U.S.-born Heinrich enjoys first-hand look at WHL finals

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Blake Heinrich, a recent arrival to the Portland Winterhawks, watches Game 5 of the Western Hockey League finals. Hell suit up full-time for the  Hawks next season.One day after hopping on a plane to Edmonton to join the Portland Winterhawks for the first time, 18-year-old defenseman Blake Heinrich was lodged in the meat of the Western Hockey League finals.

Despite not having practiced with the team, Heinrich, a Minnesota native, was called on for a couple of stints in last week’s Game 4 to help thwart the Oil Kings’ attack.

“It was unbelievable. The atmosphere out there was great,” Heinrich says.

After finishing his season with the United States Hockey League Sioux City Musketeers, Heinrich was available to move up to the WHL, as he was eligible to play in up to six games this season.

Heinrich admits he was nervous before his first WHL minutes.

“It was a little nerve-racking at first, but once I got out there a couple times, I got the jitters out of the way a little bit,” he says. “It felt good getting my first couple shifts out of the way.”

Winterhawks assistant general manager Matt Bardsley says the club decided to play Heinrich so soon because “we just wanted to get him in the lineup to change some things up, try something different.”

Heinrich immediately noticed Edmonton’s players are a few notches above his competition in the USHL.

“There are definitely bigger guys out and a lot more skilled guys, too,” he says. “I would say the biggest thing is the pace is a lot higher, though.”

Though Heinrich isn’t an imposing presence at 5-11, 198 pounds, he hangs his hat on beating down his opposition.

“I think I can bring a physical presence. I play really good defense,” he says. “I’m not much of an offensive guy, but I can chip in once in a while and am solid on the back end.”

Bardsley says Heinrich is more multidimensional than just a bruiser.

“He’s known for playing a physical game,” Bardsley says. But also: “He likes to carry the puck up the ice, and he makes a really good first pass.”

After finishing an entire season with the Musketeers, Heinrich admits he is worn out.

“My body’s a little worn down,” he says, “but I’m getting back to being good.”

Heinrich describes himself as a “laid-back, quiet guy,” but once he’s on the ice, his personality fits the function.

“I’m pretty loud on the ice. I like to trash talk,” he says.

With key Portland defensemen Derrick Pouliot, Mathew Dumba and Garrett Haar graduating, Heinrich could crack the starting six next season.

“We’ve projected him to be in the starting lineup next year,” Bardsley says. “He will certainly be a core defenseman.”

Following predecessors Paul Bittner, Chase De Leo and Haar, Heinrich continues a recent trend of American-born players joining the Winterhawks. He is from Cambridge, Minn.

“We certainly aren’t afraid to look into the American market, and there’s been some kids who are willing to come,” Bardsley says.

Bardsley says the trend is prevalent outside Portland city limits, as well. He cites American born Edmonton players Henrik Samuelsson and Cody Corbett as evidence of the WHL’s changing demographics.

“Once you see one come, then more teams are open to it. And then you see it across the league,” Bardsley says.

And team executives have sold the WHL to American players.

“The league has done a good job of educating American players and their families,” Bardsley says.

Bardsley says forward Skyler McKenzie and fellow defenseman Justin Greer also will see the ice next year for Portland.

However, he adds: “It still depends on who else is moving on.”

Heinrich was a fifth-round pick of the Washington Capitals in the 2013 NHL Draft.

“I didn’t go to the draft. I was at home with my friends and family, but once I saw my name get called, it was great,” Heinrich says.

However, he committed to Minnesota-Duluth his junior year of high school and was planning to give the college ranks a slap shot, before Portland offered him a contract over Christmas break.

“Me and my family thought it was a good fit for me,” he says. “Portland is a great organization with a lot of tradition.”

Heinrich thinks he will play about two years for the Winterhawks. However, right now, he is grounded in the moment.

“I just have to come to the rink every day and keep getting better,” he says. “We’ll see where it takes me.”

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