Owen Pickering has a nice head of hair, but, if you ask his mom Dana, the same can’t be said for the beard that he’s grown ahead of Swift Current’s return to the Western Hockey League playoffs for the first time since 2018. But Pittsburgh’s 2022 first-round pick certainly isn’t going to complain if it sticks around.

“It’s not the best thing I've ever seen, for sure,” Pickering laughed. “My mom hates it. I don't think it's what makes me look the best. But hopefully, I can keep it for a while and it can get pretty long.”

He’s heard stories about what to expect tonight from former WHL players, like Toronto’s Connor Dewar, someone Pickering trains with during the offseason back in their native Manitoba. Dewar called InnovationPlex, home of the Broncos, the loudest rink he’s ever played in. Which makes sense, since “everybody brings a cowbell,” Pickering said. “It's crazy. It's so loud, like so loud, and we're so excited.”

The famous ‘More Cowbell’ skit from Saturday Night Live plays on the jumbotron every game while the building is rocking as the town gets behind their team. Pickering said the guys talk every day about how to handle that pent-up energy set to be unleashed after a five-year playoff drought.

“I think the biggest thing for us has been managing those emotions,” Pickering said. “We want to be able to not get too high and not get too low in our dressing room. But we know that tomorrow when we're coming out of the big blowup bronco [which the billet dads put up and take down] it's going to be a lot of fun.”

The emotions that Pickering is feeling at this point of the season are certainly different from what he experienced through the first half, with the 20-year-old defenseman battling through a challenging start.

Pickering missed most of camp following a three-month layoff in the offseason, as he was injured for the second summer in a row. From there, as a group, the Broncos went through a coaching change, with Pickering shouldering a lot of that burden in his second year as team captain.

From a personal standpoint, Pickering also had to deal with the difficulty of not being invited to Team Canada’s World Junior selection camp. While Pickering feels he should have been there, “I didn't have the greatest first half, so it was what it was, and so you just kind of move on and take it as motivation.”

To do that, Pickering relied on his family, calling them his No. 1 support system; his friends; and Dr. Kevin Wildenhaus, former sports psychologist for the Pittsburgh Steelers who is now part of the Penguins' player performance group.

“I talked to him quite a bit,” Pickering said. “We have a very good relationship and he's helped me through with strategies and journaling and stuff, certain things that I've started to do, and he helps me a lot.”

In addition to his communication with Wildenhaus, Pickering is in contact with Penguins director of player development Tom Kostopoulos and Chris Butler, a player development coach focused on the defense, which helped him come on strong in the second half.

“I feel like I've played really, really well. I think I was just under a point per game in the second half, and I was really happy with that,” said Pickering, who established a new personal best with 39 points and finished with seven goals – two shy of his career high of nine, which he posted in each of his first two full seasons in Swift Current.

“And then I’ve just been trying to develop every facet of my game. Talked to Pittsburgh a lot about kind of that defending down low and making sure that I'm playing strong and competing every single night, and I think I've taken steps in all those ways.”

It helps that Pickering, in addition to being incredibly personable and quick to laugh and joke, is an absolute sponge. He’s thoughtful, cerebral, and incredibly mature, always looking for how he can better himself both on and off the ice.

Particularly when it comes to being a leader, with Pickering relying on the group around him – “anyone one of them can be the captain as well”; and reading books like ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ – “I actually read it for the first time when I was like 15, my dad made me read it, and I really didn't want to – now I’ve read it a few times” – and Atomic Habits.

Kostopoulos has praised Pickering’s open mind and how he wants to learn and wants information, and “that’s the best thing you can ask for with a young draft pick. He understands that it’s a path, and we’re going to help him.”

Pickering took a big step forward on that path after making his pro debut on March 31, 2023 with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and playing eight total games in the American Hockey League. Pickering called the experience “huge” for his development, saying that it showed him what to work on, but also gave him confidence that he can skate and think at that level.

“It also helped me know that a lot of the things that I was deficient at that level, whether that was box outs or pins in the corner and stuff like that, will all come with strength,” Pickering said. “Gave me a ton of motivation to go in and have a good summer as well. So, I think this playoff run will hopefully be really long, and hopefully we'll be lifting a trophy, and I think that's invaluable as well (reporting to NHL training camp in the fall).”