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Whistler hockey player shining in Winnipeg

Puckster tallies three points in first game
ICY DEMEANOUR Whistler's Jackson Leppard (right) tallied three points in his first game with the WInnipeg Ice on Oct. 20. <ParaStyle:CUTLINE\:CUTLINE Credit><pDropCapDetail:LeftGlyphEdge><pAbsorbIdeoSpace:1><cDiacVPos:5>Photo by Zachary Peters<cDiacVPos:><pDropCapDetail:><pAbsorbIdeoSpace:>

While a resigned "Going to Winnipeg" has been a punchline in more than its share of travel advertisements, heading to the Manitoba capital has worked out just fine for Whistler hockey player Jackson Leppard.

The 20-year-old was dealt from the Western Hockey League's (WHL) Prince George Cougars, where he'd played parts of the past five seasons and was their longest-tenured player, to the Winnipeg Ice on Oct. 19. The next night, Leppard stepped in and posted a goal and two assists in a 7-2 win over the Saskatoon Blades in his first game with his new team. For his efforts, Leppard was named the second star of the game.

"It's been quite the whirlwind the past couple days," he said. "I found out Saturday morning in Prince George and flew out at 4 that day. I flew here, dropped my gear off and played the next day on Sunday.

"I'm liking it so far and it's turned out to be pretty fun."

Apart from travel considerations, getting traded in-season has its own challenges. While Leppard has come face-to-face with plenty of players in his years in the league, none of them suit up with his new club.

"It's different, for sure. I didn't know anyone that closely on this team. It's one of the few teams where I don't really know anyone," he said. "It was tough to say bye to some buddies in Prince George. It was pretty emotional since I've been there for four years.

"It was fun seeing new faces and a bunch of new guys here, and I'm just excited for a change of scenery."

In advance of the trade, Leppard said he thought something was up when he was a healthy scratch in the Cougars' 2-1 win over Spokane on Friday night.

"I was healthy to play, so I knew when I found out I wasn't playing Friday night in Prince George," he said. "The next morning, I got called in and told."

Leppard felt some quick chemistry centring his new linemates, fellow veteran Isaac Johnson and German import Nino Kinder, as Leppard set up Kinder's third-period tally to help salt the game away.

"I was pretty comfortable out there. I was a little bit nervous just for the first game with a whole bunch of new guys that don't know me and tried to make a good impression," he said. "It was a good first game for me, definitely.

"They've got a skilled team here and I had a lot of fun out there."

As one of the team's older players, Leppard will be given opportunities to play big minutes in all situations, including power play and penalty kill. He'll also get to do it for an Ice team that, at 6-4-1, is competitive in the WHL's Eastern Conference, while the struggling Cougars were mired in last place in the Western Conference.

"I talked to them when I got in. They just want me to come in and be a leader, be the power forward I am," he said. "They were missing some grit up front, some bigger forwards, and I can throw a body around and I'm just bringing that fire to their team."

Leppard is also stepping into a unique situation where the Ice is new in town, having moved from Cranbrook in the offseason, making it the first time Winnipeg has had WHL hockey since the Warriors moved to Moose Jaw in 1984.

Winnipeg is playing its home games at the University of Manitoba's Wayne Fleming Arena with a capacity of 1,400 while a brand-new rink is being constructed just outside city limits.

"It's not a huge rink," he said. "But I think if we can fill that, which shouldn't be too hard, it should get pretty loud in there. It's a pretty entertaining place to play."

Leppard is graduating from junior hockey after this season, and will look to connect with a professional team when the Ice campaign wraps up. It doesn't hurt his case to now be in a situation where both the NHL's Winnipeg Jets and AHL's Manitoba Moose are in town.

"I'm hoping to either get drafted and have a good year, or get invited to a camp and sign a contract out of there. I'll hopefully play AHL or NHL, whatever it is. I don't know what the future has for me but I'm hoping to make the jump to pro next year," he said.