Eric Pearce admits his move to the Brandon Wheat Kings was the very definition of bittersweet.
The 20-year-old forward from Regina was acquired at the Western Hockey League’s overage deadline on Thursday from the Prince Albert Raiders, the organization that drafted with the 42nd overall pick in the 2016 draft.
"It was tough news to hear," Pearce admitted. "It wasn’t what I was hoping for or expecting coming into the season but it’s an exciting opportunity. I’ve never been with another WHL team before so you start brand new. It’s a little late to start brand new, but it will be one more year so it will be good."
He certainly showed what he can add to the Wheat Kings in his Brandon debut on Saturday when he drew a pair of assists in Brandon’s 4-3 overtime victory against the Swift Current Broncos.
"I liked him a lot," Brandon head coach Don MacGillivray said. "He was reliable, he was hard on pucks, he was good on the face-offs. I moved him around all over the place. He killed penalties, he was playing left wing, he was playing centre, he was playing with different guys. I felt comfortable putting him out in situations.
"You can tell he’s played games in the league. He doesn’t get rattled and he’s hard on pucks. It was a good first game for him. He made a good first impression."
The Raiders elected to go with forwards Michael Horon and Reece Vitelli, along with defenceman Remy Aquilon to fill out their three-man overage contingent. Pearce was told he had been dealt on Wednesday, but they couldn’t tell him which team until the trade went through, so he went home to Regina to await the news.
"I was able to see my family, which was nice, and say goodbye to my billets," Pearce said.
Pearce drove to Brandon on Thursday, and skated with the Wheat Kings for the first time at Friday’s practice. He chuckled when asked about the move from the visitors dressing room to the Wheat Kings new room. During his career, Pearce made eight visits to Westoba Place as a Raider.
"I’ve always been in the away dressing room and never seen their facilities," Pearce said. "It’s a little different than P.A. It’s nice to be on this side. It’s a lot nicer room over here."
The six-foot-one, 203-pound right-handed shot had 16 points in 24 games last season in the Regina hub. In 197 WHL games with Prince Albert, which made him the longest-serving Raider, Pearce had 21 goals, 20 assists and 55 penalty minutes.
"I’m just a really good 200-foot player," Pearce said. "I’m responsible in my own D-zone breaking pucks out, supporting people, hitting bodies, making sure we get the puck out every time. I think I’m also a very good offensive player, in the corners getting the pucks up to the D, getting to the front of the net and stuff like that. I think I can show that skill here. It will be good."
He made his WHL debut on Sept. 22, 2017, and scored his first WHL goal on Nov. 25, 2017 against the Moose Jaw Warriors.
The fifth-year player hopes he can bring another veteran voice to Brandon’s dressing room.
"I definitely think I can bring some leadership," Pearce said. "… I’ve won a championship before and I’ve seen some really good hockey players like Noah Gregor, Ozzy Wiesblatt, Kaiden Guhle, how they come to the rink, so I think I can bring that leadership and lead by example. I’m not the most vocal guy but I’ll definitely make sure I’m playing the right way and showing the guys how to win."
The last members of the Wheat Kings team that won the WHL title in 2016 are now two seasons removed from major junior hockey, but Pearce does indeed bring a championship pedigree after the Raiders run during the 2018-19 season.
Prince Albert posted the best record in the league at 54-10-2-2, and then swept the Red Deer Rebels, topped the Saskatoon Blades 4-2 and won the Eastern Conference in six games over the Edmonton Oil Kings. That set up a final matchup with the league’s second best team, the Vancouver Giants (48-15-3-2).
"It was insane," Pearce said. "The city was going crazy. They would line up on the streets high fiving us when we got off the bus, waiting outside overnight to get tickets for the game. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was an awesome experience."
The Giants won the opener, the Raiders swept the next three games and then the Giants responded with a pair of wins to send the best-of-seven series to Game 7.
Pearce was on the bench when Raiders overage forward Dante Hannoun scored 18:25 into the first overtime to give the Raiders a 3-2 victory and their first league title since 1985.
"It was amazing, especially Game 7 in overtime," Pearce said. "It couldn’t have been written better. It was exciting. I was on the ice a couple of shifts a game but just learned more than anything from those older guys, just watching them and seeing how they play. Then being there to celebrate with them was just awesome."
While it was incredible experience to win, it was also an outstanding chance for the second-year player to see how the veterans responded to the inevitable ebbs and flows of a long playoff run.
"We had some adversity in the final and Eastern Conference final, and just seeing how those older guys, guys I looked up to, handled all that," Pearce said. "Our captain, Brayden Pachal, is a guy I’ve looked up to forever. He’s taught me a lot of things so I think I can bring some leadership qualities that he’s shown me and show all the rest of the guys here too."
Pearce is well aware that the Wheat Kings have three other overagers, goalie Ethan Kruger, defenceman Chad Nychuk and injured Finnish forward Marcus Kallionkieli. That means he is facing the same battle he did in Prince Albert, which is to earn one of the three spots.
His goal is simple for the next few months.
"Being here for the rest of the year," Pearce said. "It’s always good to have competition. It brings out the best in everyone so I’m excited for that. I’m just excited to get going."
ICINGS: Brandon’s road trip will see them meet the Edmonton Oil Kings (Friday, 8 p.m. CDT), Red Deer Rebels (Saturday, 8 p.m. CDT) and Calgary Hitmen (Sunday, 5 p.m. CDT). Brandon’s next home game comes on Oct. 30 when they host the Raiders, one night after the teams meet in Prince Albert in a weekend home-and-home series.
» Twitter: @PerryBergson