A standout season put Alex Petrovic in good stead to win the Western Hockey League defenceman of the year award, but he didn’t necessarily see it coming.
The Red Deer Rebels veteran was the recipient of the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy during the WHL awards luncheon Wednesday in Calgary, beating out Western Conference nominee Brenden Kichton of the Spokane Chiefs for the annual honour.
“Brenden Kichton had way more points than me this season and Spokane was a more successful team than we were and made the playoffs,” said Petrovic, contacted in Oklahoma City where he and his San Antonio Rampage teammates will face the Barons in the opening game of a second-round AHL playoff series tonight.
“But because we had such a tough year with injuries, Mathew (Dumba) and I logged a lot of minutes and in the end we gave ourselves a good chance of making the playoffs with what we had. I also had more goals (12) this year than I scored in the past, so that was an accomplishment.”
A WHL Eastern Conference first all-star team in 2011-12, Petrovic has a contract with the Florida Panthers — who selected him in the second round of the 2010 NHL entry draft — and has almost certainly played his last game with the Rebels, barring an NHL lockout in the fall.
“He’s been a very good defenceman in our league for the last three years,” said Rebels GM/head coach Jesse Wallin, in Calgary for today’s bantam draft. “He was basically an impact player at 17 and just continued to get better and better. As an 18-year-old he was a dominant guy and this past season he just took it to another level.
“He’s a world-class defenceman and he has a bright future in front of him.”
Petrovic attended the Canadian national junior team selection camp in December and was one of the final cuts. In hindsight, he should have been on the team for the world junior championship, but he didn’t let the snub bother him, returning to Red Deer and playing at an elite level for the second half of the season.
“We needed him to raise his level at that point in time because of all the injuries we had, with guys like (veteran defencemen) Justin Weller and Aaron Borejko out,” said Wallin. “We asked Alex to play a ton of minutes and he was playing 30 to 35 minutes a night. That’s a lot for anyone to take on but I thought he really stepped up when we needed him to.”
While Petrovic was appreciated in a big way by the Rebels’ coaches, the feeling is mutual.
“Jesse and the coaching staff in Red Deer have taught me so much. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them,” said the Edmonton native. “Brent Sutter runs a tight ship in Red Deer and the organization has done a good job of developing players, including players who are in the NHL.
“I can’t thank them enough for my time there, Red Deer was just a great place for me to play. The experience is something I’ll always remember.”
Petrovic joined the Rampage — Florida’s top farm team — at the conclusion of the Rebels season in March and gradually worked his way onto the everyday roster.
“Everyone on the team has been great and the hockey at this level is great. We have a lot of enthusiastic fans in San Antonio,” he said.
Petrovic got into five regular-season games with the Rampage, collecting a single assist in the process. He’s appeared in all five post-season games to date and is tied for third in team scoring with a goal and four points and has racked up a team-high 12 minutes in penalties.
“Originally I was just practising with the team, but a guy got hurt, I got my chance to play and I’ve been feeling good every since,” he said. “Hopefully I can continue to play well and stay in the lineup.”