When the Detroit Red Wings drafted David Pope from the West Kelowna Warriors out of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), it marked the end of a long odyssey of minor hockey and the beginning of a dream's fulfillment.
"Detroit has been my favorite team for about 10 years," Pope told Winging It in Motown over the phone, "so the fact that they were the ones that drafted me just made it that much more special."
"They’re a great organization, and they’ve always been known to be a great organization, and they’ve always won a lot, so for me to be drafted to such a good team like Detroit was just awesome."
In addition to the usual jump between different age groups and levels of play growing up, Pope played for different leagues in different provinces of Canada. Part of it was the prestige of some leagues, part of it was finding the best instructors he could learn from.
The biggest reason for his moving around? "Obviously just to begin that maturity process," Pope answered. "At that time, I knew I wanted to play hockey, and I was going to be moving around a lot, so I figured I’d get accustomed to it at a young age."
Getting to Know David Pope
Asked to describe his game in his own words, Pope said, "I’d say I’m a fast, big winger; a puck-possession player, can see the ice very well with good offensive instincts, and I have a good, quick shot." He continued, even listing his weaknesses. "I need to put on some strength and get better at one-on-one battles and in the corners with pucks."
Pope began the season on the sidelines because a wrist sprain in an exhibition game kept him out of the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks' first six games. He played in every Omaha game since returning to the lineup Nov. 7 against Ohio State, recording eight goals and six assists in 32 games. Now Pope is set to lace up for the 2015 Frozen Four in Boston at TD Garden starting tomorrow, where the Mavericks will face off against Providence College.
"We’re all just really excited," Pope said of the trip to college hockey's biggest stage. "It’s just starting to sink in that we have a chance to be the best team in college hockey, so we're definitely getting antsy."
The end of junior hockey in the BCHL wouldn't mean the end of his traveling around. Pope's decision to get accustomed to moving around for his hockey career acclimated him very well with his new team in Omaha.
The Mavericks are one of eight teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), spanning as far west as Colorado, as far east as Ohio, and as far north as Minnesota and North Dakota.
Two of his biggest reasons for choosing to play at Omaha, however, had more to do with the competition, both within his new team and in the conference.
"We have a big freshman class," Pope said, "so I felt like there would be some opportunity for me to step in and play and develop right away." The plan worked out well, as Pope likely would have played every game for the Mavericks if he hadn't gotten hurt.
As for the rest of the conference, Pope said, "I think for me, it's just the conference [Omaha plays] in is a huge thing. Just a lot of elite hockey programs, and a lot of good players."
"I want to be playing against the best competition there is to prepare me for pro hockey."
After Penn State completed their transition from Division I of the American Club Hockey Association to NCAA Division I hockey, six Big Ten schools now fielded men's ice hockey teams. The decision to form the hockey arm of the Big Ten conference influenced several programs, of which Omaha was one, to form an entirely new conference in the wake of the creation of the Big Ten.
In a July 2011 press conference, North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison explained:
"The motivation to create the National Collegiate Hockey Conference follows recent conference realignments that affected several of our founding teams. Our new conference was developed under the auspice of institutions that have displayed a high level of competitiveness on the ice, an institutional commitment to compete at the highest level within Division I, provide a national platform for exposure, and have wonderful history and tradition within their institution and hockey programs. The conference will be comprised of not only highly competitive, committed and winning hockey programs, but will also showcase many of the best student-athletes on and off the ice in coming years."
In just the conference's second season of existence, the NCHC seems to have lived up to its billing. The conference sent six of its eight teams to the 16-team NCAA tournament field. In games against the other college hockey conferences, the NCHC boasted a 59-28-4 record for a .670 winning percentage.
How has Pope liked it? "It’s been great," he answered. "I mean, college hockey in general is just a different game compared to juniors and even pros. It just revolves and is centered around a speed game when you play against players like [Denver's] Joey LaLeggia, the best defenseman probably in college hockey."
Pope further explained, "You get accustomed to what it’s gonna be like at the next level and things you need to work on, things that make [LaLeggia] successful that you want to get better at."
If Pope's remaining time at Omaha develops the way this season has, he'll be facing plenty of the toughest competition in western college hockey. The challenge then becomes rising to and above the level of play if he's going to make a career of it after Omaha. If nothing else, Pope will be very accustomed to playing highly competitive hockey.
Pope plans to return to Omaha next season, partaking in his regular offseason workouts and in the Mavericks' usual offseason regimen. He also plans on attending the Red Wings' prospect development camp over the summer.
He has had some contact with the Red Wings over the course of the season. "They just told me, after last year’s camp and a couple times this season they’ve come up to watch, things i’ve done and things that still need to get better," Pope explained. "Those are things I’m always conscious of as the season goes on, regardless of how much I’m speaking with them or not."
"It’s been a while since I last talked to them, but those things that they told me will take a lot of time to get better at, things like my skating, for example. I haven’t spoken with them for a while, but they definitely have a set of expectations for me."
As is the case with many of the Red Wings' other NCAA prospects like James de Haas, Mike McKee and Chase Perry, going the NCAA route means that they have time to develop. An accelerated track like the one Dylan Larkin seems to be on likely won't serve Pope well for his development, but there are definitely signs from his freshman season that the Red Wings have a capable and potentially potent offensive force in the making.
For now, like so many Red Wings prospects over the last few seasons, he'll be hoping to help lead his team to a championship.
Q&A from the rest of the WIIM staff
Have you heard of a single funny religious joke on the ice, and if so , can you share it with us?
"Not on the ice I have, but Twitter has a few. Like, every time I get a point for something, they’ll say something like, 'The Pope has blessed us with his holiness,' or something like that, or 'He scores for the Mavs,' or something like that. As far as on the ice, none of the other players have really chirped at me in a negative way about it. i guess that’s a good thing."
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