By Chris White | AHL On The Beat Archive
Ask a Manitoba Moose player if they enjoy being in Winnipeg?
Go through the dressing room and you get a resounding “Yes!” and “I love it” and in a couple of cases “ano.”
To be clear that’s not a-no as in no, but ano as in the Czech word for yes. So that’s the response you get from Jan Kostalek and Jiri Fronk who both hail from the Czech Republic.
The players talk about the passion of the fans and that they enjoy being part of a community so dedicated to hockey.
The cold weather doesn’t bother them either because really….that’s hockey weather.
For one player being here means just a little bit more.
Defenseman Peter Stoykewych is from Winnipeg, this is home.
Stoykewych started out his hockey journey as a member of the Assiniboine Minor Hockey Association and later went on to play in the Manitoba Midget Hockey League.
While he was a member of the Winnipeg Blues in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League he was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the seventh round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Stoykewych had already committed to play at Colorado College and decided to take year to prepare himself by joining the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL.
Following a season with Des Moines, Stoykewych spent four successful years playing for Colorado College.
In his second season he was awarded the Dave Peterson Award for the program’s most improved player.
In his final season, he earned the Thayer Tutt Award as Colorado’s most valuable player. He was also awarded the Steve Ebert Award which is presented to the player who best demonstrates dedication, desire, ability and sportsmanship.
That’s a lot of development in those four years, not to mention the work he did in the classroom.
He was an Academic All-Conference selection in each of his final three seasons all while majoring in Mathematical Economics. Not exactly everyone’s favorite subject.
At the end of last season Stoykewych was able to make his professional hockey debut by playing six games with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
While the dream to play professional hockey took him away from Winnipeg and into the United States for a few, the stars continued to align to have him play his professional hockey back in his hometown.
He would wind up being the last ever draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers as the next year it was announced that the franchise was moving to Winnipeg.
That made the dream of playing in the NHL that much more sweet as now his hometown team held his rights.
Little did he know, upon completing his collegiate career and playing his first games as a pro in St. John’s that the Jets top affiliate would also end up moving back to Winnipeg for the next season.
Stoykewych became one of the first players to be signed by the Moose back on July 1, 2015.
The excitement of signing his first pro contract was magnified by being able to sign with the Moose. Being born in 1992, the team that Stoykewych grew up watching was the Moose and now he was going to be playing for them.
“It means a lot to me,” said Stoykewych. “You play for the logo on the front of your jersey all the time, but for me that’s also my home city.
“Family and friends that live here, I’m playing for them every night as well. The people that watch me on a nightly basis are the ones who helped me get to where I am today.”
The Moose recently held a retro night and wore throwback replica jerseys from the 1996 season. It was something that really hit home for Stoykewych and brought back memories of watching games with his brother.
“It took me back to my childhood,” said Stoykewych. “I went to plenty of Moose games in the old Winnipeg Arena. I remember sitting up there in the nose bleeds and you couldn’t even see the ice and you’d have to watch on the TV screens.
“Watching Johan Hedberg play for the Moose with the old retro jerseys… that was a pretty special night, but it’s nice to be at this building (MTS Centre) now for sure.”
Of course Hedberg isn’t the only former Moose that he remembers watching.
“I remember Nolan Baumgartner a lot,” said Stoykewych. “Obviously Jimmy Roy and Mike Keane who I get to work with here now, all the big names that came through and guys that went on to play in the NHL.
“I’ve always been a Moose fan and I’m happy to be playing for them now.”
Stoykewych is now the player that local hockey players can look up to about achieving their own dreams, but it’s also an opportunity to play in front of friends and family.
“My parents come when they are in town, they are my biggest fans obviously,” said Stoykewych. “Then my friends will come and watch. It’s nice to be able to play in front of people that I haven’t been able to the last four or five years while I was playing down in the U.S.”
While it is extra special to be a player in your hometown, the focus on being a developing professional hockey player is to always improve your game.
“Coming in I wanted to prove that I could play at the AHL level, both to myself, to my teammates and coaches,” said Stoykewych. “I feel a lot more comfortable this late in the season. I just want to contribute as much as I can each game.”
Stoykewych is not alone in his goals for this year. The Moose have the youngest team currently in the AHL with a roster that features 11 rookies.
While there has been a large learning curve for those players, the signs of improvement are there. The team is scoring more goals, playing better defensively and is ultimately winning more games than they did at the start of the season.
“We have a great group of guys in the room,” said Stoykewych. “That’s what makes some of the times we’ve gone through this year so difficult. Everybody genuinely cares about each other and everybody wants to succeed together. We go out and play for each other every night and do the best we can.”
While the Moose are a very young team this year, the team has some key veterans who are helping show the young guys the ropes.
One in particular stands out for Stoykewych.
“Andrew MacWilliam has been really big for me. Both of us being defenseman and both being (former) college players, we became friends pretty quick,” said Stoykewych. ”He has been in the pro game for a couple years and played in the NHL, so he has helped me a lot.”
As the Moose enter the final stretch of the schedule, Stoykewych and the rest of the team have only one goal in mind.
“We want to win,” said Stoykewych. “We want to go out and leave a good taste in our mouth at the end of the season. We want the fans to be proud of us in our first year back here, we owe that to them and to the city as well.”
Their effort is certainly something to be proud of this year. Their development is something to be excited about for the future, not only for the Moose, but the Jets as well.