Medicine Hat, Alta.
Clayton Kirichenko is enjoying a career best season in his final year of junior eligibility. The 20-year-old defenceman, a member of British Columbia’s Sto:lo Nation, is the captain of Alberta-based Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League.
Kirichenko has a couple of goals he’d still like to accomplish though. For starters, he’s never won a league championship and would love to lead the Tigers to a WHL crown.
“It would be unbelievable,” Kirichenko said. “It’s something you dream about growing up. It’s mostly about winning the Stanley Cup when you are growing up. But I’ve never won a championship.
“It’s something that our team set as a goal at the start of this season. To do that in my final year of junior hockey would be amazing.”
As of Jan. 24, the Tigers had won 31 out of their first 47 matches. And with their 63 points (including a single point from an overtime loss), they were occupying third place in the league’s 10-team Eastern Conference.
Medicine Hat was trailing the division-leading Regina Pats, who had 69 points and the Moose Jaw Warriors, who had collected 65 points.
Over in the Western Conference, which also featured 10 entrants, just two squads had earned more points than the Tigers. They were the Prince George Cougars (71 points) and the Everett Silvertips (69 points).
Despite their aspirations to capture the WHL title, Kirichenko realizes it will be no easy chore for the Tigers if they were to accomplish that.
“There’s tons of good teams in our league,” he said. “Every team in this league is great and you can’t take anybody lightly.”
Kirichenko had earned 40 points (five goals and 35 assists) in his first 47 outings this season. He has already surpassed his previous career high of 29 points he earned a year ago, when he split his time between the Tigers and the Vancouver Giants.
Kirichenko, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, is in his fourth WHL season. He broke into the league during the 2013-14 campaign with the Saskatoon Blades.
Kirichenko believes there’s some simple reasons why he’s having his best year yet.
“I guess I’m just not taking anything for granted,” he said. “And I’m going as hard as I can.”
Last year, the veteran Kirichenko was an assistant captain with the squad. He’s rather proud to have the ‘C’ on the front of his jersey.
“It’s obviously a huge honour, especially since it was voted on by my teammates,” he said.
Besides being keen to lead the Tigers to a lengthy playoff run, Kirichenko is also looking to play well in order to extend his own career at a different level.
Ideally, he would love to get an offer to join a professional squad next season. But he was never drafted by a National Hockey League franchise. And if an offer were to materialize from a minor pro club he would have to consider his options.
That’s because Kirichenko has also considered taking his talents to a Canadian university squad. By playing in the WHL for four seasons he would have his Canadian university schooling paid for should he choose to go that route.
“I’m taking it a day at a time,” he said. “Right now I’m just focusing on our season.”
If he were to indeed return to school, Kirichenko said, he would possibly be interested in taking some Business or Kinesiology classes.
Kirichenko graduated from high school back in 2014. Since then he has been taking some classes to upgrade his marks.
If an offer to turn pro does come his way, Kirichenko said he would need to analyze what to do then. It would largely depend on what level the minor pro club was competing at.
“My goal is to be playing pro next year, but I’m weighing my options,” he said.
Kirichenko was born in Abbotsford, B.C. His mother Sheilah is Aboriginal and his father John has Ukranian and Russian ancestry. Kirichenko grew up in Abbotsford and moved with his family when he was 12 to Sherwood Park, Alta.
Before making the jump to the WHL, Kirichenko honed his skills playing Bantam and Midget hockey in Sherwood Park.
During his final Midget season, 2012-13, he also got his introduction into junior hockey. That season he was called up and appeared in 10 matches for the Spruce Grove Saints, members of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.