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Leppard earning spots with Cougars

Young player also wore maple leaf earlier this year

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Jackson Leppard is prowling for points up in Prince George.

The Whistler puckster, who turned 17 on Jan. 18, is providing some energy for the Western Hockey League's Prince George Cougars, who are enjoying a renaissance in northern B.C. after a number of lean years. In Leppard's first full season in the league, the Cougars are tied for first in the Western Conference and are a single point off the overall league lead.

In his first full season living away from home, Leppard is making tweaks to his game to keep up with players with three or four years more experience — and time to grow — than he has.

"(The adjustments are) the older guys and just how tough everyone is. The level of hockey is a lot higher. There's 20-year-olds who are really tough guys, that's for sure," said Leppard, who helped the North Shore Winter Club to back-to-back national titles in 2013-14 and 2014-15. "I'm just learning off of some other guys that have been playing in the league for awhile now and watching other guys practice. I'm learning every day."

Leppard, who had 31 points in 34 games with the Vancouver NW Giants of the BC Major Midget League last season, hasn't hit the scoresheet in 19 games this year, but has made his way into the lineup by bringing other dimensions to his game. He's even willing to drop the gloves, taking down Calgary's Justyn Gurney on Jan. 14.

In addition to the changing game, the league's travel schedule can be gruelling, especially for teams like the Cougars that are off the beaten path.

"It's pretty difficult on the body. There are really long bus rides, but we try to travel in the night so we can sleep on the bus," Leppard said.

Still, the Cougars are making it work, winning three of four games during an Alberta road trip last week. Those games were played in a five-night span.

Prince George got a major boost to its efforts last week, landing import snipers Nikita Popaguev and Radovan Bondra in separate trades at the trade deadline.

Leppard said it's a signal the Cougars are serious about winning not only the WHL title, but the national Memorial Cup crown in the spring.

"We're definitely going for the Memorial Cup. At the end of the season, that's definitely our end goal and I think we have the team to do it. We have the skill with all the guys up front, with our D and with our goalie. We're going to make a run," he said.

In addition to his time with the Cougars this season, Leppard also went eastward this season to play with Team Canada White — one of three national entries — at the World Under-17 Challenge in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., helping the side to a fourth-place finish.

"It was really cool. It was neat to have a maple leaf on your chest and being able to play for your country," he said. "Playing against your own age group, you're just able to bring more confidence back because you just know what you're capable of."

Though NCAA rules mean those who play in the WHL can't play college hockey south of the border, the WHL will pay for one year of Canadian university for every year of service. That's one option Leppard is considering, but with the potential to be drafted by an NHL team in 2018, he may find himself playing professionally.

"It's in the back of my mind, for sure," he said. "I can't focus on it, obviously, and just need to play hockey, but it would be pretty cool if I'm lucky enough to be drafted into the NHL."

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