Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Ask opposing fans who they most love to hate on the Portland Winterhawks, and the answer is usually the same: Brad Ross.

Ross has some competition, however, now that 20-year-old (hockey age 19) forward Riley Boychuk is coming into his own as a solid contributor on the offensive end while maintaining his reputation as a physical agitator.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound left wing is an imposing presence on the ice, but doesn't get a lot of attention from the media, with stars like Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter and Ty Rattie garnering most of the coverage. 

That doesn't mean he goes unnoticed on the ice. Boychuk's never struggled to rack up penalty minutes (148 this season), but now the goals are coming as well. He scored 18 times in 60 games this year despite playing on the Hawks' third forward line, and added three more goals in a first-round playoff sweep of Everett.

It's been a long road for Boychuk, a native of Abbotsford, B.C., who has endured serious injuries and had to cope with the pressure of living up to his status as a first-round bantam draft pick.

He's also one of a handful of current Winterhawks who were around for a franchise-worst 11-win season in 2007-08.

In the midst of turmoil on and off the ice, Portland selected Boychuk 10th overall in the 2006 bantam draft and hoped he could help put the franchise back on the right track.

But his 16-year-old season was derailed by an uncomfortable condition he calls "Sauer hips," after ex-Winterhawk and current New York Ranger defenceman Michael Sauer, who had the same injury as a junior player

"My hips were genetically oval-shaped and pinched in the socket," Boychuk said, adding that the ailment led to a series of groin pulls as well. "I got it repaired surgically, and knew that if I had the right operation done by the right guy, I'd be OK."

He appeared in just five games in his rookie season, then missed out on summer training for his 17-year-old year. Since returning from the injury two years ago, Boychuk said he's had few lingering effects.

"He missed basically a year and a half," said Portland coach and general manager Mike Johnston, who took over early in the 2008-09 season. "He really didn't start to move up for us until last year."

While he's never been a big-time scorer, Boychuk emerged as a force last season as the Winterhawks posted their first 40-win season in more than a decade. Though a year behind many peers, his performance in his 18-year-old season prompted the Buffalo Sabres to take him in the seventh round of the NHL Draft.

This year, he set a WHL career high with 18 goals for a 50-win Portland team without cracking the top two scoring lines.

"Our top six forwards are phenomenal skill guys," he said. "The rest of us play a hard, forechecking power forward game and that's what I do. I'm just trying to be hard on the puck and keep control down low, and getting points is a bonus."

Even though Boychuk may not look specifically for offense, Johnston has trusted him in some power play situations and says the big guy is deceptively talented with the puck.

"He has great hands for a big man, and he's very quick in tight," said Johnston.

Still, Boychuk is mostly known for being front and center in any scrum while he's on the ice. He says he's trying to gain more control of his emotions on the ice to prevent taking unnecessary penalties that have hindered his game in the past.

"Mike (Johnston) talks about playing more whistle to whistle, and going out after big hits during the play rather than shoving after the whistle and taking those kind of minor penalties," he said.

Johnston praised Boychuk's improving "control," but hopes he can continue to walk a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness.

"I've gone too far sometimes," Boychuk admits. "Part of my game is to get in people's faces as a big body, and I'm not going to back down from anyone. I just have to be smart about it."

While teammate Ross may draw most of the attention from opposing fans and players, Boychuk feels he's carved out his own niche as a villain, even though he says he doesn't necessarily want to be "that guy." Even Everett radio broadcaster Jon Rosen was unable to hide his disdain for Boychuk on the air during the first-round playoff series between the Winterhawks and Silvertips.

"Up in Spokane and Everett and Seattle I hear fans chant ‘You suck, Boychuk' a lot, so I guess I'm doing something right if I'm getting under their skin like that."

Scott Sepich is a WHL correspondent for Buzzing the Net. He can be reached at scott.sepich@yahoo.com. (Photo: Portland Winterhawks)

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