Storm rookie lighting up the league
Hockey: Okotoks' Zach Okabe starring as freshman forward in Grande Prairie
Wednesday, Feb 21, 2018 06:00 am
Making a strong first impression is a continuing trend for one of the AJHL’s top rookies.
Sixteen-year-old Okotokian Zach Okabe has made the leap to the Alberta Junior Hockey League look easy from the jump, storming out of the gate for Grande Prairie as the province’s second-leading scorer among first-year skaters.
“I went and watched him in the summer time at a skill session he was doing down here,” said Storm head coach Matt Keillor. “I sat on the bench, he came out, stick-handled the puck for about five seconds and took a shot and I called our GM (Mark Bomersback) and said ‘we have to get this guy, he’s special.’ You could tell right away.”
Okabe, boasting 19 goals and 52 points, has fit the Storm’s style to a tee.
Dynamic and offensive minded, Grande Prairie is fifth in the league in scoring and boast four skaters in the top-14 in league scoring.
“I felt comfortable right away and the team made me feel comfortable. Chemistry wise, we have a high powered offence and that’s helped too,” said Okabe, a University of Vermont commit. “Guys like (Edouard) Michaud and (Justin) Bernier and the way I play it all came together.”
The offensive uptick is a major reason for the Storm surge into the top half of the North following four straight season at or near the basement of the division.
“Since we’re such a high-powered team we’ve been focusing on our defence,” Okabe said. “Our work ethic and our defensive play also helps with our outcome in the games. We don’t need to worry a lot about scoring goals because that will just come naturally for our team. Our team is really close bonded, that started early.”
The Storm have also re-engaged what is one of the biggest Junior A markets in the province from what’s been a trying half decade.
“The city is great, all of our games are packed and the crowd really gets into it,” Okabe said. “They’re really behind us this year and think we can do something special.
“In the North anyone can beat anyone if you don’t show up.”
Keillor said Okabe’s explosiveness in his skating and shooting in a smaller frame is the prototype for the modern-day hockey player.
“We knew he was going to be special,” the coach added. “We didn’t know he was going to come in and provide offence like he did right away.
“He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, every game he keeps giving it his all. He brings that youthful exuberance every night and in practice, those are the guys that want to be hockey players.”
The freshman forward earned, was not given, top-six minutes right out of the gate and showed a willingness to be a part a big part of the team from the get-go.
“He works hard on and off the ice, keeps his grades up and that attitude of wanting to be a player,” Keillor said. “It rubs off even on the older guys that maybe forgot some of the passion they would have had when they were 16 or 17 in the league.”
Dedication to off-season training in Okotoks helped Okabe make transition into junior, especially as a diminutive forward at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds.
“I’m a smaller guy I got a lot stronger over the summer with has helped with the balance, helped with my shot,” Okabe said.
The Okotokian, who earned his scholarship in the pre-season, is aiming for a 2019-2020 start to begin his NCAA journey as a true freshman.
“It’s how much I keep developing, especially next year which is a big year and the draft year for my age,” Okabe said. “It’s definitely an honour, I’m really happy and appreciative that it (my commitment) happened so early and they saw something in me and gave me the opportunity.
“It’s a confidence booster and helps me security-wise.”