With only two games remaining in their final regular season in the WHL, Portland Winterhawks overagers Brendan De Jong, Jared Freadrich, and Joachim Blichfeld spent a few minutes discussing their time in the WHL.
All three players have left their mark on the league as well as in Portland.
Head coach Mike Johnston is proud of what his 20-year-olds brought to the team this season.
“We always like to have ‘our guys’ like our own guys” Johnston stated. “Brendan is a true player we drafted as a young kid, brought up through the system, and then he turns out to be a 20-year-old, much like [Keoni] Texeira was last year.”
The Winterhawks head coach and general manager continued, “Blichfeld is a Euro who has come in and stayed with us for three years; both of them are ‘our guys’.
Overage defenseman Jared Freadrich was a key acquisition for Johnston, “When we acquire a 20-year-old from another team we are looking for character, leadership, and so Fready has done all of that as well.”
20-year-olds are expected to be leaders, especially for the younger players. Johnston feels his trio accomplished this, “We always want guys who have been in our system so they can impart some of those qualities. They also know what it is like for young kids and what they are going through. It lets them talk to them a little bit about that, but our leadership has been real strong this year.”
Brendan De Jong
The Portland Winterhawks drafted the six-foot-five 200 pound defenseman in the seventh round of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft.
The Victoria, British Columbia native spoke about his time in the WHL, “It has all been unbelievable. I’m just very thankful that I got to spend it with such a great organization in Portland. I know that I’ve developed a lot, and a ton, as a person and a player with Portland; more than I would have anywhere else. I’m really grateful to come here and am super thankful.”
Assuming Brendan plays both games against Seattle this weekend, De Jong will finish tied for fifth in the Winterhawks team history for games played.
“It is pretty cool,” Brendan said about seeing his name on the franchise’s all-time games played list. “I missed quite a few games this season which bumped me down the list a bit, but it is an honor. The fact that they kept me around this long is really cool.”
One of his favorite memories of playing with Portland was the playoff series win against Prince George in 2017. “They were a loaded Prince George team, and we were a pretty young Portland group. The heart we showed, and the leadership guys showed was incredible.”
In the seventh round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Carolina Hurricanes drafted the two-time assistant captain with Portland.
Mike Johnston said, “It was exciting to see him get drafted. We will see what his future holds depending on what Carolina decides to do with him.”
De Jong said, “I obviously want to play pro, and that is the goal; that is where I will pursue after this season. Wherever life takes me, I don’t really know yet, but I will see. I’m looking forward to it. I’m still in contact [with Carolina], but no moves have been made, so I’m just going to keep proving myself and see what happens.”
With Sunday being the final regular season home game in his career, De Jong feels “It will be pretty emotional, mostly for my parents. I think they are both coming in to watch it. I’m just really glad it is at home and in the [Veterans Memorial] Coliseum where it all started. It will be a little reminiscent, but just another game for me; and I’ve got another playoff run in me.”
De Jong will miss his time in Portland as he feels “Portland is kind of a second home for me now. I will just miss that aspect of being here every year. Everyone says this is the time of your life; I think it really is.”
In the end, Mike Johnston is pleased with De Jong, “Obviously when we drafted him, and recruited Brendan, he was an interesting player because he is a big defenseman with great offensive skills. He is a real smart player, certainly filled out in his time with Portland. I still think every year, I was away for a couple, but every year with Brendan I think he has gotten better, and better, and better.”
Johnston concluded saying, “I think he has taken on a real leadership role this year which is nice to see from a guy like that.”
In his own words, Brendan answered the question about who he would like to thank after spending five years in Portland.
Defenseman Jared Freadrich is completing his final year in the WHL, but only his first in Portland. Prior to joining the Winterhawks the Camrose, Alberta native spent time with Regina, Red Deer, and Victoria.
“I started when I was 17 in Regina” Fredarich said. “When I started back then I didn’t exactly expect to be playing in Portland, nor with Victoria or Red Deer, but I’m grateful for all four years I’ve got to spend in this league. It is a great league, and I’m glad I made the decision to come when I was 17. It has been a really fun ride this year.”
After playing 61 games with Regina, the Pats traded Jared to the Red Deer Rebels for a 2017 Bantam selection.
A year later he was traded from Red Deer to Victoria for Jared Dmytriw.
His final WHL team came calling during this last summer.
“We liked him when he played with Victoria” Mike Johnston explained. “We acquired him in a trade because we felt we needed some help on the power play depending on what was happening with Henri [Jokiharju]. When Henri did not come back it proved to be a real good acquisition.”
Freadrich spoke about his time with the Winterhawks organization this year, “It has been awesome. An awesome organization right from the start. I got traded in the summer and felt welcomed by all the guys and the coaching staff. I’ve had nothing but great time since I”ve been here since August.”
A veteran of 30 WHL playoff games Jared said, “Obviously you look forward to the playoffs all year long.”
However, he is also looking forward to the final regular season game at home, “Being my last couple of regular season games of my career it is pretty meaningful too. You don’t really think about it until it is actually here; and it is here now. The real season starts during playoffs which I’m excited for.”
While the 1998-born defenseman does not have a favorite WHL memory he said, “I’m sure every team I’ve been with there has been an amazing group of guys. I’ve met a lot of life-long friends in this league. I’m really grateful for that, which is the best memory, meeting all the guys along the way.”
As a leader, Freadrich offered some advice to some of the younger players, “Probably the most cliche thing a 20-year-old can say, but it goes by fast and don’t take it for granted; it really does. Before you know it, it is your 20-year-old year and you are not coming back to junior the next year. I think just enjoy the spot you are in and don’t take it for granted. The next day is a new day, don’t dwell on things by any means.”
Unlike De Jong and Joachim Blichfeld, Freadrich was not selected in the NHL draft; however, he is still considering his options for when his WHL career is over.
“I hope to play hockey as long as I can whether it be with a University school or pro hockey; it is up in the air. I hope to play hockey as long as I can and use my WHL scholarship” Freadrich explained.
Mike Johnston commented saying, “He is an interesting player because I know a lot of Canadian Universities are all over him; he would be a prime recruit. It depends on what he wants to do. [Jared] could play pro and then see if he can push to get to a higher level or he may decide to go to school and see what happens pro-wise in three or four years.”
Johnston concluded his comments on Freadrich saying, “I just think this year he is a real pro off the ice; always has a great attitude. I think he has played way, way, way better than probably any of us ever thought. I think he has had an outstanding season points wise, quarterbacking the power play, but mostly he is our minute leader most nights.”
While Freadrich is excited for what is come, he will miss playing junior, “You don’t have as many responsibilities as a kid your age as far as getting a job or stuff like that. They take pretty good care of you here and we are kind of put on a pedestal treated like kings pretty much; that is pretty great.”
Jared commented with who he would like to say thank you to as well as some last comments in the regular season:
With two games to play in the regular season Joachim Blichfeld, an import player from Denmark, put up career numbers. The San Jose Sharks signed prospect currently leads the league with 112 points. He is two shy of equaling his previous two years’ numbers just this season.
“Blichfeld is having probably a career year for him” Mike Johnston said. “I know San Jose wanted him to come back to be a leader, to dominate, to take charge, and I think he has done all of that.”
One area Johnston was most impressed is what Blichfeld has done without playing next to captain Cody Glass for a large portion of the season. “Without Blichfeld this year, both him and Cody have been dynamic; we lost Cody [Glass] for so many games this year too. A lot of people said, ‘oh yeah, without Cody it is going to be on Joachim’ but he has been great. He has been a leader, his all-around game is better. I just think he has taken monstrous strides from two years ago.”
First year import players often struggle their first year and Johnston said, “It is hard for Euros when they come over here. Similar to like what Michal [Kvasnica] is going through this year. There are so many changes, everything is so different, but Joachim wants to be a pro; boy is he close.”
Playing for Portland is “I guess one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life” Blichfeld said. “I got drafted by Halifax and didn’t go.”
In 2015 the Halifax Mooseheads selected Blichfeld with their second round selection; however, Blichfeld decided to stay in Europe.
Fast forward a year and Portland selected him with their second round selection and he decided to report.
Blichfeld continued saying “I was lucky enough to get the opportunity again and came over here and play for Portland. It has been a lot of fun. It is definitely one of my better decisions to come here and play in this league.”
Joachim describes his three years as “unreal. Everybody, all the teams, all the guys I’ve played with, all the coaches I’ve had over here, it has been unreal.”
The teammates and linemates doubles as his favorite memory of playing in the league “There are so many friendships that have been made; I will never forget that.”
With Portland’s final game being against rival Seattle, Blichfeld could not think of a better way to end his WHL regular season career, “I think with ending with Seattle, you know for sure the fans are going to be great. It is always fun to play against Seattle. We have the best crowd in the league. I’m really looking forward to the last home game here before playoffs.”
The Winterhawks have a long list of successful imports over their history, but Blichfeld will have his name included in the conversation for top import.
He hopes future import players have the same level of success he has had in his three years, but also understands the challenges of playing in North America.
“I learned it is a lot tougher over here than it is in Europe that is for sure” Joachim explained. “From my perspective it is the definitely the right way to go if you have the same goal as me, which is playing in the NHL. It was the right move coming over here.”
Once his season is over with the Winterhawks many expect Blichfeld to make the jump to the AHL/NHL level within the San Jose Sharks organization.
“It is obviously my goal to play in the NHL; I’m working towards it every day” the WHL’s leading scorer said. “I think there is still a long, long way to go. However, I feel like I’ve taken a big step learning how to play more responsible in the defensive zone, taking care of things in the O-zone. I’m looking forward to my time in San Jose moving forward when my time in Portland ends.”
Johnston sees a bright future ahead in pro hockey for Blichfeld, but understands the uphill battle he faces, “As a scorer it is always going to be difficult. People look at him as a top-six guy. Certainly in the American League he will do that, but he wants to play in the NHL. So can he be a top-six guy, or can he continue to add to his game like he did this year? His penalty killing and other areas improve so he can be used in a bottom-six role as well.”
Blichfled’s thank you’s as well as final words before the playoffs begin next weekend: