Campbell River Storm head coach Lee Stone isn't entirely sure if there's something different in Whistler's water, but young hockey players should be sure to drink up.
Two Whistler products – centre Tyler Welsh and defenceman Ryan Grills – are making a significant contribution to the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League's leaders, who boast a 26-2-4 mark.
"Those two kids, Ryan particularly, they're at the gym all the time, he's on the ice late, on the ice early, he's doing everything he can to become a better player," Stone said. "He's the hardest-working kid every single day he comes to the rink. I'll be honest, I think it's a bit of a Whistler trait, because I know a few other kids from Whistler who don't play on our team."
Welsh, 17, leads all rookies in scoring with 10 goals and 34 assists in 32 games, good to tie him for 10th overall in the league. Welsh played seven games as an affiliated player for Campbell River last year, enough to get a sense of the league, but not to officially cross the rookie threshold.
Welsh started this season with 13 points in his first seven games, and credited his working knowledge of the league for his hot start.
"I got familiar with the league and the speed of the game and what the structure here is compared to midget," said Welsh, adding he has good vision on the ice that allows him to set up teammates. "I didn't expect to have the start I did, I thought I'd take a little more time to adjust to the league."
Listed at just 5-7 and 155 lbs., Welsh looks up to undersized Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher, and though his style of play isn't quite so physical, tries to make his mark in a game of big boys. He's hoping to make the jump to the BCHL's Victoria Grizzlies next season.
Stone raved about Welsh, noting he's seen him play for the past two seasons and isn't surprised at how well he's done.
"His work ethic alone, and on top of it, the talent level he has, I think we all knew he was going to be pretty successful," Stone said.
It's difficult to score without the puck, and Stone said the driving force to Welsh's game is his drive to get it, noting he's unofficially one of Campbell River's leaders in takeaways.
"It's his tireless compete level for the puck — when he has it, it's hard to get it from him, and when he doesn't have it, he does everything in his power to get it," Stone said. "That says something about a 17-year-old rookie on a championship-level team."
Defenceman Ryan Grills doesn't play the type of game that earns him numbers like his fellow Whistlerite, with three assists in 24 games, but Stone stressed he's an invaluable piece of the Storm's hopes.
That showed earlier this year, when Grills separated his left shoulder during practice after the opening weekend of the season and missed the two weeks afterward.
"It was definitely frustrating, for sure. You work hard all summer and I felt good the first two games," he said. "It's something that you have to battle through."
Grills played 31 games in his rookie season last year, but his ice time tapered off toward the end of the year. Stone said Grills showed determination in the offseason to become stronger and speedier.
"The thing about Ryan is he never complained, he worked hard, he did everything he could to get into the lineup," Stone said. "It shows some strong leadership skills to go through something like that.
"Not to be a normal 17-year-old kid with selfish tendencies, he put the team first and worked hard every day, so it's really exciting to see him get rewarded the way he is this year."
Armed with a major confidence boost, Grills was able to earn a two-game call-up to the BCHL's Powell River Kings earlier this season.
"I went on a road trip with them all throughout B.C., and it's nice to gauge yourself with the speed of the next level and see how you fit in," Grills said. "I felt really confident. At first, you get thrown in and often everyone is a lot faster, but once you get comfortable with the game, it's just hockey."
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