Troy Stecher joined the Penticton Vees as a 16-year-old.
"Youngest kid on the team," he said. "I was the baby."
A couple of the junior team's older players and leading scorers ended up being mentors for Stecher. In addition to helping him on and off the ice, Mark MacMillan and Brendan O'Donnell gave Stecher a crash course on college hockey.
"Before that, I didn't really know anything," Stecher said. "They helped me discover college hockey."
Good thing for the North Dakota men's hockey team.
All three are now teammates in Grand Forks and Stecher has been a big reason why UND has started 11-3-1 this season.
The 20-year-old sophomore from Richmond, B.C., has arguably been North Dakota's most consistent defenseman this season, playing in all situations for the team.
"I don't really view Troy as a smaller player," Hakstol said of the 5-foot-10, 190-pound defender. "He's not the tallest guy in the world out there, but he has a strong body, he's a strong skater and his competitive level is outstanding. He doesn't play a small game. He plays a hard, tenacious game. He's done a good job in those defensive situations."
That's been true for all situations.
He's currently on the top defensive pairing with Gage Ausmus, playing significant five-on-five minutes. He's filled in on the power play when needed, too.
"You could go on and on about Troy and what he's brought to our team this year," MacMillan said. "The biggest thing is being a solid, two-way guy for us. He brings it every game. It's pretty easy to see he's one of the hardest-working guys on the ice every night. He battles so hard out there. He's been unbelievable on the penalty kill. This year, he's chipped in more offensively.
"I could go on and on about everything he's done for our team."
MacMillan said he's enjoyed watching Stecher grow.
"I think the progression of his game has developed with the progression of him off the ice," MacMillan said. "He was a young kid in Penticton. His maturity level off the ice has contributed to his maturity level on the ice."
What was he like when he arrived in Penticton?
"A 16-year-old," MacMillan said with a laugh.
Learning about NCAA
Stecher said he was fully aware of the Western Hockey League and the Canadian Hockey League route, but didn't know much about colleges.
He learned about it and committed to Nebraska Omaha by the end of the season, in large part, because of learning what coach Dean Blais accomplished at North Dakota. But Omaha soon had several changes on staff and Stecher didn't feel as comfortable.
He re-opened his recruiting and landed at North Dakota.
Stecher arrived on campus having never seen a college game in his life. No. 1 was the exhibition against Manitoba last season.
"It kind of opened my eyes playing in front of 12,000 people," he said. "It was nerve-racking."
During the last year and a half, he's learned more and more about the college game.
"I don't know how to describe it," he said. "Being from Vancouver, it's kind of like the Canucks. They have huge support. They've been up and down the last few years, but the fans always are there. It's the same thing here. We had our ups and downs at the start of last year, but everyone had our backs.
"That translates on the ice. You want to impress them. You want to do well for this town."
Stecher said one of the surreal moments was at the end of a late November game n in St. Cloud. During the intense finish, he paused for a moment to have a laugh.
"Here we are, on the road," he said, "and all you can hear is the Sioux chant. There's more green than red in the stands. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.' It's a pretty special thing."