CALGARY — Mathew Dumba needed all of one regular-season game to realize he was a legitimate Western Hockey League player.
The dynamic Red Deer Rebels defenceman scored his first major junior goal in the team’s season-opening 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings last September. He continued to thrive from there and on Wednesday was presented with the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year during the WHL awards luncheon at the BMO Centre.
“After my first game it just felt like ‘this is where I’m supposed to be’. All of the guys on the team were so supportive right from the start and it worked out nicely for me,” said Dumba. “I gained confidence throughout the season. I got more confident moving the puck and I can’t say enough my coaches. They helped me every day.”
As did his veteran fellow blueliners.
“The guys on the back end, the older guys like (Alex) Petrovic, (Justin) Weller and (Colin) Archer . . . those guys helped get to me to where I am now,” said Dumba, who beat out Portland Winterhawks forward Sven Bartschi for the top freshman award. “They helped me both on and off the ice.”
Dumba went on to score 15 goals in his freshman campaign. He also added 11 assists in 62 regular-season games, posted a plus-24 rating and rang up 83 minutes in penalties as he delivered a number of highlight-reel open-ice hits and engaged in several scraps.
“He has a tremendous ability level. His acceleration, mobility and his shot are all at elite levels, especially for a young defenceman,” said Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin.
“There was definitely an adjustment period for him, when he was learning that things that he was able to get away with at lower levels don’t quite fly at this level. But as the year went on his defensive play got better and he continued to progress. He’s a guy we’re certainly very excited about.”
Dumba, at six-foot and 175 pounds, isn’t physically imposing. But looks can be deceiving, as Wallin noted.
“He’s not big but he’s powerful and he’s very explosive, very strong on his feet,” said the Rebels bench boss. “He’s an elite skater and he has tremendous edge control and catches guys off guard that way. The combination of his skating ability and his explosive power and strength make him a special player. He’s just a tremendous athlete.”
With a second outstanding season, Dumba will set himself up as a first-round prospect for next year’s NHL entry draft.
“There are so many thing ahead of me . . . goals and achievements that I want to reach,” he said. “I’m going to work hard this summer and come back even stronger.”
• Stefan Elliott of the Saskatoon Blades was presented with the defenceman of the year award (Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy), beating out Western Conference nominee Tyson Barrie of the Kelowna Rockets.
Meanwhile, Elliott was runner-up to Tyler Johnson for the most sportsmanlike award (Brad Hornung Trophy); Saskatoon’s Lorne Molleken was named executive of the year (Lloyd Saunders Trophy) over Mike Johnston of the Portland Winterhawks; Moose Jaw Warriors captain Spencer Edwards was selected as the humanitarian of the year (Doug Wickenheiser Memorial Trophy) while Chilliwack Bruins defenceman and Red Deer native Jeff Einhorn was runner-up; Colin Smith of the Kamloops Blazers beat out last year’s winner — Adam Lowry of the Swift Current Broncos — for scholastic player of the year (Daryl K. (Doc) Seaman Memorial Trophy); Matt Kirk was named top official; Mike Moore of the Calgary Hitmen won the marketing/communications award over Brian Sandy of the Tri-City Americans; and the Broncs were honoured as the scholastic team of the year.
In addition, former Flin Flon Bombers and then Philadelphia Flyers great Bob Clarke and five-year WHL player Jeff Zorn accepted WHL alumni achievement awards. The league’s top scorer trophy is named after Clarke, while Zorn studied medicine at the University of Alberta and is now a second-year intern at the U of A Hospital.
Linden Vey of the Medicine Hat Tigers picked up the Bob Clarke Trophy as the league’s top scorer.