When the Kelowna Rockets make their annual December trek through Saskatchewan, a particular northern community is likely to supply some incremental game tickets revenue at a couple of Western Hockey League rinks.
Canwood’s Tanner Moar is a 17-year-old forward with the Rockets, playing in his first season of major junior hockey. By some accounts, the small Saskatchewan town has collectively marked an “X” or two on the WHL calendar. Kelowna plays in Prince Albert against the Raiders on Dec. 16, then in Saskatoon the next night against the Blades.
A defenceman turned forward...
Moar has been transformed from a defenceman to a forward. At 6’3 and 185 pounds, both Moar and the Rockets coaching staff hope can cut a wide swath across the ‘Dub in the coming years.
“He was a defenceman and he’s come in here trying to learn a new position,” explained head coach Ryan Huska. “That adds to some of the struggles for a young guy. But he’s had more on his plate because of that. He’s handled it very well and we see him continuing to get better over the course of the year and the next couple of years here.”
Moar, who was selected by the Rockets in the seventh round, 141st overall, at the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, has taken it all in stride, comfortable that he is being taught and developed by an organization he trusts.
“I feel like it’s been pretty easy, because I didn’t really know much about playing forward,” Moar shrugged. “I could just learn from scratch and learn what they teach me and focus on that.”
Among 17-year-old WHL forwards, Moar is, well, huge. For many of these youngsters, an early growth spurt can pose tremendous challenges, whether it be fatigue or just being viewed as an uncoordinated athlete. Thankfully, the people who are really in the know recognize the pitfalls and are prepared to exercise some patience.
“Sometimes people look at guys like Tanner and they maybe call them a project,” Huska said. “But they are in a growing stage where they don’t have that physical maturity in their body yet. Tanner is slight and you can tell he’s stretched out quite a bit over the last little while and it takes awhile for that coordination all to kind of get back in order again.
“Sometimes it may not look the prettiest, but there have been stretches where we have seen him skate in straight lines up the ice, and he can skate. Once he puts that package together and he understands how to handle his growth and he puts on some more weight, I think he’s going to be a good, solid, bigger player for us, and that’s important.”
Earning his stripes in the WHL...
For his part, Moar admits the transition from midget hockey to major junior can be a challenge in many ways. However, he feels confident he’s making progress on the ice, and he’s quick to give credit where he believes it is due.
“It hasn’t been super, super hard,” Moar said of the current learning curve. “That’s because the guys have been able to help me out and teach me things that help me even if I’m not as strong as the others. Things like just making sure that I focus on keeping my knees bent and my feet moving and keep trying to battle.”
Speaking of battles, part of his early education in the WHL came when he was forced to chuck knuckles in a tilt against Vancouver. He delivered a body check, then was taken to task by Giants’ Kiefer McNaughton, an 18-year-old who checks in at 6’3 and 210 pounds.
“The first fight was my first fight ever,” Moar smiled. “It was good for me to learn that I could do it and protect myself. I know I don’t have to be scared out there.”
In a late November game against the Victoria Royals, Moar opened the scoring for the Rockets in a 6-5 victory, banging home a rebound on a shot from another Saskatchewan product, defenceman Damon Severson from Melville. It was his first career WHL goal.
Then later that evening, the Royals’ 6’2, 195-pound forward Tim Traber came calling. Moar quickly responded, accommodating one of the western conference’s grittiest agitators. With his second WHL bout and first goal in the books, Moar finished the night just an assist shy of a Gordie Howe hat trick.
“The goal was just another boost of confidence,” Moar said. “I hope I can keep getting points and keep helping out the team as much as I can.”
A coach's take on the player's development...
Huska, who played in the Phoenix Coyotes system briefly with Canwood’s own Tavis Hansen, will leave the Rockets in mid-December and attend to duties as an assistant coach with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship in Alberta. He is building a solid coaching resume, which should bode well for Moar in the long run. To date, Huska likes what he sees.
“I don’t want to say he’s had a tough start, but he’s had the kind of start that most young guys do have,” Huska said. “He’s found himself in the lineup, then missing a couple of games in row early in the season. But over the last five games, he’s been consistently in our lineup and has been improving every game. That’s what we want to see as a coach.
“He’s a positive guys around our dressing room and if there’s one thing we can say about Tanner is that he is very coachable. If you ask him to go to the net, he’s going to go to the net. If you ask him to finish his checks, he’s going to try to finish every one of his checks. So, I think with time he can turn himself into a good player for us. He has a great attitude about the game and that can go a long way.”
The importance of family...
Away from the rink, Moar is becoming used to life away from Canwood.
“It’s been a lot different,” Moar said. “I’m used to knowing every single person in my town and being able to talk with them. Here in Kelowna, they might know me, but I might not know who they are. So it is a lot different going from small town to city life. It’s totally different. Like driving, and just the way people look at everything.”
Life in a small town was good to Moar, the youngest of four children. His father Ken, known in the area as a very good athlete, has been an important part of Tanner’s development, especially the move to Kelowna.
“He’s been very supportive, since I began skating he was always taking me to the rink, whether it was public skating or a game or practice, he’d be pushing me. Even if I made one little mistake, he’d lean on me and tell me how to work it up and get going.
“Being out here (in Kelowna), well, he’s had three kids go through it (living away from home), so he wasn’t a heartbroken parent, but he knew he had to keep me motivated and made sure I wasn’t missing home. He’s helped me to make sure I was focusing on hockey.”
A father speaks...
While Tanner works hard at school and on the ice in Kelowna and other WHL cities, Ken Moar makes his daily commute from Canwood to work in Blaine Lake. Tanner’s father will also hit the road for Prince Albert and Saskatoon when the Rockets come calling, although there is no truth to the rumour that he’s renting a bus for the occasion.
“Well, no,” Moar laughed. “We’re only about 40 minutes from P.A., but the whole town is pretty excited about it. We’ve heard from a lot of people, people we didn’t even realize, who have been paying a lot of attention to what Tanner’s doing. It’s been pretty exciting for everybody.”
Coincidentally Ken says, he also coached Tavis Hansen in minor hockey. And recently, Ken was able to travel to Montreal and watch his nephew Chris Kunitz playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Canadiens. He says that Canwood is very much a hockey community, yet the town hasn’t really had a homegrown player move on to the WHL since Hansen toiled in Rockets organization, albeit while the team was in Tacoma, Washington.
These days, it’s Tanner Moar carrying the "Canwood" name across the map of junior hockey. Of his son’s move from the blueline to a forward position, his father agrees there will be some challenges to start.
“Yeh, the learning curve is pretty steep. I think he’s still enjoying himself and he wants to play hockey. He did play some forward early on, growing up in small town Saskatchewan when quite often you might only have nine players, you kind of learn to play wherever the puck goes.”
And of course, the question begs for a hockey parent in Moar’s situation; what’s it like to see your 17-year-old son leave home to play hockey?
“Well, Tanner is the youngest of four here,” Ken said. “We understood that when you live in a small town in northern Saskatchewan, if the kids want to pursue their dreams, they might have to move away from home to do it.
“We just tried to prepare him the best we could to be ready for whatever he has to do.”