At some point, every hockey team determines who will wear the “C”. Whether it is a coach’s decision or one made by the players, a team captain plays an important leadership role both on and off the ice. For Sam Ruopp, the honor and responsibility came at a rather young age during his WHL career.
“He’s our captain for a reason,” said Prince George Cougars head coach Mark Holick in his typically emphatic tone. “Sam is a leader on and off the ice. You never have to worry about him at practice, play, or even in the weight room.”
Born and raised in Zehner, Saskatchewan, a small community located about 15 minutes northeast of Regina, Ruopp’s roadmap through minor hockey included travel to centers across the province like Edenwold and Stoughton. This all might sound like “obscurity” defined, but hockey types know how and where to find the good players.
It would be an understatement to suggest the Ruopp family is big on the WHL. In fact, young Sam Ruopp, who checks in at 6’4” and 185 pounds, was absolutely bullish about his junior hockey experience when HF spoke with him after a late-season road loss in Kamloops to the hometown Blazers.
“We’re just honored to play in such a great league,” Ruopp said. “To give us the opportunity to get to where we want with our dreams, we’re just very fortunate.”
Draft days have come and gone with some frequency in the Ruopp household. Harrison Ruopp, a defenseman who is now 23 years of age, was drafted in the second round, 31st overall, by the Prince Albert Raiders at the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft.
Sam, now 19, was selected by the Cougars in the fourth round, 76th overall at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. (Along with goaltender Ty Edmonds, 186th overall, the pair represents the only two players from the 2011 draft still wearing Prince George colors.)
A few short weeks later in 2011, Harrison had his name called by the then Phoenix Coyotes in the third round, 84th overall, at the 2011 NHL Draft. Before potentially signing with the Coyotes, however, he was part of a trade made at the 2012 NHL Draft. Ruopp was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he signed an entry-level contract. This season, his final year of the pact, he is currently on the Penguins’ AHL roster in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Then last June, Sam was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fifth round, 129th overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Young Sam has appeared in over 200 games as a member of the Cougars. A prototypical, stay-at-home defenseman, he scored four times and added 21 assists this season while collecting 100 penalty minutes. In the process, he compiled a healthy +23 rating.
Holick is always pleased to welcome players back from their experiences with NHL teams at development and rookie camps, confident in Ruopp’s case that the young defender made the best of his first foray with his NHL team.
“They go to their summer camps and rookie tournaments,” Holick said, “and when those kids come back from camps, certainly for us, we want to just make sure they stay motivated.”
With Ruopp in mind, that was never a challenge for Holick as he sees his team leader as a mature and determined player, one that the entire coaching staff has come to count on as the team competes in the postseason.
“You know, he’s a guy to me who is trending up,” Holick said. “He likes to go hard. Sam’s got the tall frame, a wide frame. He doesn’t have the weight yet, but he’s physical. He likes to play the game. He likes to defend hard.”
Holick is overseeing a relatively young roster this season, a group that is perhaps simply priming up for next season. There is certainly plenty of depth on the blueline, interchangeable parts that provide the coaches with plenty of options. And the 1997 group is solid with the likes of forwards Jansen Harkins (WPG), Brad Morrison (NYR), Jesse Gabrielle (BOS), Aaron Boyd and rearguards Tate Olson (VAN) and Shane Collins.
“We change it up here, but he’s usually playing with Olson,” Holick said when asked who Ruopp is partnered with. “Sam is a real trustworthy player. I’m very comfortable with him on the ice.”
The Cougars are facing the U.S. Division champion Seattle Thunderbirds in the first round of the 2016 WHL playoffs, a series currently led by the Thunderbirds, 3-0.
Ruopp spoke with Hockey’s Future at the end of the regular season, with that conversation being captured in this HF Podcast.
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