By Steve Ewen, PNG
Surrey’s Tyler Popowich conjures memories of James Henry.
Henry, who played 281 games with the Vancouver Giants prior to a trade midway through his over-age season to Moose Jaw Warriors in 2011-12, was a scrappy, 5-foot-9, 170-pound buzzsaw in WHL days. Popowich is a 6-foot-4, 200-pound forward with a wingspan that goes for weeks.
Where you can make the connection, though, is that Popowich has started to find his game as a 16-year-old rookie after taking a hiatus from the Giants to play against his own age group in the Under-17 World Challenge. Henry’s game seemed to take a jump when he did the same back in his freshman season in 2007-08.
Popowich, who was part of the Canada Black side that lost to Sweden by a 2-1 count in the Under-17 finale in Sault Ste. Marie on Nov. 5, has scored his first two WHL goals in Vancouver’s past two games. And he was getting some power-play time at practice on Thursday as the Giants prepped to face the Spokane Chiefs on the road Friday night — a 10-1 loss for the visitors from Vancouver.
“I think the biggest thing is getting through the hurdle of wondering if you can handle it,” Giants coach Jason McKee said when asked about the key to being an impactful player at 16, which is the first year players are allowed to be full-time participants in the WHL.
“I also think that when you’re a 16-year-old you have to have high hockey intelligence. It’s not an easy game. The pace is faster. You have to make quick decisions. Those are the guys that tend to make the jump.”
Henry, 25, who’s currently playing with the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder, had two goals and one assist in six games at the 2007 Under-17 event, which was in December. He had one goal in 18 games with Vancouver before leaving for tournament, and he wound up with six goals in 28 games upon his return.
Popowich had one goal in six games with Team Black. His teammates there included the likes of Kelowna Rockets forward Nolan Foote, Spokane Chiefs defenceman Ty Smith and Lethbridge Hurricanes defenceman Calen Addison.
Asked about what he learned at the tournament, Popowich said: “There’s obviously good players all around the world. I opened up to that. And there’s the speed and the skill.”
Popowich was the third pick of the 2015 WHL bantam draft. Smith, a Lloydminster, Alta., product, was the first selection by Spokane, while the Hurricanes took Brandon native Addison second.
Popowich had 15 goals and 27 assists in 33 games last season with his midget team, the Penticton-based Okanagan Hockey Academy.
“The thing with Tyler is that he thinks the game well and he understands positioning,” said McKee. “That’s a strength of his and especially at centre, because it’s not an easy position to play.
“His urgency level and his compete level needs to be higher. We’ve seen that improve in the last week and hopeful it will continue to improve.”