Boychuk primed for WHL final

After persevering through some lean years with the Portland Winterhawks, Riley Boychuk is thrilled to be playing in the WHL final this week. - Portland Winterhawks file photo
After persevering through some lean years with the Portland Winterhawks, Riley Boychuk is thrilled to be playing in the WHL final this week.
— image credit: Portland Winterhawks file photo

With the Portland Winterhawks and the Kootenay Ice set to square off in the Western Hockey League final, Abbotsford hockey fans know one thing for sure – at least one local prospect will advance to the Memorial Cup.

On one side is Kootenay starting goalie Nathan Lieuwen, whose team clinched a spot in the WHL final last week on the heels on an 11-game playoff winning streak.

On the other is Riley Boychuk, who helped Portland finish off a six-game series win over the Spokane Chiefs on Monday evening in the Western Conference final.

Five years ago, Boychuk and Lieuwen were teammates on a terrific Abbotsford bantam AAA Hawks squad which won the Western Canadian bantam title. Now, they find themselves cast as foes.

"It's pretty special – I'm looking forward to it, and I'm sure he is too," Boychuk said. "I'm having a lot of fun, trying to absorb as much as possible."

The Winterhawks' run to the WHL final has been extremely rewarding for Boychuk, who has been with the franchise through some pretty lean years.

Portland made him the 10th overall pick in the 2006 bantam draft, and his first full season with the team (2007-08) was a nightmare. Double hip surgery limited Boychuk to just five games, and the Winterhawks finished dead last in the WHL with just 11 victories. They weren't much better the following season, with 19 wins.

The situation began to turn around when Calgary businessman Bill Gallacher bought the franchise in October 2008. He installed head coach/GM Mike Johnston, who has built a star-studded roster headlined by top-five NHL draft picks Ryan Johansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Nino Neiderreiter (New York Islanders).

"Our team's taken a big leap forward over the years I've been here," Boychuk pointed out. "I never imagined we'd be going to the league finals, and possibly the Memorial Cup. It's pretty overwhelming, and exciting for sure. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Like the team he plays for, Boychuk's game has undergone a transformation. After piling up gaudy stats in his final bantam season (60 goals and 74 assists for 134 points in 63 games), he's become a grinding power forward in the WHL. The 20-year-old is seventh in Winterhawks playoff scoring (10 points in 16 games), while putting his 6'5", 220-pound frame to good use on the forecheck.

"My role is to use my big body to wear and tear on their D-men," said Boychuk, who was a seventh-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres last summer. "A hard, energy-type game is what I'll be playing at the next level. So I might as well practice it here."

• The WHL final opens on Friday.

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