September 19, 2016
PENTICTON — Kyle Connor is fast, unquestionably gifted and coming off a season in which he crushed college hockey.
He is among the one per cent here, one of the most talented players in Penticton.
In a heartbeat, the Winnipeg Jets’ 2015 first-round pick can exploit any defenceman’s slip. He did just that when he turned Troy Stecher inside-out to start Sunday’s Young Stars game.
“I turned the wrong way and I knew it immediately,” Stecher said. “He’s one of those players who is going to capitalize as soon as you make a mistake. But I got my revenge.”
Stecher responded by doing what he has done all weekend. He just kept coming. Later in the first period, he pinched the puck from Connor in Vancouver’s end. A few seconds later, he had a shot on net, and on the rebound the Canucks scored.
Canucks fans are going to love the never-surrender motor that drives Stecher’s game. Undrafted, and on the small side, he’s listed at 5-foot-8 here; the NHL odds are not in his favour. But there are more than a few scouts here who like his chances.
“He is going to make it work, he’ll find a way,” one said. “Just watch.”
When you do, you’ll see a player who is vocal, cocksure and all-in on just about every play.
“He’s one of the players who always wants to be on the ice, wants to practise and loves competing,” Young Stars head coach Travis Green said.
Green actually goes way back with Stecher. When he was coaching the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, the team chose Stecher in the seventh round of the bantam draft. Green was trying to recruit Stecher to come to Portland before he chose the college route instead.
“Obviously, back in the day, I kind of told him to b … off,” Stecher said.
Green said he didn’t remember Stecher using those words exactly.
“It wasn’t that (harsh), but at the end of the day,” Green said.
They can laugh about it, having now developed a really good relationship based on mutual respect. Stecher is a Travis Green kind of player if there ever was one.
The 22-year-old, of course, is hoping he starts this season in Vancouver instead of Utica. With lots of NHL interest, signing the college free agent was no slam dunk for the Canucks, and what seems to have tipped the scales in their favour was the fact that Ben Hutton went from nowhere to top-four defenceman in what seemed like 15 minutes last fall.
“It is important,” Stecher said. “I wanted to go to an organization that wasn’t going to sugar-coat anything. They never guaranteed anything. Other teams (came) big: ‘Oh, you’re going to play the full season next year.’
“Once you sign, they can do whatever they want with you. You have to pick and choose which people are being honest and hard-nosed with you, and that’s something I really respected about Vancouver.
“They told me if I come to camp and earn a spot, then I’ll play.”
Hutton said he could see in their first skate together that Stecher at least has a chance to duplicate what he did a year ago. One of the first things Hutton told the North Dakota product was, “Just don’t take my job.”
Stecher has proven here he can create offensive opportunities all on his own. In Friday’s first game he snagged a puck from another talented forward, Drake Caggiula, and turned it the other way for a 2-on-1. It was a terrific moment for Stecher, who played in this town for three seasons with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees.
“The only thing running through my mind was, ‘This is the first game in Penticton, there is no way I’m going to pass that puck,’” he said.
Stecher grew up in the Vancouver area and was back in the city in May, when he started working out every day with Canucks veterans. The organization, which believes he can be an Andrew Ference or a Mike Weaver type, was really impressed with the gains Stecher was able to make training in the summer. They also think he’s wired like a leader. Green called his locker-room personality “infectious.”
“I like to work hard,” Stecher said. “With hard work comes leadership. Guys want to follow someone who is working hard. A lot of people have doubted me because of my size.”
Asked what he does to compensate, Stecher said: “A lot of the smaller skilled guys can be a bit perimeter, but I like to get into corners and fight my way around bigger guys and try to use my body to an advantage.
“People think it’s a disadvantage, but being net-front, people might take my weight lightly and, last second, I’m able to push them.
“With every negative there’s a positive.”