Ryan Gropp is happy with the difficult decision he made early last season to forgo college hockey and join the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The budding 6-foot-2, 184-pound power winger initially committed to play at the University of North Dakota, but early in 2013-14, moved from the Junior A Penticton Vees to Seattle. Over nearly the last two seasons, Gropp has emerged as a versatile contributor for the T-Birds, with 23 goals and 49 points over 61 games on the year.
"There were a lot of factors in my decision," says the 18-year-old, whose father Brent Gropp played for the Colorado College Tigers in the mid-1980s. "The biggest one for me is I wanted to focus all on hockey. When you go to school, you have a lot on your plate. The focus on hockey was what I wanted. It was a tough decision, but I think it's worked out for the best."
The Kamloops, B.C., native notes that for players from Canada's west coast, making an unofficial visit to a NCAA school located in the Midwest can be onerous both time-wise and financially.
"If you want to take a look at different schools, you definitely have to travel and pay your own way to check them out," Ryan Gropp says. "It was obviously tough to do that during the season."
Gropp, who was born one day too late in 1996 to be eligible for last summer's draft, had a big December and January for Seattle, averaging a point per game while his team was carrying on without injured star Mathew Barzal. While Gropp has good touch around the net, he says his focus is on playing a more straightforward, two-way game.
"It's just been a matter of working hard. We have a pretty close group of guys off the ice. I'm just trying to play my game, which is to be a two-way player."
Playing in a major U.S. city such as Seattle is not without its challenges and tempatations, but Gropp says he and his teammates do their best to avoid distraction.
"It's a big city with lots to do and there's big hustle and bustle, but we try to focus on just hockey — keep away from downtown Seattle, where it gets hectic," says Gropp, who was No. 62 in NHL Central Scouting's domestic skater ranking that was released in mid-January. "We're out in Kent, so it's quieter."
1. You are blessed with the big body presence, but what has been the challenge with being a lankier player?
"Maybe sometimes it's not catching up to the speed on the ice. Being a long, lanky kid, developing the speed takes time along with the balance for battles in the corners. But I'm getting it now."
2. How do you see yourself as a player?
"I think I'm an offensive guy, a power forward with good speed down the wing and a good shot. I think I'm developing a good two-way game."
3. Comparisons can be misleading, but whom in the NHL do you study closely?
"I have lots of guys. Jamie Benn off Dallas, and obviously Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, John Tavares. Watch the way they play, things like that."
4. Where is your favourite road rink in the WHL?
"Definitely Portland, they have a great atmosphere and great fans."
5. What is your least favourite exercise at the gym?
"Any kind of lower-body work, like squats. Conditioning work is probably the least fun but it helps you out in the long run."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.