PORTLAND — Trevor Cheek’s first shift on the Rose Garden ice included a hit to jar a puck loose and a scoring chance in the crease.
It was the kind of play the left wing for the Vancouver Giants thrives upon. Getting into such spots is one reason Cheek entered Wednesday’s game against the Portland Winterhawks with a seven-game scoring streak.
In that moment — and in several others — it appeared Wednesday’s homecoming would produce a special result for the one-time Camas High baseball standout.
When the night ended in frustration, when the red-hot Winterhawks were celebrating the clinching goal in a 3-0 win over the visitors from British Columbia, Cheek bent forward on the bench, rested his head on the boards, and stared down at his skates.
“We’ve had a pretty frustrating season so far,” Cheek said a few minutes later, explaining that brief display of disappointment on the bench. “But I’ve got to make sure I’m not doing that. I’ve got to be a leader.”
Cheek spent his summer in Phoenix working hard to prepare to be an integral part of a good Calgary Hitmen team. The Hitmen — who signed Cheek two years ago (after he left his family and his Camas High School classmates for Phoenix to play for one of the country’s better youth hockey programs) — had six returning players who would vie for the three 20-year-old spots in Calgary.
Knowing that — and that his time in junior hockey runs out at the end of this season — Cheek spent his summer getting leaner. To improve his stamina he changed his diet, dropping 10 pounds from his 6-foot-2 frame. He weighs around 200 pounds and said he has the energy needed to play with more consistent effort than in past seasons.
The competition for a spot on the Calgary roster was as tough as expected. Still, Cheek felt right at home with the Hitmen until Sept. 26 — the day his was traded to Vancouver.
“I was definitely really surprised. It happened pretty fast,” Cheek said. “I was pretty upset about it. But once I heard it was to (Vancouver, B.C.) I thought it was a good opportunity for myself and also for my family to see some more games.”
On Wednesday at the Rose Garden, it was more than family who got to cheer on the former Papermaker. There were dozens of friends in the building as well.
Early in the third period, with the Winterhawks leading 2-0 and on the power play, Cheek took off on an odd-man rush. The puck and he arrived in front of the goal together. Only Winterhawks goalie Brendan Burke and a bit of puck luck stood between Cheek and one of the goal celebrations that got him voted last season’s favorite Hitman by Calgary fans.
“I took it to my backhand there and just kind of lost the handle on it. I think I probably had (Burke beaten) there,” Cheek said.
That bad bounce kept Cheek from extending his scoring streak. He left Portland with 10 goals and nine assists through 21 games as a veteran on one of the youngest teams in the WHL.
Unlike in Calgary, where he could have been a key role player on a winning team, Vancouver coach Don Hay acquired Cheek to lead the Giants attack while showing younger teammates that effort and commitment bring results.
“I never really talked too much on the bench in Calgary. Here I try to do my best to make sure the guys are ready and know what we’re doing,” Cheek said.
“I just try to make sure that I’m working hard so I can talk. When you’re not working hard, you can’t really tell people what to do. So that’s probably been the biggest challenge.”
It helps that the puck has started going in for Cheek. Wednesday’s near misses aside, Cheek is the Giants’ leading goal scorer.
“I’ve done a pretty good job of bearing down on my chances lately,” Cheek said. “I know that I need to provide that for my team, so scoring goals has really helped me with my confidence and with other aspects of my game.”
One aspect of this season that is hard to ignore: Cheek turns 20 on Dec. 29, which means he needs to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way in order to get a shot at playing professional hockey.
“My junior (hockey) career’s coming to an end. There’s a lot of pressure,” Cheek said. “Hopefully I make a good impression and hopefully sign a contract.”
At least one observer on Wednesday sees that as possible: Winterhawks general manager and head coach Mike Johnston, who invited Cheek to Portland’s training camp four years ago.
“We were very interested in him when we originally saw him,” Johnston said. “We knew he’d be able to play in our league. He’s had a good career so far in our league. He’ll probably get an opportunity to play in the minors. I’ve been impressed by him.”