While he’s not yet a top-flight Western Hockey League player, Vukie Mpofu is an A-plus student of the game.
The Red Deer Rebels rookie forward is catching on to the major junior brand with a mixture of speed and physical play and is doing everything within his power to improve as a player.
Mpofu nearly cracked the Rebels roster last year, but instead was returned to the Saskatoon Contacts and won the Saskatchewan Midget AAA League scoring race with 71 points (31g,40a) in 43 games. He knew he wouldn’t experience the same offensive prowess as a Rebels rookie, but he’s shown gradual improvement in all areas.
“Playing here was a bit of a learning curve at first but each and every day you start to feel a little bit better, a little more comfortable,” the 17-year-old said Thursday.
“Right now I feel a lot better than I did earlier in the season. I like where things are headed and I’m always challenging myself to be better.”
The Saskatoon native, who made four appearances with the Rebels last winter, fully realized that he was facing an entirely new challenge heading into his first WHL regular-season game as a full-time member of the team.
“It’s another level obviously and the preparation is a lot more intense,” he said. “The demands and the accountability are a lot more significant at this level, but in the end if you love what you do and you want to be the best that you can be every day, you’ll have success. It’s all about putting the work in and that’s what I’m trying to do every day.
“I try to work on all aspects of my game, whether it’s on the ice or in the gym or doing stretching and stuff like that . . . just doing something every day so that you’re better than you were the day before.”
His work in the Rebels’ dressing room gymnasium has certainly paid off as Mpofu has added a few pounds of muscle to his five-foot-nine frame and also improved his skating stride.
“For sure, it’s helped me to be more explosive. That’s the biggest thing, to try to be a better skater,” he said.
“It’s kind of just something you have to do to try and get a leg up on the other guys. I want to be the best skater that I can be so I do a lot of leg exercises. When you’re a good skater and skate explosively, it’s easy to be a physical player because you’re there. You’re there on time and that’s kind of the biggest thing for me.”
The 170-pound Mpofu has scored twice and added three assists in 32 games this season. He’s also racked up 28 minutes in penalties and isn’t afraid to mix it up, as he showed Tuesday when he was engaged in two fights during a 6-0 loss to the host Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“It’s not something that you really think about beforehand, but the emotion of the game and the situation of the game at times calls for it,” he said. “As far as the other night goes, I had two (fights) and that won’t happen very often. But the situation kind of led to that.
“The team sometimes needs someone to provide a spark. It doesn’t have to be a fight, but whatever it calls for at that time, someone has to step up and do it and I don’t mind being that guy.”
Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt has been pleased with Mpofu’s progress as a first-year regular.
“When he first came to us, with him being smaller player there was a concern that understanding the heaviness of this league might have been a little harder for him,” said Truitt. “But he’s obviously figuring things out that way. He’s getting more involved, he’s scored a couple of goals for us and physically he’s not getting pushed around. We knew it would be a bit of a learning curve for him but we’re nearly halfway through the season now and he’s making good strides.”
l The Rebels face the Kootenay Ice tonight at Cranbrook, then return home to host the Hurricanes Saturday at 7 p.m.
Red Deer’s final game prior to the Christmas break is Tuesday against the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers. The Rebels’ first game after the break is Dec. 27 against the visiting Calgary Hitmen.