It’s a bit mind-boggling to think about the quickness of Michael Grabner’s ascent.
Just 11 months ago, the Spokane Chiefs forward had his first career Western Hockey League hat trick in his only his second WHL season. He repeated the feat a month later and has two more this season.
During the off-season, he became a first-round National Hockey League draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks and drew praise for his efforts at their training camp and in NHL exhibition games.
Grabner, 19, is an explosive player whose quickness and puck-handling skills keep defensemen on their heels. He also has one of the most accurate shots on the ice, as opponents have found out this season.
It seems nearly every Chiefs game has a “Grabner moment” or two.
It may be a poke check – with his stick stripping the puck from an opponent – creating a turnover and a breakaway chance for himself. It may be taking a pass from a teammate at full speed, with Grabner then splitting two defenders for an uncontested shot on goal.
During those times, the noise of Chiefs fans will rise in anticipation of something special because of his talent. His finesse is unquestioned, but the product of Villach, Austria, showed his toughness earlier this season.
Grabner was on the receiving end of a brutal check that resulted in his opponent’s stick striking him inside the top part of his padded pants, leaving him with painful hip pointer injury.
All Grabner did was go out the next game and hang three goals on Everett.
But the pain was too much afterward and he took two games off to let it heal. He tried to play through the injury in five of the next six games, but wasn’t as effective. So he was told to “shut it down” by team’s medical staff in early November.
Grabner returned in December after a month off and began playing his way back into shape while battling the flu. Over the Christmas break, he returned home to Europe with his girlfriend and took some personal time off from the grind of back-to-back WHL seasons and a busy off-season.
Now he’s back and healthy, and it shows.
“It’s been kind of a long year, but it’s all right,” said Grabner. “It’s what I enjoy doing and I’m happy to be back. I’ve had a pretty good start to the second half and hope I can keep it up there.”
Grabner has seven goals and four assists in his last six games since the Christmas break – including a hat trick versus Prince George – improving his season totals to 19 goals and eight assists (27 points in 27 games).
“I thought he was a dominant player up in Prince George,” said Chiefs coach Bill Peters. “He had a great week (after Christmas). He had seven goals and had big goals. He scored a shootout goal that we needed in (Tri-Cities), to keep the shootout going, that if we didn’t have, we lose.
“He’s scored all types of goals and he’s scored in all situations (4-on-4, 5-on-5, power play). He’s been a very dynamic player and that’s what we need out of him the remainder of the way.”
Preseason talk of personal goals, such as a 100-point season, no longer seems fathomable.
“A hundred points? I don’t know,” Grabner said. “I don’t really get that many assists, but I’m trying to get more goals. Hopefully, I can still reach my 50 goals, but it’s going to be tough. I’m just trying to play my game and help the team out.”
Grabner striving for individual goals would give the Chiefs a consistent scoring threat up front that could help the team continue to reverse a losing trend of recent seasons.
“I think we can accomplish a lot this year,” said Grabner. “We’ve beat every team this year – beat Vancouver, beat Everett – so we know we can beat anyone. So, I think we’re going to make the playoffs and anything can happen there.”
Though he won’t acknowledge it, there is an underlying – yet apparent – sense of urgency to Grabner’s play this season that might be premised on the fact it could be his last in the WHL.
“I want us to make it as far as we can,” said Grabner. “I hope we can make it really far this year, because the last two years really weren’t as successful when I was here.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.