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Captain Rutkowski present and accounted for with Winterhawks

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Winterhawks defenseman Troy Rutkowski swoops in to grab the puck in a game late last season against Tri-City.The Portland Winterhawks have reason to feel confident in their new captain, for several reasons, but one in particular: He'll show up.

The 20-year-old defenseman leads the Hawks in assists (six) after three games this season — but he probably is even better known for his durability than his consistency.

Rutkowski played in all 187 regular-season or playoff games the previous two Western Hockey League seasons.

Three seasons ago, he missed a regular-season game — because he was taking part in the Canadian Hockey League's Top Prospects Game.

In four-plus years with the Winterhawks, he has failed to play in only nine games.

How has he been able to keep showing up, week after week, night after night?

"I can't tell you. I have no idea," the 6-2, 200-pounder from Edmonton says.

Given a bit more time to answer, he offers, "I guess I stretch quite a bit" … and then finally adds, "Sometimes luck's on your side."

The respect around the Winterhawks for Rutkowski also stems from how he has developed as a player. He went from being an undrafted bantam minor-league hopeful to a fifth-round draft choice (137th overall in 2010) by the NHL Colorado Avalanche.

Did he ever think he would get to where he is now — the captainship of one of the strongest franchises in major junior hockey?

"Probably not, to be honest with you," he says. "I guess the (bantam) draft was a bit of a wakeup call for me. I worked hard that summer, and then Portland gave me a chance, and I kept working.

"I just trained harder and got in better shape. I think I always had the hockey sense, so to speak, but decided to really commit myself to getting into shape. A little of it had to do with my weight. I was a little bigger kid (than most). I got stronger. If you're going to be 16 playing against 20-year-olds, you've got to be in shape, and mentally strong, as well."

Rutkowski needs to play in 45 more games to become the Portland franchise leader in career games (Kevin Haupt appeared in 326 games from 1994-99).

Rutkowski also is tied with ex-teammate Joe Morrow for the most playoff games played in Winterhawks history (56).

And now he's the 37th captain in team history.

"A great honor. Really humbling," he says. "I just try to be a leader in the dressing room and show it on the ice, too. Do my job and not make mistakes."

Last season, he had 32 assists and scored a career-high 13 goals, tying for 17th in points among all defensemen in the league. The season before, he had 10 goals and 37 assists and was 16th among WHL D-men.

So he's proved capable of advancing the puck and being part of the attack, but he says everything he does is dictated by the situation.

"If we're up by a goal or two, or are on the penalty kill, or need me to block shots … whatever we need to do to win," he says.

He still at times may get overlooked, or at least he tends to get less publicity than some of the other Portland defensemen. This year, for example, more notoriety could go to Derrick Pouliot, because he was a first-round NHL draft pick, or to Tyler Wotherspoon, a second-round NHL selection, and to WHL rookie Seth Jones, who is considered potentially one of the top three picks in next year's NHL draft.

"I don't mind at all," Rutkowski says, of receiving less media attention. "Seth Jones is a wonderful player; he's going to be a great professional. Same with Pouliot. Tyler, Josh (Hanson) … all the guys deserve credit."

The Hawks have home games Friday and Saturday, both 7 p.m., at the Rose Garden against the Kelowna Rockets.

Portland is coming off a loss-win-win opening weekend. The Hawks fell at home to Seattle last Friday before winning on the road over the Thunderbirds and Tri-City Americans on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

"We played good overall," Rutkowski says. "Any time you come out of a three-in-three-nights with four points, it's good."

In the loss, the Winterhawks pummeled the Seattle net with 57 shots but were able to put two of those away. The T-Birds used a 4-0 second period to win 5-2 at the Rose Garden.

"We had our chances to score, but you've got to give credit to their goalie," Rutkowski says. "He held them in there. We had a little lapse in the second period but came back strong."

The next night, Seattle led 1-0 before the Winterhawks hit stride, scoring six goals in a row for a 6-2 victory.

"We wanted to show them that it wasn't going to happen again," Rutkowski says.

Then came the 4-2 win in Kennewick, Wash.

"Tri-City is known for good starts, and right off the bat we held our own and then took it to them," Rutkowski says, "and as the game progressed, we got stronger. We came out in the third period and locked it down."

Overall, then, after one weekend, Rutkowski says his assessment is that the Winterhawks "have a lot of potential. We brought in guys like Seth and (forward) Oliver (Bjorkstrand), and our 16-year-olds are really mature for their age and could be impact players for us, too."

One other thing is fairly certain: The Winterhawks have a defenseman, who now is also their captain, who will show up for them.