Fri Oct 07 08:32pm EDT
Slater Koekkoek was thrown off the deep end in his first tour through the OHL — and came out the better for it.
Playing on a rebuilding Peterborough Petes club meant Koekkoek, who came into the league with a reputation as a superb skater and offensive defenceman, took on more than rookies are typically expected to handle. However, that along with representing Canada in both the IIHF and Memorial of Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournaments earlier this year have helped him progress quickly. The Inkerman, Ont., native is off to a good start with the Petes, having counted five points in his first seven games for a team off to a 4-1-1-1 start.
"There was a lot of that, getting put into situations that were difficult," says the 6-foot-2, 183-pound Koekkoek, who is pegged as later first-round pick in some early projections. "But it was a great learning year for everyone in the organization and we got out of it and we're doing well now. Everybody goes through that. We were young and we knew it was going to be a rough season [finishing 19th overall in the OHL]."
The Petes still have a relatively young defence corps, as none of their seven regulars are more than 18. That makes Koekkoek a de facto elder statesman. The 17-year-old has responded well, particular on Thursday when he helped contain New York Rangers first-round choice J.T. Miller in a 3-0 Petes win over the Plymouth Whalers. In his rookie year, the Petes didn't post a single shutout.
"I've seen a much more mature hockey player, a guy who's always had a lot of confidence but is thinking the game better," Petes coach Mike Pelino says. "He's using his whole package now not just the offensive part of the game. I see real nice development in him.
"It's a combination of he got a year older, there's a factor that we have a better team around him," adds Pelino, also in his second year in Peterborough. "I think that he gained some valuable experience with the under-18 program, both in the spring and in the summer. I think, all around, that mixes in well with his own individual work."
"It was just living away from home so early. Grade 9, I started at Notre Dame, so I had to leave home. It just helped me that much more for the OHL and helped me learn how to deal with pressure."
You are a small-town guy, did that make the adjustment to Wilcox, Sask., easier than it was for other players? "Maybe. It was out of the middle of the nowhere so I think I had a small advantage."
2. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and when you'll be on the cusp of turning pro?
"I think it's my defensive play. I worked on that lot o over the summer and I think it's really improved, if I can continue to improve on that, the offence will come."
3. What do you consider your proudest hockey achievement?
"Winning gold for Canada is pretty big, just over last summer. I'd say that would take the cake, but who knows in the future? I just remember the good guys who were there, lots of good friends from the OHL and lots of great players from everywhere in Canada."
4. What teammate has had the biggest effect on you?
"Last year, our captain, Jack Walchessen, really took me under his wing and helped me along the way. He really played a big role in me growing up as a person and I thank him for that."
5. What sport would you play if there was no hockey?
"I played a lot of baseball growing up, but the end, I just stopped hitting the ball and had to quit that. But I always liked it and thought it was pretty cool."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: CHL Images).