It’s safe to say former Red Deer Rebels captain Grayson Pawlenchuk is enjoying life after the WHL.
Pawlenchuk, 22, is in his second season with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, one of the premier teams in all of U Sports Hockey.
In his rookie campaign, longtime Rebel had a strong season, producing 22 points in 28 games, on a team that won the Can West conference but lost in the U Sports national final to the University of New Brunswick Reds last spring.
This year, a number of Golden Bears forwards moved to the pro ranks, including former Rebels’ teammate Luke Philip, who signed a deal with the Calgary Flames.
That left a void upfront, a void that Pawlenchuk, who scored 60 times in 282 WHL games, was more than happy to fill. He’s had a coming-out party through 18 games this season, with 12 goals and 22 points in 18 games this year. That has him second overall in scoring in the Canada West.
As part of his breakout season this year, Pawlenchuk was one of six Golden Bears that was named a U Sports All-Star and invited to play against Team Canada at the world junior national selection camp.
“For me personally, I’ve been off to a good start, been playing better than I have in a few years for sure. So it’s been really nice and the confidence has been up with the team and myself,” he said.
“I think building off last year, I think in the second half, I really started to gain a lot of confidence, I was playing with two great linemates, same with this year. Just building and knowing we were losing some key guys, so there were roles to be filled, I was looking forward to being a guy they would look to fill those roles.”
He said the confidence even started from day one, with former teammates like Philip and others he’d played against in his WHL career already in the locker room.
“I was in Red Deer for five years, so, for the most part, each year I knew 75 per cent of the team,” Pawlenchuk said.
“It was a change coming to a new team. Just playing against guys I got to know some of them, there were obviously players I knew when I was younger or that I played with in Red Deer, those are huge things that helped me get comfortable.”
He said the adjustment to the university level, playing only 28 games compared to 72 in the WHL, has been a bit of a learning curve. In the WHL, typically you played three to four times per week, and there wasn’t much else to think about. At the university level, you practice nearly five days a week, then play on weekends. Instead of hanging out with teammates on off days, it’s often spent studying.
On the ice, with fewer games, he said it’s also crucial to play at a high level night in and night out.
“Getting used to playing only two games a week, practicing so much throughout the week and how much pressure is on you each game, it’s a short season so each game is worth a lot more,” he said.
“So consistency becomes a huge thing. That was something I had to learn quickly.”
The Edmonton native noted although the league maybe didn’t have the best reputation in years past, it has grown into a destination for WHL players. Eleven former WHLers committed to the Golden Bears for this season.
“The hockey is great, it’s all former western league guys, our team alone was like three or four 100 point guys from the western league,” he said.
“There’s great players here, the league is good. It’s fast and hard. It’s a bit of a transition with the schedule.”
Through 18 games this year, the Golden Bears are 15-3, ranked second in the nation, behind the Reds, who are the reigning national champs.
Pawlenchuk remembers fondly the trip to nationals last year and the stories from players who were part of the 2018 national title victory. He said the loss, combined with that win is helping motivate the current group.
“They won it the year before, so how guys talked about that and I remember the guys saying how much they loved that and how much fun it was,” Pawlenchuk said.
“I think the difference, it’s a huge motivator to get back to that winning mentality and trying to win that championship this year. Especially me, because I wasn’t apart of it when they won.”