Learning curve includes a few frays as WHL powerhouse seasons its dozen new addisions

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Forward Adam De Champlain rushes up the ice for the Portland Winterhawks in their second-round Western Hockey League playoff series with Spokane.Adam De Champlain of the Portland Winterhawks must be really good at what he does. He can smile, and display something fairly unusual for somebody who tussles with the opponent’s tough guys — a full set of teeth, thanks in part to the use of a mouth guard.

“I think I’ve fared decently,” he says of fights. “Gotta keep in the mouth piece, so you don’t bite your tongue and stuff.”

De Champlain has been a valuable addition to a Western Hockey League championship-level team — a team that included a lot of new additions, 12 in all counting emergency goalie Jarrod Schamerhorn on the playoff roster.

Defenseman Seth Jones was the featured addition, but the likes of De Champlain and fellow forwards Presten Kopeck, Keegan Iverson and Paul Bittner were all pleasant surprises for the Hawks.

To have four or five rookies contribute would be fantastic on most WHL teams ... but eight? Nine? Ten?

“We knew we’d have a lot of turnover,” says coach Travis Green, whose team was facing Spokane in the Western Conference semifinals after a record-breaking regular season. “That’s the way it is in junior hockey. A lot of young guys came in and played key situations.”

Indeed, Jones and European import Oliver Bjorkstrand have been prime-time contributors, but several other first-year players have done their share in helping Portland become the top-ranked team in junior hockey.

The Winterhawks are regarded as a tougher team this season, after back-to-back WHL finals appearances, in large part because of the additions of De Champlain and Joe Mahon.

De Champlain has been in 17 fights and amassed a team-leading 177 regular-season penalty minutes. Mahon, another first-year guy, had a few more fights — “I wouldn’t want to fight him,” De Champlain says. Clearly, the pair has helped enforce things on the ice, where opponents often try to rough up or intimidate skill players. Fights often ensue, it’s the nature of the game.

“He’s not a guy who other teams enjoy playing against,” Green says of the 6-1, 180-pound De Champlain.

After attending two prior Winterhawks’ training camps, De Champlain played Junior A hockey in Camrose, Alberta, and then made the team this year and accepted his role. He’s now 19 — 18 in hockey age.

“Last year, I had only three fights, but I had a broken wrist,” he says. “Bumping up to 17 this season was a huge deal. I had to work my way on to the team doing anything. If I have to fight, I have to fight.

“It’s almost a way of policing the game. You’re not going to see 10 fights a game. But, it sets the tone out there, especially for me, when guys are going after our top guys, you’re going to have to step in. Then, they’ll think a second before going after them again.”

Soft-spoken off the ice, De Champlain says his competitiveness takes over on it. He’s also the son of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, Yvon De Champlain, who works in border control and other areas.

Policing things on ice, “it’s definitely a part of my personality,” says De Champlain, who hails from Sherwood Park, Alberta, suburban Edmonton.

The Winterhawks have been such an offensive juggernaut, led by Nicolas Petan, Brendan Leipsic and Ty Rattie. A lot of players have gotten on scoring sheets. De Champlain had eight goals and 10 assists during the regular season. A bigger scoring role might be part of next season.

“I always want to look for my offense, and look for ways to improve my offense,” he says. “Everyone wants to get to the next level, and I got parts of my game at every level to work on.”

Similarly, the 17-year-old Kopeck attended Portland training camp last year, but he had already committed to the Junior A Lloydminster Bobcats.

“I wanted to do that to better myself,” he says. “Get experience and then come into ‘The Dub.’ I thought it was a better route for me.”

He made the Hawks this season, and earned consistent playing time, scoring 10 goals with nine assists. More importantly, he provided non-stop energy.

“We’ve liked ‘Kopes’ since we drafted him,” Green says. “He’s a really good player. He does a lot of good things that go unnoticed. The average fan might not recognize them, but to guys in the locker room, those guys are invaluable. He competes hard, stays on the right side of the puck, he’s tough to play against, tenacious. He’s been a really good surprise for us.”

The 6-0, 165 Kopeck, from Medicine Hat, Alberta, has played with various linemates on grinding, checking lines. He sees a larger role ahead next year.

“I like to be offensive, create chances, but my work ethic is over the top,” he says. “I give 110 percent every game. I won’t let up. Finish my checks. Play with a lot of energy. I’ll do whatever I can do help the team.”

Many WHL rookies are 16 years old. The Winterhawks sport three — Iverson and Bittner, both from Minnesota, and Dominic Turgeon, from Cherry Hills, Colo.

Entering games at Spokane this week, Bittner had played in seven of eight playoff games, and Iverson in six. Turgeon had made one appearance.

Bittner (45 games), Iverson (47) and Turgeon (54) all saw ample action during the regular season, combining for 21 goals and 20 assists — Bittner had 12 goals and 11 assists himself, actually playing with first-line guys during one stretch after Christmas. He’s clearly a burgeoning scorer.

“I got a good amount of games in, especially with the talent we have,” says the 6-4 Bittner, who has gained about 10 pounds during the season, weighing about 205 now. “We’re playing day in and day out ... half of our team is drafted or signed (with NHL teams). We’re playing against them every day.”

Like Bittner, Iverson has size — a hulking 6-0, 215 pounds.

Green says the value of the two rookies in the playoffs has been the “heavy” minutes they have played, meaning a lot of ice time and grinding play against the opponent’s defensemen.

“You need guys to play heavy minutes,” Green says. “Those two guys are big — might be the heaviest guys on the team. And, they’re only 16. They’re getting better every game. They got a lot of energy, and they’re hungry to stay in the lineup.”

Iverson says playing against older players has been invaluable.

“They have a lot more experience,” he says. “You get the puck and you have to make decisions right way. It’s just a mind game. You have to be out there working your hardest every shift. You can’t let down.”

Iverson, Bittner and Turgeon recently had a conversation. The topic: the future. It’s pretty bright for the them and the Winterhawks.

“We’re going to have a really good team next year,” Bittner says. “We’re going to be a big part of that.”

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