Will Koop was playing some of the best hockey of his entire career as the Steinbach Pistons were making their way to their second Turnbull Cup in franchise history, when a devastating injury ended his hockey season early but didn't end his dedication to the team.
The 19-year-old forward took some time during an off day at the RBC Cup in Chilliwack, British Columbia to sit down and reflect about his play leading up to the injury and how he's battled to find the positives afterward.
Koop's regular season as a very good one as he put up 27 goals and 32 assists for 59 points in 55 games played. It was in the playoffs, mainly the series versus the Winnipeg Blues, that Koop reached elite status as one of the MJHL's premier two-way players.
"I definitely think my confidence was going up" said Koop. "I think it was more from the fact I realized that you can really contribute on both sides of the puck. You don't always have to be putting the puck in the net. I took a lot more pride on the defensive role. Maybe wasn't getting the offensive production I was liking, but I knew I was still making positive contributions which is all you can really ask for and do in the playoffs."
The coaching staff, mainly the belief from head coach Paul Dyck that he could achieve that kind of elite two-way status, wasn't lost on Koop. "It means a lot when your head coach has that much faith in you. It's something special and I think Paul's really good at that, inspiring guys to reach their potential. I think the biggest thing was when he moved me to centre about halfway through the year. I think that really showed the trust in me and helped me excel and reach my potential as a player."
After falling in the semi-finals last year, Koop knew getting to the finals would not be easy and thinking back to that game 6 in Winnipeg against the Blues, he still can't stop smiling. "It was awesome. The guys were so excited. I still got a smile on my face. It was exciting. It was exciting for about thirty minutes and then we realized we had more to do, we had a bigger task to get over. That series was tough, we had to earn that one. It was redeeming ourselves from last year."
The momentum was short-lived as the Pistons fell behind the Virden Oil Capitals 2 games to 0 in the MJHL finals. While perhaps fans were worried, Koop explains that as a leader, he had no doubt. "In our locker room, there was no worry. We just knew we had to win that first game and we'd get the confidence back. Games 3 and 4 really were that turning point for us."
It was in that game 3 that the unfortunate happened.
A harmless looking play resulted in devastation.
With a tinge of pain that continues to linger, Koop breaks down what happened. "I think there was five or six minutes left, I think we were up, I actually don't even know what the score was. I know we were on a penalty kill though. I told Declan Graham to rim the puck and I was going to chip it out. I got there to the wall (the boards) but I caught an edge, a couple feet from the boards and went in head first. Luckily, I turned my head to the side so I saved my neck but I could feel my shoulder pop right out of place. I knew I was hurt right away. I don't usually lay on the ice, which I didn't but I knew something wasn't right and I went right off the ice."
If you've never separated your shoulder, Koop considers you lucky as it's a pain he's never, ever felt before. "I've had a couple injuries before but I can't even describe it as pain, it's more like agony. It's good to see where I am now from where I came but that first night, it sure wasn't fun for me. I still can't drive, I'm not allowed to. It's weird how you don't realize how everything is connected. Moving around, going up stairs, it was excruciating. I still have some pain now but nothing like it was before. You figure out the small things like getting dressed, it takes 30 minutes to get ready, it's like you're a kid again."
Despite being in severe pain, Koop made sure he made a stop before going home. "The day after my injury, my dad came out to drive me back but I knew I had to see the guys before I left. The night I got hurt, you could just tell how close all the guys are, guys were texting making sure I was alright. It was (Bradley) Schoonbaert who said right after I told him I would be done for the series, he said 'let's win this for Kooper', that's really special. That's the best pain medication how the guys supported."
Koop made the drive with his parents to game 5 in Steinbach where he said the hour drive felt like 10. After getting that win to take a 3-2 series lead and with a chance to close out the championship, he made the long 4 hour drive to Virden which turned out to be worth every painful second. "I couldn't miss something that special. The guys had a chance to win game 6 and I said there was no way I was going to miss it. The ride was quite long. It was two years in the making. Getting to go out on the ice and have Braden Purtill, the captain, help me hoist the cup over my head, it was something truly special."
After such an injury, some may have just stayed home to heal, but Koop wanted to be around the team and he wasn't going to miss any time away. So, when the team packed up to head to Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Koop was one of the first ones on the bus. "It's no fun when you're by yourself. It was nice to be around the guys, joking around, not thinking about it. Being around them, I knew they were under pressure so it was nice to just talk to them and talk about the game. That's what's impressive about this team, that it's about everyone and it really showed."
It was another hard fought series but the Pistons prevailed and Koop again hoisted another trophy, this time, the ANAVET Cup, the first in Pistons franchise history. While it was tough to not be on the ice, Koop didn't dwell on that fact. "Yeah, it sucks not playing but I was just so happy for the guys. You know how much they worked to get to that point. It was still just as exciting, you feel so good for the guys and obviously, you wish you were playing but I'm also using it as motivation for next year."
In what has been a whirlwind year for Koop and his teammates, the journey continues at the 2018 RBC Cup in Chilliwack, BC.
After the team arrived, they were summoned right to the arena for team and individual photos. Koop wasn't missing the chance to put on the equipment one more time this year, even it was just for a photo and a short skate around by himself. "It was very emotional. It was just so exciting to be out there and take it all in. Just seeing the RBC Cup banners and the Hockey Canada logos everywhere. I mean, sitting on the bench, I was close to a tear. I'm glad I could be there, cause you never know if you will get that chance again. All I can say is it was really special for me to get that chance."
The season is close to an end. This is the last few games of the year, win or lose. Koop has already begun looking to the summer and is ready to do whatever it takes to be ready. "I think you always have to find positives. My love for the game has gone up even more and you realize how much you miss it. It's gonna be a huge factor in the workouts this summer, I'm going to remember the feelings I had while not playing. It's going to be a long rehab but I'm very excited to put in the work and get ready for next year."
Being down his dominant arm, Koop has developed a few new habits that may just stick around, even after being healed. "I've been putting my phone in my left pocket and I think it might stick with me. I guess we'll see next year if it's in my left pocket. You don't realize how easily you can change routines."
During this process, Koop credits his teammates for helping him get through but also won't ever forget what his family and his billet family did for him. "My billets, John and Angie Gula, they love me like their own son, I knew I would be totally safe with them. It really helped having my parents there that night. Even my sister stayed. Having that support makes a huge difference. That love and support, it can't be put into words."
Will Koop is only 19, in his second year as a Steinbach Pistons, he's a Turnbull Cup Champion and an ANAVET Cup champ as well. He's part of the team representing at the RBC Cup and it's all things that he's taking in while unable to play the game he loves. He's not dwelling on it, he's growing from it. "I think you just really learn it's not about you, it's about the team. Guys know that but it's tough to think that while in the game. Everyone want's to score or lay the big hit, but when you're not on the ice, you can't do it. It's about supporting the other guys and being positive. It's been a weird month here but I think it's helped me grow as a player and as a leader in the locker room. It's about being unselfish."
Unselfish. Positive. Champion. Leader.
All words that describe Will Koop.