on improving his skating and offensive game.

When he arrived in Portland in August, Ludvig immediately saw the results. He scored goals in the first two games, had points in the first five and had established a new career high for goals nine games into the season.

"That was a little weird for me," said Ludvig, whose goal celebration usually amounted to raising his arms and waiting for his teammates to skate to him.

Ludvig's presence on the power play and in the locker room were keys to Portland finishing with the best regular-season record in the WHL. 

He was named the Winterhawks' 44th team captain prior to the season.

"It was a huge honor," Ludvig said. "I took it very seriously."

Portland had one of the youngest rosters in the WHL. Ludvig said what he mostly did was lead by example.

Ludvig said he had no idea how good the Winterhawks would be this season, though he knew there was loads of young talent. Guiding the team to the best record in the league was rewarding, but having the playoffs canceled by the coronavirus pandemic was very disappointing.

"I believe we had a special group" capable of making a run at a league title, he said.

That group now stays in touch via text messages as players hunker down with their families. Ludvig's home is about 30 miles outside Kamloops, a remote location that still has three feet of snow on the ground.

To stay in shape and prepare for the hockey ahead, Ludvig can work out in his family's backyard, which includes mountain trails he runs for conditioning.

Ludvig will turn 20 in August. Age-wise, he could return to Portland for one more season. His plan, of course, is to earn a spot with the Panthers. Even if that doesn't happen, he could play for one of Florida's minor-league affiliates.

Johnston put the odds of a 20-year-old signed NHL prospect returning to the WHL at 50-50. He said it often comes down to the roster of the NHL club and the number of spots they have at their American Hockey League affiliate.

"I would expect they're going to give him every chance possible" to make a roster," Johnston said.

In the Florida announcement about signing Ludvig, Panthers President of Hockey and GM Dale Tallon noted Ludvig's breakout numbers this season in Portland.

"He is a talented defenseman who possesses great compete, physicality and character. We are excited for John's continued development and look forward to his future in the Panthers organization," Tallon said.

If this was his last season in Portland, Ludvig said his time with the Winterhawks will have a lasting impact on his life.

"I know I'm going to look back and realize it was probably the best time in my life playing in Portland and playing in front of such loud and supportive fans," he said.

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