Among the Western Hockey League teams with more than one player in the 2008 Home Hardware Top Prospects Game, only the Lethbridge Hurricanes can boast that their contingent in Edmonton consists solely of players who represented their country at the World Junior Championship.
In a hockey mad province like Alberta, it’s a slam dunk for hockey fans to recognize that explosive forward Zach Boychuk was a member of Team Canada’s gold medal winning group. But ‘Canes defenseman Luca Sbisa also donned a Team Switzerland jersey at the WJC. Even though the two national teams achieved different results – Switzerland lost a relegation round game to end the tournament – Boychuk and Sbisa are keenly aware of their common goals on North American soil.
“Right now it seems like the team is getting better and better,” Boychuk explained about a Hurricanes’ club that sits comfortably among playoff-bound teams in the Eastern Conference. “Right at the trade deadline we made a great deal and picked up defenseman Jeff May, which gives us a real strong top-four group of defensemen.”
Among the top four rearguards is Sbisa, a 6’1, 175-pound native of Oberageri, Switzerland. He’s confident he is learning quickly, with some help from a particular veteran in Lethbridge.
“I feel I am more of an offensive defender who can play the puck quickly and move my feet well, maybe wheel with the puck sometimes,” Sbisa said after the Skills Competition. “I play the power play and have a good wrist shot. I think I move the puck well, but I am really working hard to increase my strength, especially for the one-on-one battles.
“I play with Ben Wright, who is a very good player. I did not know the league very well when I got here, so to start playing here with a veteran has been really important because he has always been available to help me.”
Much of the junior hockey tradition in Lethbridge was built by the former franchise, the Broncos, famous for developing NHLers like Steve Tambellini, Ron and Rich Sutter, Bob Rouse and Ken Wreggett, to name just a few. If 5’9, 176-pound Boychuk has his way, the current edition of the Hurricanes will make some history of their own.
“We’re really looking forward to the playoffs because we have a good team,” Boychuk said. “We want to get past the first round for sure because it hasn’t happened for about ten years.
“You look at the Broncos, Steve Tambellini was just inducted into the Lethbridge Hall of Fame. I mean, it was exciting to be a part of that, but we’re really looking forward to making a run this year or next.”
The Hurricanes started slowly this season before embarking on a ten-game unbeaten streak that served notice throughout the WHL that this club is demanding it be reckoned with. Along with Wright and May, forwards Dwight King, Colton Sceviour and Mitch Fadden, there is a solid nucleus in Lethbridge.
Boychuk says he has been advised by the coaching staff that he and Fadden will play together and be leaned upon for the rest of the season to produce in winning efforts. He’s looking forward to playing a prominent role and is keen to accept as much ice time as head coach Michael Dyck is willing to offer.
“We’re used to getting a lot of power play time,” Boychuk acknowledged when asked about playing with Fadden. “But hopefully they can get us out there a bit more five-on-five, or even on the penalty-killing unit. I think we’re both reliable in all those situations.
“Our forwards have been pretty solid this season, so we’re looking forward to making a huge run here into the playoffs. For us to keep winning games, we want be our team’s best players every night.”
Although he experienced some early-season growing pains, Sbisa wants to be a part of the very real potential for success in Lethbridge.
“If we compare the WHL with the professional league back home, the players here are bigger,” explained Sbisa. “My goal is to stay here a long time, but some players, they come over here to learn things about the game and then return home to use those things. We have many Canadian coaches back home.
“My biggest problem was the size of the ice in Canada, because everything happens faster than back home on the large ice surface. The players here are very skilled and they are bigger, so it is just a different game than in Switzerland. So far it is not going bad, but sure it can go better. We’re doing good this season and I really like Lethbridge, the city and the organization. I am very happy to be there.”
Sbisa and Boychuk are key components in Lethbridge this season and are excited to be part of the Top Prospects Game. The two have travelled different routes to get here and have some other WHL players to thank for their help along the way.
“I played with the Swiss National Team last year at the Mac’s Midget Tournament in Calgary and then later I was picked in the WHL import draft,” said Sbisa, who has collected four goals and 24 assists in 38 games as a WHL rookie. “But I still was not sure if I should come here or not because my old team gave me a spot on the professional team. I would have been the eighth defender, but I really knew they were going to play only six.
“So I asked a couple guys who played over here in North America what they thought. Roman Wick, he has become an important person to me, told me about Lethbridge because he used to play here. So I thought it might be better to come over and get more ice time and learn a new culture and the hockey mentality. Canada is all about hockey and I really like it.”
For Boychuk, living in Airdrie, Alberta and growing up on the frozen tundra of the western Canadian prairies meant hockey was destined to become a huge part of his lifestyle. He’s made some good friends in the process, a couple of whom he’ll bump into during the week after the Top Prospects Game.
“I‘m really good friends with Dana Tyrell (of the Prince George Cougars),” Boychuk smiled when asked about the Hurricanes upcoming road trip into British Columbia. “Growing up in Airdrie, we played together for about three of four years and then we car-pooled all the time in midget hockey to Strathmore with the UFA Bisons. I’m looking forward to playing against him.
“Corey Tyrell is his younger brother and I was really excited when he made the Cougars, too. He only played his 15-year-old year in midget.”
Boychuk, Dana Tyrell, Jordan Eberle and Tyler Ennis are just a few of the current WHL crop of elite players. They share similar physical attributes, comfortable they can all be productive despite the perception they are not big enough to play professional hockey at the highest level. It’s simply inconsequential chatter at this point to Boychuk, who has heard and defied the rhetoric throughout his career.
“You see a lot of smaller guys putting up a lot of points in the NHL now,” said Boychuk, who finished third in WHL scoring last season. “Sidney Crosby isn’t that big and same with a guy like Brian Gionta in New Jersey. That really motivates us to make it to the NHL.
“In the past there might not have even been a chance for a guy under six feet tall to get drafted in the first round. But now there is a chance and it’s nice that the enforcement of the rules maybe works a bit in our favor.”
And Sbisa, who values having Boychuk with him this week, is renewing another acquaintance at the Top Prospects Game. Goaltender Robert Mayer of the Saint John Sea Dogs also played for Team Switzerland at the WJC. The two will be teammates again for a night in Edmonton with Team Red.
“I used to play against him in the junior league back home,” Sbisa said. “Everything is pretty close together back home, so we know each other well. I played with him on the National Team as well. We have a good relationship, we are good friends.
“I don’t know anyone else here besides Zach Boychuk and Robert Mayer, so they have helped me out. It’s always good to know there is a friend nearby.”