Three years ago, Riley Weselowski could never have predicted how one fluky hit would change the future direction of his hockey career.
The Pilot Mound native was a second-year pro with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL when he was checked into the boards in an early season game. Weselowski said the hit was fairly routine, except that he went into the boards awkwardly and suffered a compression fracture in a vertebra in his back.
The injury eventually led to his departure from the Steelheads and his arrival with the Central Hockey League’s Rapid City Rush, at the urging of fellow Neepawa Natives alum and former Bemidji State University teammate Blaine Jarvis.
"My good friend Blaine Jarvis from Gladstone, Manitoba was playing here and he did a little bit of recruiting to come here," said Weselowski, who is preparing for his fourth season with the Rush. "At first I was like ‘South Dakota, I don’t think I’m going to go there and play hockey,’ but I ended up coming here and won the championship and I ended up loving it here, so I’m still here today."
Weselowski helped the Rush win the President’s Cup title in 2010 and the 27-year-old has evolved into one of the league’s top players since then, being named the CHL’s Most Outstanding Defenceman last season.
After contributing five assists in 25 games in his first season with the Rush, Weselowski has blossomed offensively, with five goals and 21 assists in 2010-11 before tallying nine goals and 33 assists in 66 games last season.
"I was relied upon I think more heavily that championship year as more of a shutdown guy and I took a lot of pride in that," Weselowski said. "I had some great coaching at Bemidji State with our defensive coach Bert Gilling (an Alexander native), who kind of taught me to focus on the defensive side … I just stuck with that and worked hard at keeping the puck out of our net, and then eventually you get put into some more situations offensively and get a little more confidence that way."
Weselowski expects the going to be tougher in the CHL this season, with the league shrinking from 14 teams to 10, expanding the talent base available for each squad. Additionally, the effects of the National Hockey League lockout are also being felt, with players from higher levels showing up on team rosters, including defenceman David Schlemko, who played for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes last season and is now suiting up with the CHL’s Arizona Sundogs.
The Rush, in their fifth year of existence, have been a contender ever since Weselowski’s arrival — their 38-22-6 record last year was the team’s worst since he got to Rapid City. Despite the influx of talent in the league, Weselowski said the expectation is for the Rush to be contenders again when the regular season begins this weekend.
"No matter what, I think Rapid City will always have a contender, just from an organizational standpoint," he said. "… They take care of their players very well here. Rapid City is about six hours from Denver, which is the closest big centre, so hockey is the focal point here and the fans here, they breathe hockey.
"Everything to them is Rush hockey and it makes it a fun spot to play. We had a pre-season game (Friday) night and it was as loud as a playoff game here. You’d think that we were playing Game 7 of the playoffs right now. It’s a lot of fun to play in this building and anytime other teams come in to play here, they’re like ‘Wow, that would be a pretty cool spot to play,’ so it’s easy to recruit here and they’ve done a good job of using that recruiting to their advantage."
ONE-TIMERS: Weselowski’s teammates with the Rush include Mitch Stephens of Forrest, while Derek LeBlanc of Brandon, who played two seasons with Weselowski in Rapid City, has joined the Missouri Mavericks of the CHL … Other local players in CHL camps include Brandonites Mike Hellyer and Kurt Jory with the Quad City Mallards, Brandonite Brett Skinner of the Allen Americans and Bradwardine’s Ian Lowe of the Wichita Thunder.