In his rookie season, Thomas Cankovic has been a keystone in the Kootenays.
The 17 year old has been strong in his first campaign with the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League's Princeton Posse, tallying 21 points (eigfht goals and 13 assists) to place himself fifth overall on the team and its highest-scoring freshman.
He scored nine of those points in his first seven games, though, to plateau after a hot start. But after a nine-game scoreless drought, he's now hit the scoresheet in three of his last five outings.
"It's been real good so far. I've been having a lot of fun," Cankovic said. "I had a really good start to the season and kind of dropped off a bit, but I'm looking for a good second half of the season as well."
Princeton is in the middle of the Okanagan Division pack, sitting third with a 18-17-4 mark and have already surpassed last season's total of 16 wins. The top four teams in each division make the playoffs.
"I feel comfortable with the team. We've got a really good team," he said. "I like all the guys in the dressing room and my teammates help me a lot."
As part of the younger Posse club on the rise, Cankovic described a squad being built on solid foundation that ascended quickly to the top — winning two of the past three Stanley Cups.
"They were an even younger team this year, so this year, we're all in," he said. "Our coach (Bill Rotheisler) has designed us to be like the L.A. Kings — just win one-goal hockey games.
"When we're playing well, we're hitting and we're laying the body."
In particular, Cankovic credited Burnaby Winter Club U18 Prep Club teammate Kyle Bergh with helping him to get acclimated. He hasn't been step by step with Cankovic all season, though, as he missed all of November and December with a concussion before returning Jan. 2.
With Burnaby, Cankovic was the team's sniper, leading them in goals last season. While among Princeton's leaders this year, he feels his work as a wingman setting up teammates as one of the Posse's slightly shorter but heavier players.
"I have pretty good size, I guess. Good vision. I make plays," he said.
Still, getting the proverbial monkey off his back and scoring Princeton's lone goal in a Sept. 26 loss to the Creston Valley Thunder Cats was a sign to Cankovic that he belonged.
"Scoring my first goal in the league was pretty cool. I didn't score at all in the preseason and then it was, I think, five or six games when I got one in. It was pretty relieving," he said. "It was just a scramble in front of the net and I tracked the rebound and put it in."
Cankovic ended up in Princeton, located about two hours' drive southwest of Kelowna, after meeting Rotheisler, who coached the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League's Comox Valley Glacier Kings at the time. Along with fellow local Tyler Welsh, Cankovic served as an affiliated player with the Glacier Kings in 2012-13 before filling the same role with the Port Moody Panthers last season — the same one in which Rotheisler tried to convince Cankovic to take the Jr. 'B' plunge.
"He scouted out one of my tournaments and still liked me," Cankovic recalled.
Rotheisler is impressed with Cankovic's offensive talents, and with his work without the puck — namely, his ability to get it even against brutish foes.
"You don't just look for guys who can score. Obviously, you want them to score at a lower level, but you look for guys that basically can play and can contribute at a higher level," he said. "There are lots of guys who can put the puck in the net, but once they get to a level where they're playing with bigger, stronger guys, they can't do that anymore. If they don't have a two-way game, they have nothing to contribute if they can't score.
"He knows where to be conservative, and he knows when to attack the puck and force the battle — and he usually comes out with it."
And Cankovic hopes to continue his rise, as he's played one game up a level with the BCHL's Merritt Centennials this season and hopes to make the jump next year.