Winterhawks' star bounces back from playoff cheap shot

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: NICK FOCHTMAN - Taylor Leier wasnt an instant star in the Western Hockey League, but his work ethic, versatility, leadership and talents have made him a key member of the Portland Winterhawks deep and potent forward line corps.Quick-witted, sharp and intelligent, Taylor Leier of the Portland Winterhawks felt pretty dumb for the longest time after “the hit” on May 22, 2013.

He suffered a concussion on the nasty cheap shot by Saskatoon’s Dalton Thrower during the Memorial Cup tournament, and it took him six weeks to fully recover.

“It was awful,” he says. “I just felt like I was in space. The first two or three weeks, I’d be sitting at the kitchen counter and talking with my mom and it’d feel like I didn’t want to be there, I just wanted to go to bed. Or, I didn’t want to talk. I just wasn’t me.

“I just tried to stay very cautious. I didn’t want to come back too early and make everything worse.”

Given time, Leier returned to his former self, and he has enjoyed only good fortune since the bad days of his first and only concussion.

The 5-11, 180-pound Leier signed a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, earned the captaincy of the Winterhawks, attended Canada’s camp for the world junior championships and then made the team and played in the tournament. Oh, and the Winterhawks have set a franchise record for consecutive wins and seem poised for another shot at a Western Hockey League championship.

Thrower, meanwhile, has been injured and out as captain of the Vancouver Giants, who the Hawks have beaten three times, including 7-4 last weekend for their record 16th consecutive win.

Karma? Who knows. Some in the Winterhawks organization felt that Thrower’s hit might have cost Portland the Memorial Cup championship, as Leier missed the semifinal game against London and the final game against Halifax, a 6-4 loss.

Leier says he has spoken to Thrower, from North Vancouver, B.C., a couple times. They haven’t been kind words.

“I’m not sure how anybody could possibly like the guy after that,” says Leier, who has not sought any kind of retaliation in Portland-Vancouver match-ups.

“It was a cheap shot, but Taylor’s not one to hold a grudge,” says Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach. “I’ve never seen that in his play. He knows the game’s a game. It was last year; he’s going out and playing like he always does against Thrower. He’s not going to back down from him in any way.”

Indeed, too many good things have been happening to Leier, who’ll go down as a Hawks success story, rising through work ethic to be Portland’s captain.

He wasn’t good enough to make the Winterhawks in 2010-11, as the team sported nine top forwards who would eventually sign pro contracts — led by high NHL picks Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Sven Bartschi, Ty Rattie and Brad Ross. Leier stayed home, playing his 16-year-old season for the Saskatoon Contacts midget team, registering 31 goals and 43 assists in 44 games. The Hawks kept Brendan Leipsic — also a current Portland star — as their primary rookie forward.

“I had a blast,” Leier says.

“He wasn’t ready (for the WHL) at that time,” says Johnston, who questioned Leier’s “compete” level — an assessment that seems silly now.

“We wanted to make sure he could play more than (40 games), which you have to do (with rookies),” Johnston says. “He could go home and still play midget hockey at a high level, and we could bring him in if we needed him.”

Leier joined the Hawks the next year and played on the third, checking line with Taylor Peters and Oliver Gabriel, tallying 13 goals and 24 assists (37 points).

“He shocked me when he came into our league, how competitive he was,” Johnston says. Philadelphia selected him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, Last year, he found the groove with linemates Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase De Leo, going for 27 goals and 35 assists (62 points) and a plus-41 rating, and another nine goals and seven assists (16 points) in the playoffs as the Hawks made the Memorial Cup.

One day after preseason practice last summer, Johnston called Leier over to talk with him, and delivered the good news.

“I remember it perfectly,” Leier says. “He said, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to be the 37th captain in team history and I’m excited for you and we’ve got a lot of work to do.’

“It was really cool. I was really happy and honored. Especially when you’re (a captain) on such a big team like this, a winning team, it’s amazing.”

Says Derrick Pouliot, the Hawks’ standout defenseman: “He’s a good leader. Obviously, he’s the captain for a reason. His work ethic — can’t ever question that. He’s out there every game working as hard as he can. He’s one of the guys who’ll do anything to help us win.”

As far as work ethic, Leier says: “If I outwork a guy, it’ll give me a couple extra (scoring) chances a game, and I’ll try to capitalize on those chances.”

Johnston likes everything about Leier, starting with the forward’s “incredible” work ethic.

“Just effort all the time,” Johnston says. “If you talk to him, he’s such a nice kid, he represents the organization the way you’d want it represented. But, his work ethic on and off the ice ... and he’s always about the team, not a selfish player in any way. He’s gotten better and better and better; he is, as I say to a lot of people, one of our most complete players. He can do everything.”

That was the message Johnston gave to Canada’s world junior coaches, including head man Brent Sutter.

“I told them that you can put him anywhere — fourth line, first line, power play, penalty kill,” Johnston says. “He’s so versatile. I think he’ll be a good pro because of that.”

Joined on the Canadian team by Pouliot and Nic Petan, Leier played in all seven games in the tournament in Finland. The Canadians fell short of medaling, losing to Russia in the third-place game. Still, just to make the team was a highlight for Leier.

“Things worked out, like a little storybook,” he says. “I was very proud of that, as was my agent and family.”

Still skating with Bjorkstrand and De Leo on Portland’s lethal second line, Leier had 31 goals and 34 assists (65 points) through 49 games, while refining his two-way playing skills. He’s the reigning WHL player of the week.

Before he embarks on an expected pro career, Leier, who recently turned 20 years old and would play as an overage in the WHL next season, says anything short of returning to the Memorial Cup and winning it would be a disappointment.

“My goal, and I want it really badly, is to win the Memorial Cup,” he says. “All the guys want it badly.”

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