While his teammates will be taking on the West Kelowna Warriors on Dec. 29, Ryan Gropp will be facing the Russians.
The Kamloops minor hockey product will be representing the Penticton Vees as he suits up with Team Pacific during the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec.
Gropp is one of just three junior A players on the squad that is otherwise comprised of Western Hockey League talent and one Alberta AAA Midget Hockey League player.
“It was definitely really exciting for me and my family,” said Gropp, regarding his selection in mid November. “It was a long process. I did lots of camps in the summer and just to be named is kind of a relief.”
The thought of playing with the best players in the world is “kind of crazy” for him. The Okanagan Hockey Academy grad said it just means that he has to prepare himself as best he can. The six-foot-two, 180-pound forward has shown confidence in his first BCHL season. He utilizes his speed at both ends of the ice and eludes opponents with slick stick handling.
“It’s definitely kind of risky. I like to think I play with some confidence to make those plays,” said Gropp, who has seven goals and 20 points in 33 games.
Selected sixth overall in the 2011 bantam draft by the Seattle Thunderbirds, Gropp has loved playing with the Vees. When talking about the adjustments to junior A from midget, he chalks it up to hard work and being mentally strong.
“Not get too down when things go bad and not get too high when you are playing well,” said Gropp, who will miss four Vees games. “I think I have been doing pretty well. At the start it was kind of tough adjusting to the speed and how big and strong some of the guys are.”
During a Coach’s Corner segment in November, Vees coach-GM Fred Harbinson said he hopes Gropp returns playing at another level. Harbinson said Gropp has been improving each week.
“He’s like a sponge right now. He’s not afraid to learn,” said Harbinson during the show. “He doesn’t believe he’s a player that has all the answers.”
At the start of the year Harbinson said Gropp would make great offensive plays followed by some defensive lapses. That happens less now. Harbinson has also used Gropp as a centre and been impressed by how the 16-year-old has responded. In making the adjustment, Gropp has made himself more versatile for the Vees.
“He’s got a pretty good, well-rounded package where he’s definitely got vision, very creative hands,” added Harbinson. “The biggest thing that has elevated his game from the beginning of last year, through the summer to now, is his foot speed has increased. He’s very deceptive. He’s good at changing his speed.”
Gropp is looking forward to the championship and meeting new players.
“I think the hockey is going to be great over there,” he said. “Good to see good kids from other countries over in Europe so it’s going to be great.”
Along with Russia, the championship features Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and the U.S. Team Pacific is joined by West, Ontario, Atlantic and Quebec representing Canada. Team Pacific plays Sweden on Dec. 31 and Finland on Jan. 1. Its final preliminary game is Jan. 2 against Team West. The gold and bronze medal games will be on Jan. 4.