The biggest question surrounding the RDC Kings hockey team going into the 2019-20 Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference season was who would replace Tanner Butler on the blueline.
It was a huge hole to fill as Butler, who’s playing for Evansville in the Southern Professional Hockey League this season, was not only the leading scorer among defencemen in the ACAC with 20 assists and 30 points in 26 games, but the ACAC player of the year.
It turns out Kings head coach Trevor Keeper didn’t have far to look to find a replacement.
Tyler Podgorenko joined the Kings in the 2017-18 season from the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the AJHL with the reputation of being an offensive defenceman.
He showed signs of that in his first season with 11 points in 21 games, took a step up last year with 20 points in 27 games and is the league’s top scoring rearguard this year with six goals, 14 helpers and 20 points in 17 games.
“It was obviously tough losing a big piece like Tanner as he was one of the better players in the league and one of the best I’ve ever played with,” said the six-foot, 190-pound Podgorenko. “It was great learning from him. Taking over from him was a role I wanted to be in and got to step into this year.”
Keeper isn’t asking Tyler to fill Butler’s shoes, but likes what he sees from the 23-year-old native of Nelson, BC.
“When I was asked about who would replace Tanner, the answer is your don’t. But even Tanner didn’t really came into his own until his third year. You know you have to eventually replace him and you bring in a good rookie crop and allow the guys to grow and step up and you challenge them to fill that role.
“Pogs did that and set a goal for himself to be a point-a-game guy and he’s been that and more.”
Tyler, like the majority of rookies in the ACAC, took time to develop.
“It’s definitely a different game than junior,” he said. “The guys are overall bigger and smarter. You have to really watch your body position and be more conscience of the defensive side for sure.
“Plus the more confidence he got on the defensive side the more it helped offensively,” added Keeper, who felt Tyler needed a season to be where he needed to be defensively.
“He was a shooter coming out of junior and struggled a bit defensively his rookie season, but he learned that by his second year and now in his third he has an all-round game. He’s a special talent with the puck.”
Tyler calls himself a late bloomer and didn’t have an opportunity to play in the Western Hockey League. His first taste of junior hockey was with the Melville Millionaires of the SJHL in the 2014-15 season.
“I had a friend from Nelson who played in Melville, so that was the connection there,” he explained. “I went there, but It didn’t work out and I returned home and played junior B for the rest of that season.”
The following year he once again returned to Saskatchewan but with the Notre Dame Hounds.
He had 20 points in 49 games his first season and 36 in 36 games his second before being traded at the deadline to the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the AJHL.
“An hour before the deadline I was traded and it worked out perfectly,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time in Bonnyville.”
He played 19 games, collecting seven points before adding six points in eight playoff games.
All the while Keeper was watching.
“Trevor was in contact with me my whole 20-year-old season and when I moved to Bonnyville it gave him an opportunity to watch more games.
“It just all fell together and they had the courses I was looking for … it’s a great fit.”
Tyler will be an instrumentation engineering technician after this year but plans on taking two years to be an electrician.
By then he may be challenging Butler for the team’s top scoring defenceman. Butler finished with 112 points in 145 games. Tyler has 51 in 65 games.
The Kings have a tough weekend coming up as they face NAIT in a home-and-home — Friday at 7 p.m. at the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre — and Saturday in Edmonton.
The Kings have run into a string of injuries plus several players ware battling the flu last weekend when they split a home-and-home with Augustana.
“We’re a bit low on bodies right now,” said Podgorenko. “But we have the skill to play with anyone if we stay healthy.”
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org