Pro Debut: Owen Pickering
Owen Pickering didn’t have a lot of time to reflect on the 2022-23 season in Swift Current. Less than 48 hours after the agonizing loss to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Broncos season finale, Pickering was told he would be heading south of the border to join the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“It was the day after or two days later that they informed me I was being reassigned to Wilkes-Barre,” Pickering said. “We didn’t have any conversations about it before the Broncos season was done, they wanted me to stay focused and try and make the playoffs.”
After driving to Winnipeg and staying one night at home in St. Adolphe, Pickering jumped on and early-morning flight out of Winnipeg that saw him fly to Toronto and then Newark, New Jersey before being picked up by a Penguins staff member and driven two hours to Wilkes-Barre.
Pickering watched the Penguins play that night before setting up shop in a hotel for the duration of his stay.
His first meeting with the team was made easier considering he had met the vast majority of the players during training camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fall, but the first practice was more eye-opening.
“Those guys are obviously way faster and stronger than the guys you’re used to playing against,” he said. “They’re smarter and savvier so it’s a great learning experience to be on the ice with them.”
After a few practices with the team, Pickering was thrust into game action on March 31 against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to make his professional hockey debut.
It was something Pickering hadn’t quite experienced before.
“That was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been for a warmup,” he laughed. “I didn’t know what everyone’s routines were for warmup, so I ended up stickhandling in the corner for like seven minutes. During the game I was put into some good spots with some good players. I was paired with their captain, Taylor Fedun, who was really good for me. He helped me out a ton, talking to me a lot on the ice and on the bench.”
Practicing at the professional level was one experience, but getting into game action was an entirely different level.
“There are little intricacies in the game that guys are better at,” he said. “You’re playing against 30-year-olds whose job has been to get better at hockey for the past however many years. You have to adjust to that, but I’m confident in my skating and my ability so I don’t think I transitioned too badly. There are obviously going to be a lot of learning opportunities so I just tried to take them all as a lesson and bring that into camp next year.”
The Penguins dropped a 4-2 game to the Phantoms that night, a tough pill to swallow as the team was trying to stay afloat in the playoff race down the stretch. That was unfortunately a sign of things to come for Wilkes-Barre as the team struggled to a 1-6-1-0 record down the stretch, ultimately missing the AHL playoffs.
Five of the eight games Pickering played in were on the road, giving him a window into the travel at the professional level.
He said the WHL travel schedule made that much easier.
“Our first trip was under an hour, which is a cake walk compared to a day trip to Prince Albert,” he laughed. “We would travel the day before on any trip that was over about an hour and a half. You’re still travelling by bus, but the team takes good care of you to help you succeed.”
The Penguins played road games in Lehigh Valley, Providence, Bridgeport, Laval and Hartford down the stretch, the longest of those trips being over six hours to Laval.
While hoping for more team success during his three-week stint with the Penguins, Pickering think the experience will be invaluable as he moves into 2023-24.
“I think you gain a better understanding of the game,” he said. “Playing with those guys shows you certain things you need to get better at. You’re playing in what is widely regarded as the second-best league in the world. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any real on-ice experience in Pittsburgh until the last few days of camp last year due to an injury. The ability to play eight games at the AHL level and practice with them every day I think helps me a lot.”
It can also provide guidance in Swift Current for what would likely be his final season of junior hockey as well.
“Being a 19-year-old guy and a captain, I think it will help me be able to pass those lessons along to a group of younger players,” he said. “All those little tidbits you learn along the way, you can pass those on to new players and help the team win games now and in the future.”