The wilds of Manitoba's north are a fair bit different from what Taylor Derynck is used to after getting his hockey education in British Columbia.
But in his second season with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's OCN Blizzard, the 19-year-old defensive stalwart from Whistler is helping to stabilize the team's blue line. OCN has allowed the third-fewest goals in the league and, coincidentally, sits third in the 11-team MJHL with a 22-11-3 record at the Christmas break.
It always feels a little warmer when you're winning, and despite an injury-hampered four-game skid prior to the holiday, the Blizzard are in a position to qualify for the playoffs — and bring some joy to a community that could use it.
"It's pretty flat and it's getting pretty cold. It's not as cold as it was last year, but it's probably getting down to minus-30 or minus-35, so you've really got to plug in the car," he said. "It's going well. I like the town itself (Opaskwayak Cree Nation and adjoining town The Pas), it's pretty far but we've got a good fan base and they help out the community a lot."
The Blizzard, which has finished the season above fifth in the league just once in the last decade, have an unfortunate pall hanging over the team in the midst of its strongest season in recent memory. Just before Christmas, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, the club's owners, announced plans to fold the club at the end of the season. However, the Blizzard's board of directors won't let that happen without a fight.
"We want the community to decide the future of the team, and we want them to have a say," board president Dan Moore said in a release.
The league has also said it hopes to keep the team viable and plans to talk with its brass. A community rally has been slated for Jan. 5 in an attempt to boost the efforts. The region has struggled financially this year with the paper mill nearly closing and a local casino announcing plans to move.
In addition to providing entertainment for fans, the team helps showcase indigenous players who might otherwise have trouble being seen. Two of the team's top three scorers, Brady and Anthony Keeper, are brothers from an even more remote reserve and Derynck fears players like them might be at risk of being passed over.
"We're all pretty upset. It's really good exposure for the Aboriginal (players) up north that don't get as much exposure as some do down by Winnipeg. We've got a couple boys from Cross Lake (First Nation) and it's good for them to get the opportunity to play. We're all pretty heartbroken and we're trying to figure out what we're going to do next year."
As for his personal future, Derynck hopes to play one more season of junior hockey in The Pas or elsewhere before moving on to the next level. At this point, he's eying an NCAA Division I scholarship like one recently landed by his friend Tyler Welsh, the Victoria Grizzlies star who will attend Yale starting next season.
"I'm trying to go Division I and hopefully that works out for me, to go play hockey down in the States somewhere or maybe even stay up in Canada," Derynck said.
Wherever Derynck ends up, he'll go there with a bit of extra snarl he didn't possess when he showed up on the prairies a little over a year ago.
"It's a lot rougher. There are a lot of bigger guys, a lot more enforcers for sure than the BCHL," he said. "When you go into the corners, you're expecting to get hit.
"I've always hit a little bit, but it's a little bit of a change. Growing up, it's not as rough as it is now, that's for sure. But it doesn't take too long to get used to it. You realize that you need to keep your head up — they're coming full speed at you."
Derynck credits the Blizzard training staff for helping to improve his game and with two goals and four assists, he's more of a defensive defenceman, but prides himself on making a strong first pass out of the zone to help spur the OCN attack.
"Personally, I'm doing pretty well and we've got a pretty good team this year, so everyone's getting a good chance at ice time. We've got a bunch of guys working hard and I hope we get good things come out of it," he said.