Kyle McGrath didn’t even have time to unpack his suitcase before he was rushed down to The Q Centre on Wednesday to catch the last half of the Victoria Grizzlies practice.
And after a long 13-hour travel day from the St. John’s, N.L., no one could blame him for feeling a little sluggish on the ice with his new Grizzlies teammates.
Becoming quickly acclimatized to Junior A hockey on the West Coast was important for McGrath, whom the Grizzlies signed this week, ahead of Thursday afternoon’s B.C. Hockey League trade deadline, because the 5-foot-11, 175-pound forward brings some much needed offensive depth to the Grizzlies, who are about to depart on their toughest road trip of the season.
“Kyle has been an offensive player his whole life so he gives us some added scoring depth up front,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon, whose club leaves today for Langley where they’ll begin a three-games-in-three-days road trip tonight against the Rivermen, before venturing down to Wenatchee on Saturday and Trail on Sunday.
“We’re approaching a tough part of our schedule, and when you’re playing so many games in a short period of time it’s not always easy to avoid injuries so this gives us some leeway.”
McGrath was a big scorer coming out of Midget hockey in St. John’s, which landed him a spot in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season with Cape Breton. But an early-season injury limited the 19-year-old to 33 games and four goals and three assists.
He started this season in Junior B with his hometown St. John’s Caps where he racked up 14 goals and nine assists in just 13 games. That opened up more opportunities and when his good friend and Grizzlies captain Alex Newhook, also a St. John’s native, suggested a move to the B.C. capital, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Alex raved about it here so I looked into it further and saw the kind of guys they have here, high-end guys, and then a city like this on the West Coast, and it was a bit of a no-brainer,” McGrath said.
“I like to think I can bring speed and skill to the team up the middle, but wherever coach Didmon wants me to play, I’ll play. I’m just here to help this team win games.”
The Grizzlies, who lead the Island Division at 25-12-0-2, will be looking to extend their three-game winning streak tonight against the Rivermen (18-21-1-0) because the Powell River Kings are hot on their heels just three points back.
“I’ve heard it’s a tough trip coming up with three in three, but what better way to get into it then play a lot of hockey,” said McGrath.
Didmon spent most of Thursday on the phone and it paid off. The Grizzlies swung a deal with the Penticton Vees for veteran defenceman Kenny Johnson. Going to the Vees in what ended up a four-team transaction was blue-liner Jarrin Sutton and forward Lach Hadley. The Vees then sent Sutton to Grande Prairie of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and Hadley to the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
In Johnson, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the younger brother of Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Jack Johnson, the Grizzlies get a 20-year-old who’s 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and who should bring some much-needed toughness to the Grizzlies’ back end. Johnson, who is headed to the University of Michigan on an NCAA scholarship next fall, has two goals and six assists in 33 games with the Vees this season. Last season, he had a goal and nine assists and 74 penalty minutes in 52 regular season games. He also played 10 playoff games with the Vees last season, scoring one goal and an assist.
“Kenny brings experience and he’s won a championship in this league,” said Didmon. “He brings more size and physicality on the back end and gives us another left-handed shot back there.”