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Winkler taking first step

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It was the first on-ice instruction session for Stars prospects at the Dallas Stars’ 2008 Development Camp and one player in particular kept catching the eye of former Stars’ defenseman Craig Ludwig, one of the coaches guiding the session.

When Ludwig, now the assistant coach for the local Texas Tornado junior team, looked at the roster sheet to see just who that was in jersey number 36, he was a little surprised to find it was Scott Winkler, an 18-year-old center from Norway. 

The Stars selected Winkler in the third round (89th overall) of the Entry Draft on June 21 and he was getting his first taste of life as part of an NHL organization. It was a good first impression by a kid who just came over to the United States last year to skate for a Midget AAA team in the Kansas City area. 

“I was very impressed with him,” Ludwig said of Winkler. “Our Stars Triple-A team played against those guys, so there’s a kid right there that we were talking about, ‘Wow, he’s got good hands.’

“There’s people watching them out on the ice. What you want to do is get it to where they write your name down and they notice what you’re doing. There will be some kids where you go, ‘I didn’t know he was that good,’ or ‘I didn’t know he had such good hands.’ When you got your GM sitting there and your coach watching, they probably don’t even know their names, but I promise you, they’re going to look down at their number, because I did.”

Winkler was enjoying the development camp experience, particularly since he didn’t know if he’d even be chosen at all three weeks ago.

“First of all, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be drafted, so just being here, I’m thrilled about it,” Winkler said on Day 2. “Everything’s going good. Walking into this camp, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’m having even more fun than I thought I would. It’s just a laid-back, chill camp. You learn a lot, so I’m having a great time.”

While Winkler wasn’t as highly rated on some of the widely-circulated pre-draft player rankings, which was likely due in part to him playing in a Midget-classification league instead of the more advanced Junior leagues, the Dallas scouting staff sees a lot of untapped potential in him.

“You get all kinds of lists around and everybody has their own opinion,” Stars co-General Manager Les Jackson said of Winkler’s standing on the major rankings. “We pay our guys to make their own list and voice their own opinion. He’s a big kid that’s raw and he’s got lots of good, physical aspects and has a lot of upside.” 

“Scott has very good size and sees the ice well,” said Stars’ North American scout Bob Gernander. “There are no shortcuts to his game and he is very determined offensively and defensively. He plays a physical game with a lot of detail and he has good vision of the rink.”

“It’s a matter of potential,” added Tim Bernhardt, the Stars’ Director of Amateur Scouting. “When you’re looking at 17-year-old kids, you’re looking at potential and where he was at this year was not indicative of what he was capable of, but that’s not the fault of anybody’s and he’d just come over from Norway and that was a good place to start over here. We saw lots of potential and lots of progress in his game over of the course of the season.”

Winkler himself was well aware where he was rated, so he was particularly excited to hear his named called.

“On the Central Scouting rankings, I was 176 or something like that, and that’s just on the North American rankings, so I wasn’t even sure if I was going to go, it was just a ‘maybe’ thing,” he said. “And I ended up going in the third round, so it was a big surprise for me.”

Besides playing Midget hockey, where he scored 40 goals and 92 points in 70 games for the Russell Stover club, last year Winkler also suited up for his native Norway in the Group B World Under 18 Championships, which is one rung below the top-tier teams. Winkler’s outstanding performance in that tournament, where he led his country in scoring and finished tied for second overall with seven points (two goals, five assists) and a + 6 plus/minus rating in five games, helped Norway win the championship and earn a promotion to the top level next season. 

It also opened some scouts’ eyes about what he could accomplish on a bigger stage.

“He shows good potential across the board,” said Stars European scout Matti Kautto. “He’s a smart player who shows a lot of upside and skill. He was one of Norway’s best players.”

“That was a good experience, we ended up going undefeated and winning it,” Winkler said. “So next year, we’re in the A group, because we were in the B group this year, so that was a really good experience. To play for your country is always nice.”

Even though he lived his entire life in Norway before last summer, you wouldn’t know it to talk to him, because Winkler speaks perfect English. His father is Canadian (hence, the non-Norwegian name) and speaks both English and Norwegian, so now Winkler does, too. 

“My dad, he’s from Canada, so he moved over (to Norway) to play hockey and ended up getting a job and just stayed, so it’s through him,” Winkler said of his flawless English. “Norwegian is my first language. My whole family knows Norwegian.”

Because Norway doesn’t have much of a track record producing NHL players (there have only been four, including physical defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen in Columbus currently), Winkler decided his best option for eventually making it would be to continue his development in North America.

“A lot of my friends who played back in Norway who were a little older than me, they ended up playing in the Norwegian Elite League and they kind of got stuck there,” Winkler said. “I really didn’t want to have that happen to me, so I just figured either Canada or the US was the way to go.”

Last year was his first time moving away from home, and the adjustment to life in a foreign country took somewhat of an adjustment - but at least he already knew the language.

“(My parents) are still home in Norway right now,” Winkler said. “I didn’t really know how it was going to be the first season, but with school and the season and everything, I kept myself pretty busy, so you really didn’t have time to think about it.”

Next season, Winkler will skate for Cedar Rapids in the USHL, the top junior league in the US, before going on to Colorado College in the fall of 2009, where he has already secured a scholarship. Many players are taking that intermediate step of playing in the USHL first, and it should help the development of a player who would otherwise be making a huge jump from Midget to NCAA Division One.

“They recommended me a year in the USHL first, I had no problem about that at all,” the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Winkler said. “I just did that on what they recommended and what my coaches recommended. I’m not regretting it at all, I’m happy about it.”
“Some guys might not be ready to go into college, they might need another year of high school or whatever,” Jackson noted. “Some guys are maybe physically not mature enough to fit in there. It’s all about timing and being ready. College is a big step for lots of young kids and you go in there too early and you end up not being prepared and that’s not a good sign. The US Junior League has been a real good feeder system for college and for pros, so he’s going into a great situation. That league’s good, it’s competitive and it’ll be interesting to see how he does. Going to college, you have to be a good player at that level, so I think that’s a real good stepping stone.”

Fellow Stars prospect Richard Bachman, a goaltender selected in the fourth round (120th overall) in 2006, played in Cedar Rapids in 2006-07 and last year was a freshman at Colorado College, so he’s already traveled the exact route Winkler is embarking upon.  He had nothing but positive things to say about the process.

“I thought (playing in the USHL) was great, especially before college,” Bachman said. “Playing the 60 games plus playoffs is nice and it’s a long season, it’s kind of a grind at times. I thought it helped me with my mental toughness a lot, riding on the bus for six, eight hours, stuff like that. I thought it really prepared me confidence-wise, and mentally, for college. I think a lot of guys are going that route. It’s such a great league right now, there’s a lot of guys going D1 and getting drafted, and it’s a small league, so you’re playing against great players every night. I think it’s a great step for a lot of players.”

“It’s a real good process for him,” Bernhardt added, regarding Winkler’s path. “He’s going to take the smaller step next year where he goes into a 60-game USHL season, competition against 20- and 21-year-olds and that will prepare him very well for college. And then the following year, he’ll be all set for CC.”

Clearly, Winkler will not be suiting up in a Dallas Stars jersey for quite some time, but the hope is that, given ample time to learn and develop, he can harness and refine that potential and grow into a key player down the line. 

He demonstrated that he already has the proper attitude when acknowledging that he has a lot of room to improve and that last week’s camp was the first step in that lengthy process.

“Just improve pretty much everything,” he said of his goals moving forward. “There’s certain parts of my game that I have to improve on, so if I could get tips to do that, that would be great, and then go home and work on that during the next season and get ready for the years down the road.”

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