Hockey’s Future Interview with Dean Vrooman

By Michael Conkey

The Winterhawks are currently playing in their 27th season of WHL hockey in Portland. The one person who has been associated with the team the longest would be general manager Ken Hodge, who was Portland’s first head coach. The only person who can approach that time frame is the Hawks’ play-by-play broadcaster Dean “Scooter” Vrooman. This is his 21st season behind the mic, calling every game on radio, and this season six games on local cable. He has been witness to two Memorial Cup champion teams and three WHL champion teams. Last weekend, I had a chance to sit down with Scooter the day after Portland’s win over Tri-City, and discuss this year’s version of the Winterhawks.

Michael Conkey: “When you look at this team, there are quite a few rookies here, Brandon Dubinsky, Alex Aldred, Michael Funk. Of the 16 and 17 year old rookies on this team, which have impressed you the most?”

Dean Vrooman: “Well, probably Dubinsky. He’s got a lot of skill, he’s got a very competitive nature. He’s a hockey player that kind of has a little Marty Standish in him, and a little bit of Todd Robinson in him. He had three points last night, and he’s one of the top 16-year-old scorers in the league already. And he’s in a good position here, cause he gets a chance to shine since we don’t have the older players ahead of him here that some of the other teams do. So, I would say that he’s been the most impressive, but I think there’s some pretty good players that are in their first year’s here that will give us a bright future.”

MC: “How surprising has Craig Valette been? He’s scored nine goals this season, he scored another goal last night. How surprising has it been that he’s been the Hawks leading goal scorer this year?”

DV: “I think it’s a little bit of a surprise, especially to see him scoring at the rate that he is. He’s in a different role, he and Brad Priestlay are getting power play time. They never really got power play time before with (Paul) Gaustad, and (Jozef) Balej, and (Josh) Olson and those guys. When you get power play time, you should score more. But I think Craig’s starting to get some confidence in his offense. He’s scored a couple of goals this year that I would call goal-scorer’s goals, and I’m surprised at that. But he’s kind of a rare story, actually. Because when he first came here as an 18-year-old he was just a fill in. We got him for future considerations. Balej was hurt, and away at international tournaments. (Shawn) Roed was hurt, so Portland was down some bodies, and we just picked him up to kind of fill in. And it didn’t look like he was gonna make it, because he really struggled when he first got here. And he really didn’t make an impact, and he was already 18 years old. So he probably was on his way out of the league when the coaching staff met with him, because he’s a good kid, and said ‘Here’s where you stack up, and if this doesn’t change, you’re probably on your way out.’ And Craig really changed his game. He got more involved physically, he just took his game to a higher level, and a lot of players are never able to do that. I think Craig now has a chance, maybe, to have a pro career in this game, and a couple years ago, it didn’t look like he did.”

MC: “Some people last season even thought that Valette would be the odd-man out with the 20-year-old’s, with John Togiai making the team. Was there any particular reason you think John was the one that did not make the team?”

DV: “Well, I think it comes down to leadership. John was kind of a loose guy in the locker room, which you kind need, but I think when it came down to it, they felt like they needed Valette’s leadership, especially the way he developed last year as a leader on the team. I think Valette is more of a reliable defensive player, more of a two-way guy than John was. I think he’s more of a physical presence. John had a physical presence at times, but he never seemed to break out a consistent part of his game. So, I think those were some of the reasons. But it was a tough decision. I’m was surprised John didn’t land somewhere, but there are a lot of overagers, a lot of 19-year-olds that I’m surprised are out of the league now, because there are just so many of them, and once you get to that age level, you have to be a contributing member of your team, or you’re usually expendable because they’re trying to break in younger guys.”

MC: “I’ve noticed you’re more active on the internet than most radio personalities out there, especially in the WHL. Some coaches don’t really like the internet that much, with the Hawks there was the Ramage incident last year. Is there any reason you like getting on the message boards more than would some others in your profession?”

DV: “I think it’s kind of a hobby for me. I learn a lot from the fans. I think it’s a great way to exchange information. In Portland it’s hard to get information, unless you use the internet. TV stations don’t cover us like they used to, the sports radio station in this town doesn’t seem to think we exist. So, it’s really hard to get information, and the internet is the tool. But I believe in interacting with the fans because they have a lot of information, and I think they’re the ones that pay the bills. They have a right to their opinions, and I’m interested in their opinions, and I think they enjoy it when someone in management participates. And I think more media people should do that, myself. They should participate in the forums with the fans, because the fans are the backbone of the sport. The Ramage thing, I think, is worthy of comment. Fans that are irresponsible, that put things on the internet that absolutely have no basis of truth, that’s one of the reasons I’m on (forums) too, because when stuff like that goes up, I’m going to immediately go on there and say ‘This is ridiculous.’ I mean, Lanny’s whole family was messed up about that. There was absolutely nothing to it. I actually thought that maybe he got into a squabble in practice, and a fan saw that. Squabbles in practice are common, they happen all the time. Maybe he broke his stick over the crossbar and some fan puts two and two together and adds up and gets six. But nothing happened. I went to Mike Williamson immediately, and absolutely nothing happened. So somebody just made it up. I think that’s cruel, I think that’s irresponsible. And fortunately now with people having to register their names, and having some accountability for what they post on the internet, there’s less of it.”

MC: “Speaking of Ramage, he’s made some big improvements this season. There was the issue of his glove hand maybe not being as accurate as it was before. Two seasons ago he was a brick wall in the playoffs, and it looks like he’s returning to that form this season. Do you see any differences in the way he’s playing?”

DV: “In fact I just interviewed him and he agrees. I mean, he’s standing up more, and I think part of that is confidence. Last season I think he lost his confidence to a degree, and when any goaltender loses his confidence, he tends to go down more, that’s just the way they are. I think Lanny lost confidence in himself a little last year, there were some goals that went in that he knows he shouldn’t let in. When you have a few of those go in, you start second-guessing yourself, you start losing your confidence, so I think that happened to him last year. This year, he’s standing up and playing his angles more. Now, he is a reaction goalie, especially on shots that are in close. I have no problem with that, because he’s one of the best goalies I’ve ever seen at scrambles. When he does go down, his reflexes take over on those short-end shots. But last year, he was going down on long shots. And when you go down, and you’re already in your butterfly on a long shot, it can make your glove look slower. I think he’s always had a good glove. I think when people criticized his glove last year, I don’t think that had bearing. But he was down so much, down on long shots, that that’s really giving the top of the net. Nobody’s glove is that quick when you give the whole top of the net, and I think that’s what he was doing. And he’s really taken that away this year.”

MC: “Krister Toews has shown himself to be a capable backup. Last night he had a great game, making some big saves in the second period. What’s his mind set? There’s been talk that it’s not wise to have a 20-year-old and 19-year-old goalie on the same team. How is he dealing with being the backup? Is he expressing interest in maybe going to another team where he could start now, or is he comfortable waiting to be the Hawks’ #1 goalie next year?”

DV: “I don’t think he’s a backup. I really think the way Mike has expressed it, is it’s going to be competitive for minutes. And, both of them are capable, both of them are experienced, both of them are old. So I think it’s going to be whoever plays well, plays, and that’s basically what Mike has done so far. Krister’s played the last two games, Lanny had three or four starts in a row. I think what Mike is gonna do is try to keep them both fresh, try to be as fair as he can, try to not sit either one of them for too long, even if one of them gets extremely hot, make sure that the other one gets enough game action to try to stay sharp too. I don’t know if it can work long term. I think they’re comfortable with it now. I haven’t seen any discontent, they seem to be good friends, they seem to push each other. Both deserve, probably to be starters in this league. But the way goaltending is right now, everybody seems to have a pretty good goaltender. So, for Portland to try to move one of them, it’s hard to do, because people aren’t looking for goaltending now. So, if that changes, maybe if the deal’s right, one of them gets moved. I think Krister does know, he’s got a great chance if he proves himself this year to be the man next year. I’m not sure he really feels deep inside that he should have to wait for that. But that could be what he has to do. He may not have any choice.”

MC: “You mentioned Valette’s time on the power play. Recently, the power play has improved, especially over the last few games. Regehr had a nice slap shot last game for a goal. How much of that is a product of improved play, and how much of that is a product of playing a number of games against the Tri-City Americans, who are probably one of the weaker teams in the WHL?”

DV: “I think that’s a good point. We don’t know yet. You gotta play 72 games, you gotta see how you stack up as it goes along. I think I’ve seen some signs of Portland’s power play improving. I think Dubinsky’s gonna have a role in that, even though he’s a 16-year-old, maybe a creative force up front. We haven’t seen Roman Prazak much. He’s shown in the limited time that he’s been able to play that he may have some creativity that will help up front on the power play. I think we are seeing now, Braydon Coburn, Richie Regehr, Joey Hope when he comes back, not try to do as much as they did there for a while. The reason the power play struggled for a while there, was the defense was trying to do everything, realizing that there wasn’t a lot of experience up front, realizing that maybe there wasn’t a lot of touch up front. And now I think that things are settling in a little bit. But whether they can have success against the better teams like Brandon, or Kootenay, or Seattle when they get going, I think they’ll be a better team, or Spokane. I don’t know whether or not they can do that. But maybe by March they’ll be able to. The fans have to keep in mind it’s a six month season, there’s a lot of things that happen over time, and players improve, and players get settled into roles, and things do change.”

MC: “Another thing I’ve noticed is that while the power play hasn’t been as strong, the penalty kill has gotten better and better. Players like Valette and Priestlay have been good on the kill. Are there any other players you’ve noticed that have been especially effective on the PK?”

DV: “I think there’s Cody McLeod. I think Danny Lapointe is an underrated part of the team. I’m not sure where he stacks up as another 18-year-old. Maybe, like Craig Valette, he’s gotta find a way to take his game to a new level. But defensively, he’s very sound, his positioning is very sound. He seems to be willing to pay the price defensively. I think he gets frustrated a little bit now when he doesn’t capitalize on offensive chances, and that’s a good thing. He’s got to be a little bit better offensively, and he’s got to be able to play in all three zones. He’s kind of still on a try-out basis with Portland, but I think he’s shown the ability to kill some penalties. And McLeod is another one on defense. Basically, one of the reasons Portland should be good killing penalties is they have their goaltending back, and they really have their key defensemen back, all of them, that were a factor in last year’s penalty kill, so with Valette and Priestlay being extremely experienced penalty killers, this team should kill 85 to 90 percent.”

MC: “A lot of Hawks fans haven’t seen David Turon. He only played in the preseason for Portland, before he got injured during his last on-ice scrimmage with Toronto. Now he’s being held out until the Christmas break. What kind of a player is he, and what’s he going to bring to the Hawks when he finally arrives?”

DV: “Very offensively gifted. He’s got a great shot, probably has as great a shot as Richie Regehr, and Regehr has a great shot, so he’s got a tremendous shot, it might even be better. He’s got good offensive gifts, plays a bit nasty. He plays physical in front of the net. He needs to work on his positioning, he needs to work on learning the North American game, and that’s why it’s so difficult for him because he’s a character player. He speaks reasonably good English, the coaches got a good feel for him right off the bat, and have a lot of comfort in him, and that’s one of the reasons they made the (Patrick) Wellar trade, is because they really believe in David Turon. This is a tough blow to take that they’re not gonna have him until after Christmas. They wanted to have him some time in November. So now that he’s a 19-year-old, and we may only get to see him in a Winterhawks jersey for three months, that kinda hurts. We’re hoping that Toronto will see fit to let him develop one more year here as a 20-year-old, even though they’ve already signed him to a contract, just like Florida did with Josh Olson. And I think that worked good for his career. So we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out, and I think the fans will see that David Turon will be a very dominant defenseman here.”

MC: “I’ve noticed that Braydon Coburn maybe hasn’t been as strong early this season as he was last year. Maybe that’s just my opinion, but it’s something I’ve noticed. How much do you think the pressure of him being a projected top ten pick in the NHL Entry Draft next season is getting to him? Scouts are coming to every game watching his every move. Do you think he’s feeling the pressure?”

DV: “I wouldn’t say he’s struggling. I think Braydon Coburn does so many things that don’t show up on the score sheet. He’s so stable, he’s so good positionally. He does so many things naturally that he doesn’t even have to think about that are plays that other guys can’t make. And I think now he’s under the microscope. Everyone’s watching him, everyone says this guy’s a great player. Hawks fans come, and he’s rated in the top five for the upcoming draft, and they’re watching him and going ‘Huh. I expect to see more.’ And I think that’s because they wanna see Jay Bouwmeester-kind of break out offensive skating speed. Braydon is not that kind of a player. Braydon is 6’5″, stronger defensively than Bouwmeester ever was or could even think of being. Braydon does more things defensively than Bouwmeester did. I’m not sure he’s going to be a breakout offensive player. I think we will see signs of him improving as the season goes on. But he’s another one, frankly, I think who has tried to push his offensive game a little too hard, and if you ask him, he’d tell you the same thing. And that’s probably because he’s looking up and not seeing Joe Balej, not seeing Gaustad, not seeing Olson. It’s a little different when you’re in that scenario, and suddenly, people are looking to you to create offense, then you push yourself a little too hard to do it. If Braydon just lets it happen naturally, I think he’s going to be an above average offensive player. But I don’t see him as a breakout offensive player.”

MC: “Most people would say that Coburn is clearly the top NHL prospect on the team. Would you agree with that, and are there maybe some other players who aren’t getting enough consideration as being possible future NHL’ers?”

DV: “Well, Braydon’s obviously a future NHL’er. There’s not very many people who are 6’5″ and skate and have the decision making ability he has. He’s got improvements he’s gotta make in his game to get there. But I think there’s no question he’s a potential NHL player. With the young players, it’s just too hard to tell. I think, Richie Regehr skates well enough and has enough skills that should give him consideration. I think Joey Hope’s skating ability, if he can pick up other parts of his game, maybe play with a little bit of a physical edge that we saw a couple of years ago, I think he has a chance. David Turon, we haven’t seen enough of, but he’s definitely in Toronto’s future, and that’s one of the reasons the doctors have said, ‘We’re gonna wait on this guy. We wanna make sure he’s good before he plays.’ So I think he’s definitely another one that has a good chance. Lanny Ramage coming around the way he has now. Krister Toews was actually talking about getting drafted last year, but he didn’t get drafted. Craig Valette, I really believe is now becoming a pro prospect. The younger guys have to work their way into it. I think there’s some outstanding potential there. Michael Funk is 6’3″, and has tremendous poise back there. He’s gotta fill out, he’s got a lot of things that have to happen. But, my goodness, when a guy’s 6’3″, and does what he’s doing at age 16, the scouts have gotta be looking at that.”

MC: “And Michael Funk is a guy that wasn’t really on the Hawks radar at the beginning of training camp. He earned his way onto the Hawks’ roster with a strong camp. Is he the kind of guy who could be the Hawks’ #1 defenseman in the future?”

DV: “Yah. I think he can. He’s very poised, he doesn’t ever panic back there. He’s got size, you can’t coach size. He has to get stronger, he knows that. I interviewed him and he said that, so he’s very aware of where he is. I think we want him eventually to blossom. He’s kind of a quiet kid on the bus, as he’s only 16. We want to see some effervescence and personality come out of him. But hopefully he’ll be able to develop that as he gets older. He’s got tremendous potential. He benefitted this year, frankly, cause a couple of guys we really wanted to come to camp didn’t come. Spencer Dillon and Jon Sigalet, that were penciled in ahead of him. So, for him to come and have the camp that he did, he got a chance to play. Then there were all the injuries and the trade, and the things that have happened with (Jon) Weigum being out and Turon being out, all of the sudden he was thrown into the fire. And he’s reacted and handled it, and now it’s going to be pretty tough not to give him regular shifts, even when people come back. So he’s definitely given Portland options back there.”

MC: “Ken Hodge has been especially good at finding European players like Balej, Richard Zednik, both Hossa’s. He found Jakub Klepis in the U-17 tournament in Nova Scotia. Prazak looked pretty good in the limited time we saw him, and Turon sounds like a solid player. How does he find such good players from overseas?”

DV: “He had an incredible eye on Balej, cause Balej was one of those guys who was totally being misused by the coach he was playing for in the U.S. Hockey League. Ken only saw him play three or four shifts in one period of one game. And he actually wasn’t our first choice. Portland actually chose pretty low that year. They had two players ranked ahead of him who both went away, and they actually ended up not being as good as Joe, so there is some luck in it. And I think Ken would be the first guy, if you interviewed him, he would say there was some luck in it. We do have some good contacts. We have a couple agents over there that share some good information with us and other teams, and we have a lot of respect for those people and their opinions. I think Ken talks to people. And the number one consideration when you make a choice in the European draft is you wanna make sure they’re gonna come over. You don’t want to have a Vladimir Orszagh, who’s now playing in Nashville and never came. We’ve had very few of those. Most of the people that we’ve picked have come over because we’ve done our homework and we know that they’re gonna come. But, frankly, when they work out, some of it is luck, and Portland’s been very fortunate in a lot of cases.”

MC: “Regehr and Hope both went to NHL camps before the season this year. They played with guys like Markus Naslund, Ed Jovanovski, and Steve Yzerman. How much does that rub off on them in the short time they play there? When they come back to the junior game, does that help them along?

DV: “I think it does when they’re free agents like those guys. I think occasionally, guys will go up there after they’ve been drafted, and they’ll think that that’s going to eventually put them on a National Hockey League team. And a lot of times those guys come back with a very poor attitude towards junior hockey. You see it all the time. But when you go there as a free agent and you haven’t been drafted, I think it makes you work extra hard. I think you know you’re in tough to open their eyes. I think it’s been a little frustrating for Joey cause he’s been to Detroit twice and they haven’t signed him. When you go the second time, and they still don’t sign you, I think it’s discouraging. And it’s too bad because in the economics of hockey now, they don’t sign people who are borderline, that they think might have a future, until they absolutely think they’re gonna play on the Red Wings or whatever team, because they’re spending so much now on the Yzerman’s, the Mario Lemieux’s, the John LeClair’s. The top players are getting such high salaries, that the borderline guys now, they’re letting go and they’re letting go until they absolutely see them on their depth charts. I think it pumps them up. Richie’s first trip to Vancouver I think was great for him. His brother’s in the National Hockey League, he knows he’s smaller, he knows he has to overcome some things to be an National Hockey League player. For him to get invited to Vancouver and have a good experience, I think was great for him. He’s such a good kid. I think he’s gonna be a great captain and a great leader on this team. I think for him, it was a very, very good experience.”

MC: “Where do you see the Hawks in two seasons or so? Do you see the possible makings of a Memorial Cup contender? I know that goaltending would be a question mark then, but with the number of younger players on this team, is there the potential for good things in the future?”

DV: “Well, I think there’s a nucleus. The 1998 champions started in a rebuilding year with (Todd) Robinson and (Joey) Tetarenko, and (Kevin) Haupt and (Andrew) Ference, and those four guys started it out with (Brent) Belecki in goal. And they became the nucleus of the 98 team. So whenever you’re building a team, you have to look at the 16 and 17 year olds and say that there’s a chance with the nucleus here. But an awful lot of things have to happen. I think there’s questions on defense, Portland’s defense is old now with Turon and (Dustin) Bauer and Hope and Regehr. So now we’re old on defense. So where are the young defensemen besides Funk that are gonna be able to take over? I think up front there are certainly some encouraging signs. Dubinsky has a chance to be a breakout player. Aldred started out great, I think he’s slipped a little bit in the last couple of weeks, he hasn’t played quite as well, but he’s 16. C.J. Jackson, a guy we haven’t even talked about yet, he’s a project, because he’s a big man that needs to learn the speed of the league. He’s got to work on that part of his game. But he has some character, he has some hockey smarts, and he’s a huge, huge man. He can become a very big time power forward in this league, with time. Gotta have patience with a guy like that. Whether these guys all develop or not, that’s where the fun in junior hockey is. To see whether or not that happens. But, when you look at projecting two years down the road, in 1999-2000, the Winterhawks won 16 games. I never would’ve projected a chance at the league final the next year. I knew they had a few tools coming back, and I knew they had made a couple of good trades. But I never saw them making the league finals against Red Deer. And I didn’t ever see them losing in the first round to Seattle last year, so it goes both ways.”