With the Portland Winterhawks season ending five games prematurely, the accolades have to be handed out without the true 68 game sample size.
I share who I would vote for if given a ballot in the Winterhawks’ usual season-ending award ceremony. I did not include the Team Scholastic Player nor any awards determined solely by statistics.
These are my opinion only, not official awards.
At the end, I also added one of my own categories into the mix.
Donald D. Ickes Memorial Award – Kishaun Gervais – This award is given to the Booster Club’s fan favorite. Based on my mentions on game night, I think the answer is pretty clear. Kishaun Gervais has to be my pick here.
The 18-year-old rookie from Kamsack, Saskatchewan played in 31 games in 2019-2020 registering eight goals, nine assists, and 38 penalty minutes. 30 of Kishaun’s 38 penalty minutes came as a result of his six fights during the season. When the team needed him, Gervais was willing to drop the gloves to give the bench a spark or defend a teammate. During warmups, he would interact with fans along the glass often giving young fans a puck or even a stick. Even when not in the lineup, he stopped to pose for selfies with fans in his suit — oftentimes a suit with a unique style.
Jann and Robert Boss – Johnny Ludvig – For the second consecutive season Ludvig is my vote to receive the team’s top defenseman award.
Prior to the season, he was named the 44th captain in team history. Ludvig’s busy offseason included being selected 69th overall by the Florida Panthers in the NHL Draft. Entering the year, Ludvig was known for his defensive prowess and shutdown ability. However, in 60 games played, the Kamloops, British Columbia, native found the back of the net 17 times to round out his game. Ludvig finished third in goals scored by Western Conference defensemen. During the summer he worked tirelessly on his shot including time in the Czech Republic with some European pro players.
Despite the increase in goal scoring — Ludvig had seven career goals in 109 games prior — his play without the puck never faltered. Head coach Mike Johnston often paired him with overage defenseman Matthew Quigley to form a true shutdown pair. Ludvig went up against other team’s top lines every night. Without Ludvig on the ice, Portland does not finish the season giving up the third-fewest goals.
Sportsmanship and Ability – Jake Gricius – This is a harder category to vote on since I’m not at ice level. I also believe there are many strong candidates for this accolade. Last year’s winner, Jared Freadrich, I felt was an easy selection for anyone who knows Jared. I chose Gricius this season for a few reasons, but what stands out most to me is how Jake handled injuries to opponents. I recall on several occasions Jake watching closely, and once the player was on his feet, he was the first to tap his stick on the ice or boards.
The ability portion of this award also makes sense for Gricius as he was Portland’s number one center. Gricius was also the faceoff guy for Mike Johnston participating in 1,465 draws. The 20-year-old from Colorado Springs took 829 more faceoffs then his next closest teammate (Lane Gilliss). Only Chase Wouters of Saskatoon took more faceoffs (1,505) in the WHL. Hockey in today’s day and age is all about puck possession. With Gricius at the dot, Portland started with possession 55.5% of the time.
Top Rookie – Jack O’Brien – This award was a tough decision for me, but I give the slight, slight edge to the listed 16-year-old center from Denver, Colorado. Portland’s youth was a huge storyline in 2019-2020 and many players have a strong argument.
Simon Knak had four more points despite playing in six fewer games. The power-forward winger showcased his playmaking ability finishing the year with 25 assists in 49 games.
I also gave some consideration to Tyson Kozak. While officially a 17-year-old by birth year, with a December 29 birth date, Kozak is three days away from being considered a 16-year-old. The product of Souris, Manitoba, played in all 63 games for Portland and quietly put up 29 points. Often slotted on the third or fourth line, Kozak emerged as a 200-foot player Johnston could trust on both ends of the ice.
It was also hard to overlook Gabe Klassen’s 0.50 points-per-game after joining the team full time partially into the season. With 15 points in 30 games played — Portland’s third centerman 17 or younger — Klassen is set up well for a breakout year in 2020-2021.
Ultimately O’Brien is my vote as he centered the line of Seth Jarvis and Jaydon Dureau. Jarvis finished the season second in league scoring and Jack never looked out of place in the middle of Portland’s dynamic duo. O’Brien was not afraid to stand in front of the net to clean up rebounds or provide a necessary screen. He finished the year with 30 points, good enough for seventh in 16-year-old scoring across the WHL.
As the year progressed, Johnston began utilizing the young forward in more late-game situations and in the defensive zone. Other forwards were rotated through, but in my opinion, none matched the success, or threat to score, than when O’Brien was in the middle.
Winterhawk Award – Lane Gilliss & Mason Mannek – Per the team, this award is given out to the “player(s) who embodies character, leadership, heart, and soul. Last year the team announced two winners (Cody Glass and Jake Gricius) so I’m taking the liberty to select two winners as well.
I gave this a lot of thought before arriving at Mannek and Gilliss.
I will start with why I selected Gilliss. First, what he provided on the ice. There were a few occasions when the Winterhawks were down a couple of defensemen. What was Johnston’s plan? He slid Lane back to the blue line to fill in. For a team that finished with the best winning percentage, one of its overage players played multiple positions. This is the definition of understanding one’s role on the team and willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team win. Second, off the ice, his leadership. Many of the younger players mentioned to me how Lane took them under his wing. This included driving some of the guys around who did not have a car in town. Gilliss was also in the same billet house as Jonas Brøndberg, an import defenseman from Denmark. Jonas spoke many times about how Lane helped him both with hockey as well as adapting to the culture of being in North America.
Mason Mannek also jumped off the page for me as well. No matter the situation, Mason was always willing to talk. It did not matter if the team won and he scored multiple goals, or the team lost a heartbreaker. Portland’s lone 19-year-old forward was also brought up in several interviews with some of the younger players. While perhaps a little quieter, Mason demonstrated leadership and what it means to be a Winterhawk. On the ice, he wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves to defend himself or his teammates despite more often than not being the smaller of the two. Over the course of the year, his role on the penalty kill unit continued to increase. Don Hay utilized Mason as one of his top forward when needing to kill a penalty.
One of my favorite quotes I feel like applies if I had to describe Mannek, “It isn’t the size of the man in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the man.”
Team MVP – Seth Jarvis – This award was a very, very tough decision for me. I think Joel Hofer has a compelling argument given his dominance in the first half of the season. Sports have a tendency to be a, “what have you done for me lately” approach. No one can argue the tremendous run Jarvis went on once the calendar flipped to 2020. In 26 games the 17-year-old scored 27 goals and 37 assists for an average of 2.46 points per game. There were some nights in the back half of the season where it appeared if Jarvis didn’t find the back of the net, or set up the play, Portland was not going to score. The native of Winnipeg, Manitoba was also key defensively as well showcasing his speed on countless backchecks and winning races to 50/50 pucks.
In the same way Jarvis was dominant in the second half, Hofer was equally good prior to leaving for World Juniors. Also from Winnipeg, the St. Louis Blues fourth-round selection gave Portland an opportunity to win every night. His calming presence on the back end allowed the Winterhawks to play their up-tempo style without worrying about the counter-attack. Hofer’s movements were super calm and he stood tall in net taking up a large portion when he dropped to the butterfly. In a shortened season where one point made the difference between finishing in first instead of second, Hofer came up clutch in overtime and the shootout. The 19-year-old netminder had not been on Hockey Canada’s radar, or in any of their previous camps, prior to his first half. He showcased his ability so much so he wound up making the team and eventually leading Canada to gold.
Most Improved – Kade Nolan – At the start of the season there was a logjam for the sixth defenseman spot. Second-year players Nick Perna and Kade Nolan battled with 17-year-old rookie Kurtis Smythe. The three rotated in and out of the lineup before Perna was dealt to Medicine Hat on November 28. In 36 games his rookie season, Nolan finished with a single assist. Since November 28, he added 11 points (1G, 10A) and showcased his defensive ability. His role continued to increase as injuries mounted on the blue line and Nolan demonstrated he was equal to the challenge. By the time the season concluded Nolan was a key member of the team’s penalty kill unit. He also increased his +/- rating from 3 in his first season to 21 in 2019-2020. Once getting a regular shift, Nolan quickly became a player Mike Johnston, Kyle Gustafson, and Don Hay could rely on to solidify their rear guard.