|Tyler Hansen (2) has been front and centre among Kamloops Blazers|
defencemen early in this WHL season.
(Photo by Marissa Baecker / Kelowna Daily Courier)
By GREGG DRINNANIf any one player best represents the amazing transformation that is taking place with the Kamloops Blazers, it is defenceman Tyler Hansen.
Daily News Sports Editor
Daily News Sports Editor
Hansen, an 18-year-old from Magrath, Alta., is into his third WHL season with the Blazers, who selected him in the third round of the 2008 bantam draft.
But, based on his first two seasons, who saw THIS coming?
Going into this season, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Hansen had 20 points, including three goals, and 108 penalty minutes in 119 regular-season games. He also was a minus-17.
As the Blazers prepare to meet the Portland Winterhawks at Interior Savings Centre tonight, Hansen has eight assists and 14 penalty minutes in 14 games.
Oh, did we mention that he was leading the WHL at plus-16?
“The biggest thing is that this season I have just accepted my role,” Hansen said Tuesday following practice at Interior Savings Centre. “I’m a defensive defenceman. Since Day 1, Dave Hunchak has come in and told me that’s who I am and that’s who I’m going to be. He has built that confidence in me.”
Hunchak, the Blazers’ associate coach, signed with the team over the summer, after seven seasons in the Eastern Conference, the last four as head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors. He has spent a lot of time working with the Blazers’ defencemen.
“It’s no different with any young player,” Hunchak said. “They think they are more than what they are when, in reality, once they figure out and accept what they are and apply themselves to it . . . in this case, he’s a shutdown, hard-to-play-against defenceman. Guys make careers of that.”
While Hansen showed signs last season of being this kind of player, he wasn’t able to do it with any sort of consistency. That hasn’t been the case this season as he and frequent partner Josh Caron have provided the Blazers with perhaps the WHL’s edgiest defensive pairing.
Hansen was eligible for the 2011 NHL draft but wasn’t selected. When he did an analysis, he decided he needed “to be more of a mean, physical strong guy.”
“That brings a whole new level to my game,” Hansen said. “Playing with Caron . . . he’s a good influence on me.”
Both are physical players who bring an edge onto the ice with them, something Hansen said “gives us more time and space.”
“The meaner I play,” he said, “the more in the other guy’s face I am, the more ice I have to work with.”
While Hansen may want to be mean and aggressive on the ice, that isn’t the case away from the rink. Hansen is one of those teenagers who wears a smile on his face the way John Wayne wore a cowboy hat.
Hansen is of Mormon upbringing, and family, faith and friends are of utmost importance to him. That’s why it was so important to him that he attend the funeral of a high school friend in Magrath on Oct. 20.
The Blazers were on a three-game swing into Alberta at the time, and the funeral fell on an off-day. So Hansen and good friend Russ Maxwell, who plays for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, wore their hockey sweaters to the funeral, one of four held in Magrath after four teenagers were killed in a single-vehicle accident.
“It was tough,” Hansen said. “It was nice to go home but it was very bittersweet. . . . I was glad I had the opportunity to mourn with everyone else.”
The community also held a fund-raising evening to benefit the four families. It included a concert, father-son hockey game and silent auction at which John Evans of Magrath purchased a signed Hansen sweater for $500. The evening brought in more than $50,000.
Hansen and Maxwell, who also is from Magrath, are close friends. In fact, they were teammates on a Lethbridge baseball team that won the Canadian Big League championship this summer and then played in the Big League World Series in Easley, S.C.
Baseball, Hansen said, “is definitely my other passion. I’ve been playing since I was a kid. I’ve always been told you have to have a balance of things.”
Hansen and Maxwell both had the misfortune of playing for WHL teams that failed to make the playoffs last season. So, Hansen said, the two decided “to get away from the rink and play some baseball . . .. get our minds off hockey.”
Little did they know they would end up in South Carolina.
“It was an amazing experience,” Hansen said. “The Puerto Rican team had 11 guys drafted by Major League teams. Their pitcher was throwing 94 miles an hour.”
All told, the Lethbridge team spent three weeks on the road.
“When we got home,” he said, “I was ready to get back to hockey. I think that helped me get my mind off hockey. When I was done baseball I was rejuvenated and ready to get back to hockey.”
When he returned to Kamloops, Hansen was bigger and stronger, and ready to take on his new role.
“He’s come a long ways,” Hunchak said. “I think a lot of it has to do with, No. 1, maturity, and, No. 2, accepting what he is and relishing that role. He knows he’s not going to play the power play. He knows there are certain situations he doesn’t play in, but there are others he does play in because that’s what his job is.”
“I’m comfortable and know my role,” Hansen said. “I can contribute in my own way. Shutting down the other team’s top line, staying out of our d-zone and giving our forwards the puck. When they have the puck they’re pretty good, so I just try to get it to them as much as possible.”
That pretty much has been the game plan that has helped the Blazers to an 11-3-0 record and first place in the Western Conference. That, in turn, has led to a lot of smiles in the team’s dressing room.
“It’s always fun when you’re winning,” Hansen said. “It has a lot to do with the team and team success. It’s easy on me when our forwards are playing well and the other d-men are playing well. It makes it easy on all of us and that helps our personal stats.
“My stats and my credit is a little bit different than scoring a bunch of goals. It’s more plus-minus, the odd assist . . . when the team excels I feel pretty good.
“We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished but we know there’s a lot to do still.”
JUST NOTES: G Cole Cheveldave, who has a 5-0-0 record, will start in goal for the Blazers. The Winterhawks are likely to open with veteran Mac Carruth (7-7-1, 3.06, .893). . . . Portland’s backup goaltender is Brendan Burke (1-0-1, 4.30, .829). Burke, 16, is the son of former NHLer Sean Burke. . . . The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets said yesterday that they have decided to keep F Ryan Johansen, 19, at least for now. Johansen, the fourth overall pick in the NHL’s 2010 draft, has to play in the NHL or be returned to the Winterhawks. . . . The New York Islanders have assigned F Nino Niederreiter, 19, to the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers on injury rehab. Niederreiter, who also must be returned to Portland if he doesn’t stay with the Islanders, has yet to play this season because of a groin injury.
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