Woo-hoo! Young Ice blue-liner turning heads


Late in the first period of Friday night’s series-clinching playoff win, rookie Winnipeg Ice defenceman Jonas Woo joined the rush as teammate Chase Wheatcroft wheeled through the neutral zone.

Woo was picking up speed as he called for the puck and Wheatcroft, immediately recognizing the opportunity, zipped a hard backhand pass across the ice to the 15-year-old who swept past a Prince Albert defender before crossing the blue line and snapping the puck past Raiders goaltender Tikhon Chaika.

Winnipeg’s lead jumped to 4-0 and the Ice went on to beat Prince Albert 8-2, winning the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final series 4-1.

“I was just screaming his name and it was a good pass by Wheatcroft and a good opening,” Woo said matter-of-factly after a Monday morning practice.

The sequence, lasting no more than four seconds, put Woo’s hockey instincts and quick thinking on display. Drafted 18th overall in the WHL Prospects Draft five months ago, he’s already shown an uncanny cool-under-pressure approach while playing a combined 20 regular-season and playoff games.

The goal, Woo’s first post-season marker in the WHL and only the seventh all-time for an underage player in the playoffs, was more than a simple milestone.

It signalled a coming of age for the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Winnipegger, who won’t turn 16 until Nov. 19.

The Ice did not need Woo to become a regular so early in his career. Despite joining a roster stocked with a multitude of veteran players, he’s earned his role since the end of his U18 season with the Winnipeg AAA Bruins.

“It’s a different situation because we didn’t have playoffs last year but I just consider it very similar to (forward) Zach Benson,” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “We didn’t know what to expect (with Benson) and then he exceeded our expectations. And I would say Jonas has kind of exceeded what I expected. But we’ve tried to put him in a good spot.”

It doesn’t hurt that right-handed shooting defencemen like Woo are among the rarest and most sought-after skillsets in the hockey world. Patrick has played Woo with variety of experienced blue-liners, including trade-deadline acquisition Tanner Brown and occasionally with Carson Lambos or Nolan Orzeck.

<p>Brandon Wheat Kings’ Landon Roberts battles Winnipeg Ice’s Jonas Woo against rhe boards in a Western Hockey League game. (Chelsea Kemp/The Brandon Sun)</p>

Brandon Wheat Kings’ Landon Roberts battles Winnipeg Ice’s Jonas Woo against rhe boards in a Western Hockey League game. (Chelsea Kemp/The Brandon Sun)

“He fits in to the defence,” said Patrick. “I think how he was used in (the Prince Albert) series is probably the extent and the max of what his ice time would be. (Twenty) minutes is very high end and it was probably even a little more because of the way the score got.”

Woo, who joined the club for a brief trial period immediately after being drafted, credits his new teammates for finding room for him in their tight-knit group.

“We’re pretty close hockey team,” said Orzeck. “We welcome guys in. We make it easy for them to feel comfortable and just be themselves, whether you’re 19 or 20 or 15 years old.”

It doesn’t hurt that his dad, Larry Woo, is an assistant coach on Patrick’s staff, while older brother Jett, currently with the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks, played in the league with the Moose Jaw Warriors and Calgary Hitmen.

“I’m a little surprised but I mean, I just I’m trying to enjoy (it) right now and I’m trying to take advantage of the opportunity and I like it,” said Woo. “Right when I joined the team, I was very nervous. (But) the guys took me under their wing and they showed me everything …it was a good transition.”

Patrick has been careful to test Woo’s ability to handle the rigours of the WHL.

“With young players you wonder — are they overmatched and is there a situation they could get hurt?” said Patrick. “Which is something I really worried about with Zack Benson until I saw his hockey sense and knew that he seldom put himself in a spot to get hit. I think there’s a bit of that with Jonas. Jonas is a real strong kid for his size.”

Woo’s high draft slot was due in large part to a big offensive upside but it was his defensive chops that earned him the trust of the Ice coaching staff. He has played mostly mistake-free, getting between his man and the net even when caught on the ice with an opponent’s top line.

He is expected to continue with third-pairing minutes when Winnipeg opens its Eastern Conference semifinal against the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors on Friday night.

If he’s good now, how much better will the 18-year-old version be? One comparable player might be defenceman Calen Addison, the Brandon product and former WHL all-star who was once Jett Woo’s teammate and is now with the AHL’s Iowa Wild.

“Part of me has wondered, ‘Well, what will he become?’” said Patrick. “Yeah, he’s gonna be his own player but that was one guy (Addison) I thought of.”

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Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky