Tri-City Americans head coach Jim Hiller knew Mitch Topping was the right person to assume the role of on-ice leader; what he didn’t realize was how much the club would miss his presence earlier this season.
“He’s our captain for a reason,” said Hiller. “We missed him on the ice when he was out for an extended period with an injury. Even though it took him a couple of weeks to regain his form when he returned just after Christmas, just having him with the team made a big difference in morale.
“Any time you have a captain you know how everyone feels about him. He’s a great guy. I had him in Chilliwack as a young guy when I was coaching there, so we kind of have a long history.”
Topping, who missed seven weeks with a broken arm and returned home to Red Deer for nearly a month while recuperating, played his final Western Hockey League game at the Enmax Centrium last Saturday and scored the eventual winner as Tri-City topped the Red Deer Rebels 4-2.
“It’s a big honour to wear the ‘C’, especially playing at home here in front of people I grew up with,” Topping said following the game. “I owe a lot to the city and the minor hockey program. Me being a captain in this league is kind of a tribute to Red Deer minor hockey.”
The six-foot-one, 190-pound defenceman was drafted by the Chilliwack Bruins (now the Victoria Royals) in the first round — eighth overall — of the 2008 WHL bantam draft and played eight games with the Bruins as a 15-year-old. He joined the club on a full-time basis the following season — 2009-10 — and played two years in Chilliwack before being dealt to the Americans in 2011.
“We traded for him when he was 18 and he’s had three great years with us,” said Hiller.
Topping admitted that he felt a measure of pressure when he was named captain of the Americans last April, just a week following the conclusion of Tri-City’s 2012-13 season.
“It’s something I had to get used to for sure, especially during the first few weeks of the season,” he said. “It took me awhile to adjust to the role, but I have a great supporting cast of assistant captains and various leaders in the (dressing) room and that takes a lot of the load off me.”
Tri-City currently occupies the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, six points clear of the Prince George Cougars with two games in hand. Topping is confident the Americans, 7-2-0-1 in their last 10 outings, will qualify for the post-season and then make some noise.
“We’re starting to come now. We had a bunch of injuries earlier and kind of went into a slump, but we’re definitely coming on now,” he insisted. “The guys can feel it and we’re excited.”
As his five-year WHL career winds down, the former major bantam Red Deer Rebels White star wonders where the time went.
“I can’t believe this is my last year,” he said. “I remember talking (to the Advocate) as a 15-year-old on draft day. Time flies by.
“I try to pass that on to the young guys on our team — don’t miss a second because one day you’ll blink and be old like me.”
Topping, who enjoyed a breakout offensive season last winter with 13 goals and 39 points in 62 games and has contributed 15 points (4g,11a) in 31 games in 2013-14, talked to a CIS scout from York University following Saturday’s contest and will likely pursue a post-secondary education if he doesn’t get a professional offer following the season.
“That’s every hockey player’s goal — to go and play pro somewhere,” he said. “Whether or not an opportunity presents itself . . . we’ll have to wait and see about that.
“Otherwise, a good Plan B would be to go with the education and scholarship program the WHL offers. You can’t complain about that.”
Hiller is certain of one thing — Topping will be playing and contributing at some level next season.
“He’s going to have lots of choices. I really believe that,” said the Americans bench boss.