Playing a regular shift in the Western Hockey League as a 16-year-old is no easy task. Continuing to contribute in the demanding conditions of the post-season is even more difficult.
But rookie forward Jesse Gabrielle is doing all that and more, having played a key role in the Brandon Wheat Kings’ first-round playoff upset of the Regina Pats. The 16-year-old native of Moosomin, Sask., who now calls Brandon his home, notched three goals and three assists in that four-game sweep as part of the Wheat Kings’ top unit with Jayce Hawryluk and John Quenneville.
"He was real good in our Regina series," said Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon, whose team visits the Edmonton Oil Kings to open the second round on Thursday night (7:30, CKLQ). "He generated a lot of offence, had quite a few points, scored some big goals for our team, and I think that he brings more to the table than that; I think he’s a guy that’s got good speed and is physical. He’s an important player."
Gabrielle was the highest scoring 16-year-old in the WHL conference quarter-final round and joined Hawryluk (five goals, five assists) and Quenneville (three goals, six assists) to occupy the top three spots in team scoring. The trio is also 1-2-3 in playoff plus/minus league-wide, with Hawryluk and Quenneville at +9, while Gabrielle is tied for third at +8.
"(McCrimmon) did a really good job of matching us up with good lines to play against," said Gabrielle, a former Minnesota high school standout who was chosen by the Wheat Kings in the fifth round of the 2012 WHL bantam draft. "Jayce and Johnny were a big help for me. Playing with them, it’s really good for me to learn how to play, and hopefully I bring some of the things that they teach me in practice into the games for this upcoming series and for next year."
With Hawryluk and Quenneville only in their second seasons of eligibility, they’re a line young enough to keep together for a couple more years, while Gabrielle might also spend quite some time as the Wheat King opponents most hate to face. The truculent 5-foot-11, 201-pound left-winger tied Rene Hunter for the team lead with eight fighting majors during the regular season, and while he admits he’s occasionally let his emotions get the best of him on the ice, he’s learning to pick his spots better and has a knack for drawing penalties from opponents.
"I love taking the body. I like going out there and taking their top guys off their game," he said. "So if I can get their top six thinking about me instead of the game, that’s going to be a big thing for me. That’s what I do out there."
That type of game, combined with Gabrielle’s skill, should make him a valuable playoff contributor for years to come on a team that has high expectations for the coming seasons.
"He’s a guy that should flourish in these types of situations," McCrimmon said. "He’s doing that right now, but obviously as he grows older, he’s going to be a player that’s important at this time of year."