Hawk rookies must grow up fast
Portland puts a green group with potential on the ice this season
Eventually, Alex Aldred will lose the crackling voice, the peach fuzz and the overall look of somebody barely old enough to drive.
And he will win more draws.
So far, the 5-foot-9, 167-pound rookie center for the Portland Winter Hawks finds himself physically outmatched against the players who already have passed adolescence.
'If I win the draw, I win,' Aldred says. 'Them being stronger, if it's a tie, he's got the edge.'
So goes the plight of most rookies, of which the Winter Hawks have plenty. Eight to be exact, including Czech imports in 18-year-old Roman Prazak and 19-year-old David Turon. The other six are as fresh as newly laid ice.
There are three rookie forwards who look the part of an average Western Hockey League player: Daniel DaSilva, 17, at 6-1, 190, and C.J. Jackson, 16, at an enormous 6-3, 242, and 6-3, 190 Danny LaPointe, a seldom-used player last year at Seattle. And backup defenseman Michael Funk, 16, can hold his own at 6-3, 180.
But Aldred and fellow 16-year-old Brandon Dubinsky are tiny, with Dubinsky at 5-9, 168. Highly skilled, yes. Experienced, not even.
Ready for the WHL? Maybe not.
But the Winter Hawks (2-6-1), who play at Seattle on Saturday and play host to Tri-City at 5 p.m. Sunday in Memorial Coliseum, don't have much choice. They lost their five top forwards, including Jakub Klepis, who opted to stay in the Czech Republic after spending last year in Portland. Only three Winter Hawks forwards Ñ Matt Girling, Craig Valette and Brad Priestlay Ñ have more than one year's experience in the league.
Obviously, a youth movement has begun. Two years from now, Jackson, DaSilva, Aldred and Dubinsky could be the four top forwards on the team. This season, however, they will surely take their lumps. The eight rookies have combined for five points, with Aldred getting the only goal.
'It's what we have and what's available,' General Manager Ken Hodge says. 'They all have futures. They're all good hockey players. We have to bring people in and develop hockey players.'
Adds coach Mike Williamson: 'We're poised for a good future. But we gotta get a little more out of them this year. Alex Aldred and Brandon Dubinsky will be great centermen for years to come.'
The Winter Hawk veterans are not exactly gray in the hair, either. LaPointe played some last year at Seattle but was released in this preseason this year. He's still considered a rookie by the WHL. Second-year players are playing key roles for Portland, including Aaron Roberge and Brian Woolger, who sat on the bench last year.
Hodge probably will spend hours with a phone attached to his ear in the next three months, trying to swing a deal or two to get more experienced players up front. A solid defense, which the Winter Hawks have, can only take the team so far.
The Winter Hawks released Rob MacGregor, 19, to give more ice time to younger players, and 20-year-old John Togiai because of the overage limit.
Excluding the Europeans and LaPointe, the rookies expected to get the most time are Aldred, DaSilva and Jackson.
'DaSilva scored well in our exhibition season,' Hodge says of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native. 'He's been a good goal scorer.'
Still, like most rookies, DaSilva has things to learn, Williamson says. 'He gets to loose pucks fast enough, but he's not battling hard enough. You can't be a one-dimensional player.'
As for Jackson, a Tacoma product, teammate Valette says: 'He's got a lot of maturing to do. He's so big, he's looked upon as being older. He's not. He's not afraid out there. He doesn't lose the puck. But he's got to get his speed up.'
Aldred, who is from St. Albert, Alberta, 'once in awhile pulls some magic out of his hat,' Valette says. 'We have a lot of confidence in Aldred. He doesn't lose too many battles.'
Yet, Williamson says of Aldred and Dubinsky: 'They get outmuscled right now. They've shown some great improvement. Great positioning, to where they can hold their own in battles.'
It'll be tough to get playing time for Dubinsky, of Anchorage, and Funk, from Abbotsford, British Columbia. But just the routine of daily practices at the WHL level will make them better for next year.
Aldred looks up to Valette and Priestlay as two guys who can ease his transition from WHL rookie to legitimate player.
'Each and every one of our rookies has unbelievable potential,' Valette says. 'Us veterans have to help them out, and they have to be brave.'