Ryan Grills enjoyed being part of a storm, but was ready to make the jump to something a little bit higher.
The 20-year-old could have returned for one final slate of junior hockey with the Campbell River Storm this season, but he opted instead to pursue both his education and athletics, joining the University of Victoria Vikes.
"It took me most of the summer to decide if I was going to go back to Campbell River or not," Grills said. "I decided I was ready for the jump to college hockey."
Grills has embraced the change of scenery a little further south on Vancouver Island, and is relishing the opportunity to test his mettle against new competition.
"It's definitely an older league. The age group in junior is 16 to 20 and now it's 18, 19 to 24. You see a lot of bigger and stronger players. It's faster and you have to be strong in the corners. It's a bit more of a man's league," he said. "You definitely have to make plays faster and there's less time with the puck. It's a more physical league so as a (defenceman), you have to hold your own in your own zone."
Right away, Grills had an opportunity to make a mark as the club was looking to fill some holes on its blue line after many players from 2015-16 moved on. He's been a steadying presence, looking to keep goals out of his own net more than vice versa, having scored an assist in 14 games.
"There was a lot of turnover from last year. We do have a few other defencemen, but I've been playing good minutes. I've been used in more of a defensive role, getting a lot of defensive-zone starts and penalty-killing (time). That's what I was used to playing in Campbell River, being a strong D-man in my own zone and taking care of that first pass," he said. "I'm happy with the ice I've been getting so far and I'm looking to increase my role going into the second half."
Assistant coach James Gaertner said it took Grills some time to bridge the gap between Jr. 'B' and the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League, but he's starting to fit in and become a key contributor for the Vikes.
"The first couple of weeks, it was a little bit of an adjustment period. The level of play is pretty high. The league itself has gotten a lot better over the last couple of years," he said. "That being said, Ryan's come a long way even just from the start of the year. He started a bit tentative but he's now really coming into his own in terms of moving pucks and making smart decisions. He's really become a steady guy for us."
Off the ice, Grills is pursuing a business degree. He said though it's not necessarily easy to balance both education and athletics, it's not impossible.
"The league is structured for students so we practice before classes and play Fridays and Saturdays to make sure that we have Sundays to do schoolwork," he said. "I have a five-course load, so it's really busy between hockey and classes but I'm really enjoying it."
Grills had maintained his education even after graduating high school, taking college classes while playing with the Campbell River Storm.
"I made sure I kept my education going past high school, so I think that definitely helped me with the transition. You definitely have to be on top of it," he said. "If you have a big trip to the city or to Washington, you have to be sure you do your schoolwork the week before so when Sunday comes along, you're not trying to cram.
"It takes a lot of scheduling to make sure you're on top of it."
The Vikes struggled after a 3-1-0 start and sit at 5-8-1 entering the second half. However, the Vikes have defeated all three opponents ahead of them in the standings, so if they're on their game, they know that they can beat anyone in the league.
"We had a good, strong start and then a few lapses. We have 10 games in the second half to make sure that we're ready for playoffs. We just need to make sure we're consistent every weekend and that's one thing we need to work on," Grills said.
Reith to play in Top Prospects Game
In other Whistler hockey news, Owen Reith will get a chance to skate with the best of his league this Saturday.
The Whistlerite, who is suiting up for the Princeton Posse of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, will represent the Okanagan Conference in the league's Top Prospects Game in Kelowna on Jan. 14.
In his first year in the league, Reith is tied for third on the team in scoring with 22 points (12 goals and 10 assists).