A year ago, the Portland Winterhawks rode the play of several players to the Western Hockey League championship, and none more than goalie Mac Carruth, defenseman Troy Rutkowski and forward Taylor Peters the teams three 20-year-old, overage players.
Two years ago, Tyler Maxwell, Rhett Rachinski and Jordan Peddle Edmontons overages helped the Oil Kings beat Portland in the WHL finals, and tallied 18 goals and 23 assists in the playoffs.
Three years ago, Kootenay 20-year-olds Kevin King, Matt Fraser and Steele Boomer combined for 26 goals and 26 assists in the playoffs and helped the Ice beat the Hawks in the WHL finals.
Go back to 1998, and the Winterhawks might not have won the Memorial Cup without the contributions of goalie Brent Belecki and forwards Chris Jacobson and Mike Hurley the teams three overage players.
You see a trend here? In junior hockey, great teams usually feature standout 20-year-olds, the guys who arent ready for the pros but can still be transcendent players among their age peers. They are in many cases physically and mentally more mature than the younger guys, and simply are better players after years of toil.
The 2014 Winterhawks, who could contend for another WHL title, have taken a different approach this season with their three 20-year-old players and the result has forged one of the better stories on the team: Adam Rossignol.
Potential overages Ty Rattie and Tyler Wotherspoon, as expected, went to the pros after last season, and Joey Baker left junior hockey to pursue an education. Mike Johnston, general manager and coach, went to work to fill the three overage spots.
The Hawks landed Garrett Haar, an NHL draft pick who left Western Michigan University to play juniors for one season; Haar has been a solid D-man all season.
A potential first-line winger, Shane McColgan, signed on.
Then, in training camp, coaches put some 20-year-olds through their paces Rossignol, Lukas Walter, Eric Walker and Tayler Thompson. Rossignol won a 20-year-old spot, making his WHL fourth team and, unusually, sticking with one of junior hockeys best teams despite not being one of its top players.
The 6-0, 190-pound Rossignol, from Surrey, British Columbia, played in 48 regular-season games, getting four goals and nine assists. He was a healthy scratch for many games, which is practically unheard of for overage players. But, Johnston, his staff and the players saw the value in Rossignol, beyond his abilities as a penalty-killer and fourth-line player. He practiced hard. He mentored young players. He stayed positive. A great team-first player. McColgan eventually left the team things didnt work out and Rossignol stayed.
He made our team, Johnston says. I told him at the beginning of the year, Hey, it might not work out for you, youre going to have to be patient.
I like that he has really good character. He fits in well with our group. Great personality. He can play center or wing. A good penalty killer.
Many times Rossignol uses the word happy to describe his season. And, why not? He could be part of some big things with the Hawks.
Rossignol was a spry 17-year-old rookie when Kootenay beat Portland in the 2011 WHL finals. He finished last season in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League a good level of hockey but wanted to finish his junior eligibility in the WHL before embarking on a possible Canadian university career.
This is obviously one of the ideal places to play in the WHL. I knew theyd be really good again, thats what attracted me, Rossignol says. I just figured if I came in and worked my hardest and did my best, it would work out.
This year, Ive definitely been a role guy.
The Hawks have their leadership players, led by captain Taylor Leier, but 20-year-olds also lead. Rossignol realizes the significance of that role.
Ive been around the league and seen some things, says Rossignol, who has played 223 WHL games with Kootenay, Swift Current, Regina and Portland. I try to keep everybody loose and happy.
Rossignol acknowledges the unique role for him.
Most 20-year-olds are top-six forwards or top four D-men or starting goalie, he says.
The Hawks traded for their third overage player, goaltender Corbin Boes, who played well during the teams late-season, 21-game winning streak. But, unless Brendan Burke gets hurt, even Boes might be sitting on the bench in the WHL playoffs.
So, could the overage situation hurt Portland, with only Haar in the full-time mix? Given that Portland won 30 of the 31 games heading into its playoff games at Vancouver, that may be a silly question. But, who knows?
During Portlands great four-year run, some overages have had a positive impact for the Hawks, and some have not. The past overages: 2013 Carruth, Rutkowski, Peters; 2012 Cam Reid, Oliver Gabriel, William Wrenn; 2011 Craig Cunningham, Matthew Ius, Tayler Jordan. Ius hardly played for the 2011 Hawks.
Johnston says he has been happy with Haar, Rossignol and Boes. But last year served as the ideal situation homegrown overages who knew the teams system and environment. Next year, for example, Adam De Champlain and Josh Hanson could be Portlands homegrown overages.
Theres nothing we can do about it, Johnston says, of the current overage situation. Id like to have three great 20-year-olds like everybody else, but its not always available.
Its nice to have your own, but you better be careful with trades, because you have to get character and the guy with the right drive.