Riley Holzapfel is entering his fifth season of professional hockey, but the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward had a first-time experience this past July.
“It was my first summer in free agency so I didn’t really know what to expect,” Holzapfel said. “Once July 1 came, I was hoping some teams would want me. Pittsburgh was really interested and it’s just a good fit for me here. Everything worked out well.”
The 24-year-old Regina, Saskatchewan native has amassed 52 goals, 73 assists and 125 points over five seasons in the American Hockey League. A 2006 second-round pick (43rd overall) of the Atlanta Thrashers, Holzapfel has seen time with the Chicago Wolves, St. John’s Sea Dogs and Syracuse Crunch.
Holzapfel signed with the Penguins organization in the early hours of free agency and has begun his stay this season in the AHL in northeastern Pennsylvania. He's gotten off to a strong start with five goals, five assists and 10 points in 18 games.
“It’s awesome here,” Holzapfel said of his surroundings. “I love it so far; there’s no complaints. The coaching staff, everyone’s treated us really well so far.”
Part of that coaching staff includes WBS head coach John Hynes, who will not only look to Holzapfel for an offensive presence, but also to provide some leadership on a young team as well.
“(Riley’s) a hockey sense guy,” Hynes said. “You can see he’s got a good idea of where to be and what to do just within the game. He’s got a very good shot and good vision, so he does have some offensive elements to him.”
Holzapfel admits that he can shoot the puck, but he also tries to use his skating strengths and some grit to his advantage.
“I like to skate and play aggressive,” Holzapfel said. “I just like to play aggressive and find the openings. When I get a chance to score, I try and score.”
The former Moose Jaw Warrior is pleased with the instruction that he’s received so far from the coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre throughout the preseason. Trying to reach the next level, Holzapfel is always willing to put their advice to good use.
“They’ve been really helpful, since the day I got here,” Holzapfel said. “They’re always willing to help you and make you a better player, so that’s all you can ask for.”
The feeling is mutual for Coach Hynes and his staff. Holzapfel is a player that they look forward to working with throughout the season, helping him improve in all aspects of his game.
“He’s a guy that we’re very excited to work with because we feel there’s a lot of room for him to grow,” Hynes said. “Getting himself in great shape and being a very consistent player and getting some detail to his game as far as (the way) we play, we think (those elements) are going to be very helpful for him in his own career and help him develop as the year goes on.”
Who was your favorite player growing up?
“I always was a fan of Joe Sakic. He’s a skilled player, he’s smart, he’s good in both ends of the ice and when he gets a chance to get a shot off, he can.”
What team did you cheer for as a kid?
“I always grew up liking the Montréal Canadians. My dad was a Montréal fan and just kind of grew up on that so I picked up and fell after him.”
How did you begin to play hockey?
“When I was a kid, I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan. Hockey’s a big thing there, and my brother’s a few years older than me and he played hockey as well. I kind of always wanted to play with him and play with the older guys and his buddies. My mom was a figure skater and my dad was a goalie so I was kind of just brought into it and loved it ever since.”