Making the jump from Midget AAA to the Western Hockey League can be a big challenge.
In the case of Portland Winterhawks forward Gabe Klassen, the other major adjustment for the 16-year-old from Prince Albert is getting used to living in a city that is home to over half a million people.
“It’s a bit of a change when you have to leave for the rink a half-hour early here instead of just five or 10 minutes like it is back home,” Klassen joked.
“There are lots of things to do here though so it’s been a lot of fun so far. Plus, the weather is quite different. I was texting friends back home last week when they were in a foot of snow and it was -30 outside, while I was stuck in the rain almost every day.”
After starting the year with the Winterhawks and going through their training camp and pre-season slate, Klassen was sent back to the Prince Albert Mintos and had 18 points in 12 games to start his second campaign in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League.
He was called back up to the Winterhawks on a full-time basis in November and has 10 points in 20 games ahead of a home game against the Tri-City Americans on Friday night.
“The speed of the game and the size of the players are obviously the two things that I had to get used to right away,” Klassen said. “You have to be ready to make a play as soon as you get the puck.
“I’ve been able to get used to the speed as the year has gone on and I’ve been able to hang on to the puck a little more as I’m realizing that I have more time than I first thought. One of the biggest differences up here is that you really have to bear down on your scoring chances when you get them though, as you aren’t going to get a lot of them. I’m trying to get myself into good scoring places and make them (the scoring opportunities) count.”
A major highlight for Klassen came in his third game for the Winterhawks as he recorded his first career goal and assist in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Seattle Thunderbirds on Nov. 16, 2019.
“It sucked that we lost the game but it was a nice feeling to get that first WHL goal,” Klassen said. “It was a big relief for me to get that out of the way.”
The Winterhawks are currently the team to beat in the Western Conference as they lead the U.S. Division with a 33-6-2-3 record and are tied with the Edmonton Oil Kings for the most points in the WHL at 71.
One of the keys to their success has been the play of St. Louis Blues goaltending prospect Joel Hofer, who has a 24-4-3 record with a 2.03 goals against average, a .932 save percentage and four shutouts.
“Having him on our team is huge and he gives a chance to win every time that he’s in the net,” Klassen said of Hofer, who was also the starting goaltender for Canada’s gold medal winning side at the World Juniors earlier this month.
“I think what stands out the most with this group is how well we all fit together. Everyone gets along so well and we’re all confident that each of us will do our job out there, which is translating into lots of wins for us.”
The bond between the team has also been a big help for Klassen as he gets used to playing away from home.
“Having (Reece) Newkirk (who is from Moose Jaw) around as another Saskatchewan guy has been a huge help for me and I ride with (Nick) Cicek to the rink every day, so I can talk to him about anything,” Klassen said.
“All of the veterans here are really good to the rookies and the leadership group does a great job of making everyone comfortable.”