Leaving Portland was difficult, in more ways than one.
When new Red Deer Rebels forward Presten Kopeck departed the Oregon city last Sunday, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the 15-degree (Celsius) range. Not only that, he was leaving the only Western Hockey League team he knew.
“I started my career there last year and won a (WHL) championship,” the 18-year-old, who last week was acquired from the Portland Winterhawks — along with three second-round bantam draft picks — for the WHL rights to Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba, said earlier this week after arriving in snowbound Red Deer albeit in the midst of mild weather.
“The trade was a big shock. Those guys (Winterhawks) are my second family so it’s always going to be hard to leave them. But this is a new opportunity to meet some new friends, life-long friends, so I’m really excited to be here.”
Kopeck is a live wire that Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter hopes will add some leadership and grit to his lineup. The Medicine Hat native is, in the words of Winterhawks GM/head coach Mike Johnston, “a heart and soul guy”, a player who can help ignite a team with his inspiring work ethic.
“I’m a power forward who plays with a lot of energy and a bit of skill,” said Kopeck, downplaying the talent level that helped him collect 19 points — including 10 goals — as a WHL rookie and 10 points (4-6) in 24 games this season while seeing third-line duty with the ‘Hawks.
“I play an energy game. I put the team on my back and play for the logo on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. I’m an energy player who likes to compete.”
Kopeck was a scorer at the major bantam and midget AAA levels and as a 16-year-old sniped 11 goals and accumulated 30 points in 56 games with the junior A Lloydminster Bobcats in 2011-12. A third-round pick of the Winterhawks in the 2010 WHL bantam draft, he joined the team at the start of the 2012-13 campaign.
Playing with a stacked Portland squad each of the last two years, Kopeck was well down the depth chart and was used primarily in a defensive, shut-down role. He’ll get a better opportunity to showcase his offensive skills in Red Deer.
“The depth Portland has is unbelievable,” said Kopeck, a six-foot, 175-pound center. “Coming here, I have to make a point and show them how I play and try and break into the top six (forwards). This is a better opportunity for me to pursue those goals and prolong my career.
“The more ice I get the more confidence will grow on me. The more I play I think the better I’m going to be, and I’m going to get better in practice and in games, so I’m going to learn a lot being here and I’m really excited.”
While he has yet to talk to Sutter — currently overseas preparing for the World Junior Championship as head coach of Team Canada — Kopeck has met with Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt and assistant Steve O’Rourke and is fully aware of the coaching staff’s expectations.
“They just want me to play like I have been, just play my role and don’t change anything,” said Kopeck. “They said that will benefit me, so I just have to keep that mindset of coming ready to play every single game.”
Sutter has already stated that he wants to employ Kopeck in a leadership role, a task that should come naturally considering his style of play.
“I’m a veteran guy, I guess, who comes to the rink every day ready to battle in practices and in games,” he said. “My goal is to improve my own game and help make the team better.”
While Kopeck is chomping at the bit, he’ll have to wait another two to three weeks before making his Rebels debut after recently undergoing hernia surgery.
“It was a huge tear, but I’m coming along well,” he said. “The therapist said I’m ahead of schedule, so I should be back in early January. I just skated this morning (Tuesday) and it felt pretty good, just a little tight. But that was my first skate in three weeks and I felt really good for how long I’ve been off the ice.
“I’m really excited about coming back in early January.”