~ Written by Jamie Neugebauer (@Neugsie), Photo courtesy Broad Leaf Media
There is no denying the fact that hockey pundits, fans, and coaches alike find comfort in sticking players in moulds: big physical defenceman, crafty power-play quarterback and the list goes on.
There truly is no ‘mould’ that fits Melfort defender Lucas Ochitwa, yet his immense effectiveness all over the ice in his time so far for the Mustangs is undeniable.
A defence-first, physical machine at around 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, the 2001 birth-year has a great handle on his own scouting report.
“I would describe myself as a two-way defenceman,” he says.
“In the past, I have struggled with offence a little bit in terms of scoring goals, though I feel very comfortable with creating chances. Defensively, I want to say I’m pretty solid. I’m gritty in the corners, and sometimes I’m a bit of a hothead and it can get me in trouble, but that’s also what helps me be successful. I have really been working this summer to try to bring a little bit of an edge in terms of putting a few more pucks in the net, but I have always had a knack for playmaking, so I think that’s where I shine and I’m looking to utilizing that this year.”
That grit and determination have more than made up for his average footspeed in helping the Mustangs be one of the best clubs in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League at keeping the puck out of the net, and while many expect defenceman under 6–feet to be of the dynamic, offensive type, Ochitwa is comfortable in his ability to impact the game in all sorts of ways.
One way he has made that impact felt from Day 1 with the Mustangs (he would end up third in rookie penalty minutes that year with 135 in 50 games), and before with the Swift Current Legionnaires U18s and Humboldt Broncos U15s, is with his fiercely competitive ‘nasty’ streak.
“To be frank I always had a little bit of the ‘short-man syndrome’,” he says with a chuckle.
“I’ve always been someone who is a little over-aggressive. I feel where the change was with the fighting in junior and to be clear, I only ever fought to protect teammates with maybe one exception, but otherwise, there was always a back-story to it. As far as penalty minutes, I had some big numbers throughout my career, but it just went up the last couple of years, and for the most part, have been connected to helping to set the tone for my team.”
Certainly, Ochitwa fit right in as a rookie in 2019-2020 in Melfort’s defence-corps in that Blevins, also the team’s general manager prefers a big-time physical edge in his blueliners.
Lucas also had great teachers and great players to look up to on the 19-20 Mustangs blue line, as veteran teammates Alex Rondeau, and Nolan Kadachuk were two of the best all-around defenders the SJHL has seen in the past number of years.
“To start my junior career with guys like that was phenomenal,” Ochitwa says.
“They were great leaders on the team, but more than they were great friends and teammates. I felt very welcome right away by those guys, and as far as playing goes, the one thing I really learned was to be hardnosed. The SJ is a really hardnosed league, so to be an 18-year-old against tough 20-year old’s, there are some tough kids in the league, only helped me. Rondeau was always chippy in practice and made sure to really give it to some of the younger guys. It was out of love because if you didn’t do it in practice, you really suffered and felt it in games.
“The other big thing they taught me was consistency,” he continues.
“You need to be as consistent as possible, and those guys were phenomenal at that. They were excellent day in and day out, so those two were the main takeaways.”
Not only are Rondeau and Kadachuk long gone to graduation, but so are the 2000-born leaders of that same ilk like Gabe Odowichuk, Vinny Prospal, and Andrew Hunt; so the mantle of that leadership looks likely to fall on Ochitwa’s shoulder.
With that expected role, he is hoping for big minutes and plenty of participation in important moments, and while many have a specific goal of reaching the NCAA Division I ranks, Lucas has a more measured view of what he hopes his thriving at his elevated role will bring as far as post-junior hockey is concerned.
“My goal is to just go to school,” he says.
“The ideal would be a Division I or USports scholarship, obviously if I go to one of those leagues the chances of playing professional hockey after skyrocket. I know I still have a chance to do that if I play D3, especially in Europe, but any one of those I would be content and happy with. Every kid wants to play D1 because of the ties to pro leagues, while with (Canadian University) I’d be closer to home potentially. After my college or university career, I just want to play professional hockey, but that’s too far down the road to worry about right now.”
The prognosis from this pundit is that there won’t be too many better shut-down defenders in the 2021-2022 SJHL campaign than Melfort’s No. 7, and with plenty of ice-time to build on the solid 14-points, he earned in the last full season, a solid uptick in offensive production should be coming as well.
So, Lucas, how do you do what you do, when everyone is looking for Mr. 6-foot-4 on the back end?
“The easiest way for me to play at my size is to play like I am 6-foot-4,” he says.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, it’s very taxing on the body at times, and on the pride, but you find your way. I’ve always been an aggressive player, and I learned that well from the vets that came before me. In practice, they were giving me a skill set that I may not have gotten in AAA – how to be gritty in practice so that games are easy. Everyone can’t fit the mould, so my way of being effective is just to grit through it, to want it more than the guy I’m facing, and to figure it out.”