558 miles to Kimberley, BC, the training camp home of the Portland Winterhawks, from Portland, OR was every bit worth the effort. My travel woes aside, here’s the latest on the Portland Winterhawks and their new breed of NHL prospects.
Impact players for 1999-2000:
Blake Robson (Center, 6’0″, 185lbs) – Blake is playing with a confidence that I only saw a glimmer of last year. He is playing bigger and is definitely a step ahead of the rest of the camp. He’s going to be the offensive leader this year, and already has one tournament under his belt. Blake was selected to Team Canada’s World Under 18 Team and brought home the gold medal playing in a tournament featuring the best 17 year olds from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, USA and Canada. I asked Blake if he thought he would be expected to be a leader this year, “yes, but Kiesman and Walker will also be looked to for leadership.” When asked about some of the new guys, Robson responded, “I don’t know many of them yet, but there’s a big kid from California who everyone’s talking about.” (That big kid is Eric Bowen from Canoga Park, CA, he’s huge and is opening a lot of eyes at this training camp). I asked Blake about playing for second year coach Harold Snepts, “He’s definitely a lot more comfortable this year and with Willy as assistant it’s a great combo to play for. They know a lot about hockey.” Blake Robson will be a top performer in the WHL this year, and he has a bright future to look forward to.
Jason LaBarbera (Goalie, 6’2″, 205lbs) – Jason is a big goalie with almost one full season of WHL hockey behind him. I’m 6’0″ and when I spoke with Jason he looked to be about seven feet tall. He injured his knee last year and was out for about a month. He was drafted by the New York Rangers in the 3rd round of the 1998 entry draft and is currently waiting to sign a contract. In camp he showed a quick glove and an almost effortless ability to stone attackers. He’s not afraid to use any part of his body to stop a puck and isn’t afraid of any player. He went to Hartford of the AHL last year and got some pro experience that will only make him better this year for Portland. Jason has worked extremely hard in the off season and commented that “the off-season is every bit as important as the season itself”. Jason is very fond of Shaun Lee, the #2 goalie for Portland, “last year Shaun was thrown into the fire and responded well, he did great. It’s great to know that Shaun is backing me up, if I’m tired or need a night off, Shaun can go in and we wont lose a step.” This year should be a huge season for LaBarbera, except that he has a very young team in front of him, guaranteeing that he’ll get plenty of work. Jason has the size and skill to reach the NHL, probably sooner than later.
Marcel Hossa (Center, 6’1″, 190lbs) – Marcel Hossa, younger brother of Marian Hossa (Ottawa Senators), is more animated this year and is showing signs that he’s ready to be a top-flight scorer this year. He has a sharp shot and moved the puck around with pinpoint accuracy. I think there was a lot expected of him after his brother’s Winterhawks won the Memorial Cup, and he will not disappoint this year. He is very vocal in camp and seems to feel comfortable with the Winterhawks. The one thing that is most promising is that he seems to be bursting at the seams with the desire to play. This, coupled with his natural talent will definitely be a plus for Portland and their fans.
Luc Theoret – Has signed with the Buffalo Sabres and will most likely not be back with the Winterhawks this year.
Ryan Thrussel – A big defenseman who seemed a little disconnected last year. This year he is vocal and appears to be one of the sleepers on defense. He is having fun and I think that fun will translate into production in a big way.
Derek MacLean – Looks like a pro when he’s out skating. He looks older than he is and shows the maturity needed this year on a young team. The latest report showed a goal and an assist in the first pre-season game, which hopefully is a sign of things to come.
Josef Balej – A linemate of Marcel Hossa’s in Slovakia, he is a right wing from the Slovakian under 18 team and seems to be fitting in nicely in Portland. In the second pre-season game this year Balej scored two goals and two assists to lead Portland to a 6-3 win over Kootenay. The Portland organization seems to know just where to look in Europe for quality hockey players.
Ken Davis – In camp with the Detroit Red Wings
Matt Walker – In camp with the St. Louis Blues
Eric Bowen (rookie) – Impressive young center from Canoga Park, CA. Eric is a former in-line hockey player with only three years of ice experience. He’s a bit of rough skater but has all the tools needed to be a productive member of the Winterhawks. He played on the USA under 18 team but still comes to camp a little green. He looks to impress the Winterhawks staff and just might be in a uniform at the start of the year.
Marty Standish – No longer a Winterhawk but still one of the most popular players to wear the red and black. Marty was in Kimberley just trying to get some ice time and to prepare for the upcoming camp with the Kansas City Blades. Marty was one of a small number of players invited to camp this year. Marty looked sharp, almost like he hadn’t been off skates all summer. Asked what he did this summer, “I laid carpet with my uncle and didn’t get much ice time because the closest ice is about two hours away, I lifted weights and did a lot of dry land training”. Well, I don’t think Marty has lost much in the summer, he looks as good as ever and looks like he has a great shot at making the Kansas City team. He did have on thing to say that I think everyone in Portland knows, “It’s going to be tough not going back to Portland, I love that place”. Marty also commented on the NHL, “It’s awesome, it’s a big guys game, I’m going to have to play big and play my best, hopefully good things will happen”. Look for Standish to end up in the AHL or IHL and maybe get to the NHL, he’s small but feisty, and never backs down from a challenge.
I asked Assistant Coach Mike Williamson what he thought of the new group this year, “With the big five gone this year, the younger kids will have the opportunity to step up and get some exposure. We’ll probably have a slow start but some new leaders will be born. It’s kind of fun to watch these guys deal with the youth on this team, I had to do it and it was a great experience and I can help them get through it too”. Mike Williamson is a passionate advocate for these kids and they respond well to him. He’s been through the tough times and he’s helped coach a Memorial Cup Championship team. If there’s anything in these kids to be brought out, Snepts and Williamson will get it.
A special thanks to the Portland Winterhawks, Assistant Coach Mike Williamson, Blake Robson, Jason LaBarbera, and Marty Standish for taking time out of their schedule to individually sit down with me and answer all questions. Also, Kate Bennison was kind enough to edit my work with what little free time she has.