BLACKFALDS — In another time, Mike Winther would have been putting up big numbers in Red Deer.
But when the Hockey Alberta zone boundaries changed a few years ago, the Trochu native was forced to play his major bantam hockey in Airdrie. It worked out rather well for the flashy forward, who last season captured the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League scoring title with 40 goals and 63 points in regular-season games, had 22 points (13-9) in 14 playoff contests and then led the Xtreme to the Western Canada championship with five goals and 11 points in four tournament games.
The Prince Albert Raiders grabbed Winther sixth overall in the WHL bantam draft last spring and he’s currently a member of Team Alberta in the Western Canada Challenge Cup that opened on Thursday with the host provincial squad defeating British Columbia 6-4 in the evening game.
All in all, it’s been a banner year for the five-foot-11 centre.
“Winning westerns last spring was a great experience and then being drafted by Prince Albert was a real bonus,” said Winther, who scored once on Thursday.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the WHL since I was little. I never really wanted to go the junior A (and US college scholarship) route. People have difference preferences, but playing in the dub is the quickest way to the show (NHL).”
Winther’s game is mostly offence.
“Scoring goals is the best feeling you can ever have, but I try to work on my defensive game as much as I can,” he said. “If you want to play in the dub you have to play well at both ends of the ice.”
The 15-year-old is playing midget AAA with the UFA Bisons out of Strathmore this season and has recorded two goals and five points in five games after recovering from a preseason leg injury.
“I’m playing against older and bigger guys and that’s going to help me prepare for next season (in the WHL),” said Winther. “Midget hockey is quite a bit faster than bantam, too, and then it’s definitely going to be a big step up next year.
“I have to keep working on my weaknesses because (the Raiders) will probably be expecting a lot from me.”
For now, Winther is focusing on helping Alberta take top honours in the first-ever Western Challenge Cup, a tournament featuring the top 15-year-olds from the four western provinces. So far, so good.
“The message from our coach (Trevor Keeper) after the game was that we played great, stayed out of the penalty box and kept to the system,” said Winther. “When we gave up a goal we never backed down, we just kept coming hard. Everyone is buying into the system and it’s going to take a team effort to win this event.
“So far, It’s been a lot of fun. We’re all having a great time.”
Also scoring for Team Alberta were Branden Troock, Tyrell Colbourne, Zane Jones, Brandon Magee and Jayden Hart, while netminder Troy Trombley made 11 saves. Morgan Zulinick, Austin Plevy, Griffin Reinhardt and Turner Popoff replied for British Columbia, outshot 31-15 and assessed 12 of 18 minor penalties.
Defenceman Morgan Rielly contributed three assists in a losing cause.
In the tournament’s opening game, Brendan Leipsic scored a goal and added an assist to lead Manitoba past Saskatchewan 4-2.
Manitoba meets B.C. at 4 p.m. today, followed by Saskatchewan versus Alberta at 7 p.m.
The tournament concludes with the gold-medal game at 7 p.m. Sunday.