“I wasn’t around in the playoff years, but Edmonton and Dallas certainly have a history,” Winchester understated, recalling the six postseason battles between the two clubs over seven years from 1997-2003, five of which the Stars won. “I always enjoyed coming to play here in Dallas. It was a little weird going on the ice on the other side of the bench.”
But after signing with the Stars as a free agent last July, the physical left winger, in just his second full year in the NHL, has adapted well to life in Dallas both on and off the ice.
“It’s the first time I’ve changed organizations, so obviously, things are going to be different wherever you go, but it’s been a really good adjustment for me,” Winchester said. “It’s nice to be in this city and the people are great, so it’s been good so far.”
The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Winchester, 26, has been a welcome addition as a grinding, body-banging fourth-line forward, while also having the skill to contribute to the Stars’ offense. After engaging in a fight and scoring the game-winning goal in his first pre-season game, Winchester made an impression early in training camp, staking his claim to an opening-night roster spot.
“He went on a string there early where he played really well, and showed he’s a big strong guy with good hands,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s opened our eyes. He came in with a lot to prove and has been a solid player for us. He’s got to go up and down, finish checks hard, be tenacious.”
Winchester knows his role and is willing to fulfill whatever duties are required to stay in the lineup.
“I just want to do whatever the coaches ask of me,” said Winchester, who collected four goals and nine points, along with 86 penalty minutes, in 59 games for Edmonton last year. “It’s part of my game, but certainly I’m striving to play an all-around game, a power forward-type game. Being physical is part of that.
“It’s a matter of working on your game in practice. Certainly, coming to this organization is a fresh start for me, so I’m just filling whatever role I can. I was able to play a power forward game in the minors and I want to continue to bring that offense to this level and add that element as well. There are a lot of things that I’m continually trying to work on.”
In order to get that extra ice time, Winchester tries to distinguish himself from the other guys somehow, and after piling up 26 goals and 40 points in just 40 games for AHL Hamilton in 2005-06, offensive production is one way for him to do that.
“He’s a guy that brings some size and grit,” Tippett said. “And I think he has better hands than I think people give him credit for and if he gets some opportunities, he’s got to score some goals.”
“It’s a situation right now where we have a lot of guys here that can play,” Winchester acknowledged. “It’s good in a sense, because everybody needs to be ready at any time, so when you get the opportunities, you want to take a hold of them, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
His outstanding start to 2005-06, his third AHL season after spending four years at the University of Wisconsin, led to Winchester’s promotion to Edmonton for 19 regular season contests down the stretch. He also got into the Oilers’ lineup for 10 post-season games during their surprise run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals.
Though the Oilers, initially seeded eighth in the Western Conference, eventually fell to Carolina in seven games, Winchester learned important lessons on what it takes to compete under pressure conditions with the spotlight of the hockey world shining on you.
“I think it was a really valuable experience to play in that type of atmosphere and those games that were as intense as it can be and everybody is fighting for every inch out there,” said Winchester, who contributed one goal and four points in 10 playoff outings that spring. “I think that was a big plus for me to be in those games and learn from that. We certainly had an amazing run that year.”
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Winchester began his path to the NHL in 1997-98, when he left home at 16 to join the U.S. National Development Team, an elite-level program USA Hockey started that year to foster the development of more highly-skilled players. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the program has been a huge success, with that first group producing such outstanding NHLers as New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro and Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles, among others.
In his second season with the USNTDP, which played in the US Hockey League, the top junior hockey league in the States, Winchester scored 14 goals and 37 points in 48 games, while also piling up 103 penalty minutes.
“It was fantastic, it was really good for me,” Winchester said of his two years in Ann Arbor. “All of us were kind of in the same situation, moving away from home. All the guys on the team became really tight, friendships that I’ll have forever, so it was a really good experience in that sense. And USA Hockey took care of us, in terms of taking us overseas and giving us a chance to play in international tournaments that you just wouldn’t dream of.”
Winchester would go on to represent the United States in the 2000 World Junior Championships, while he was a freshman at Wisconsin, located in his hometown of Madison. At the end of that season, the Oilers selected him in the second round.
“It was good to come back home after being away for two years,” Winchester recounted. “I had a great experience at Wisconsin, both athletically and academically, and that college experience was really a big part of my life and something that I’ll look back on fondly.”
Even after a big junior year in which he connected for 14 goals and 34 points in 38 games, Winchester remained in school another year to finish his degree in marketing. He turned pro in 2003-04 and apprenticed in the AHL for two and a half seasons before getting the call-up to Edmonton in 2005-06. After spending all of last season in the NHL, Winchester became a free agent this summer and was happy to sign with Dallas.
“In talking with management and in talking with Coach Tippett, I think they were excited about the opportunity of me coming here,” Winchester said of what drew him to the Stars. “Certainly their enthusiasm and the fact that it’s a classy, quality organization that has a chance of winning it every year, that was definitely a lure for me.”
And one extra bonus for the young American kid was sharing a locker room with his boyhood idol, center Mike Modano, who set the NHL record for goals and points by a American-born player earlier this year.
“It’s a thrill,” Winchester said. “We were joking that I had a picture of him on my wall growing up, he was like one of my idols. It certainly is a little surreal being on the same ice with him, so it’s definitely a thrill for me to be skating with him, as an American kid growing up, someone that you look up to, and certainly he’s a big face of USA Hockey.”
As a product of the American program that Modano helped elevate to higher levels of success, Winchester is now just looking to continue to earn more ice time and contribute to the Stars’ success this season.
“It’s a new team and it’s a really strong team, so each and every day, I’m just out there trying to further my game,” Winchester said. “The adjustment’s gone really well.”