In a sport where hits are a recorded stat and those most aggressive around the net typically flourish, its no wonder Grand Haven senior Ian Hibbard cherishes his role as a physical presence on the ice for the Buccaneers' varsity hockey team.
Hibbard's stats for the Bucs this season perfectly exemplify the type of player he is and how important he is to his team's success. He leads the team in points (25 assists, 10 goals), and is also on tops in hits with 63.
"He's a fierce competitor," said Grand Haven head coach Dan Gadbois. "He definitely plays on the edge. I've told him, 'Son, I wish everyone played with that same energy and intensity that you have. Players either have it or they don't."
Still, Gadbois said Hibbard at times has taken his intensity too far, including a recent contest where Hibbard was whistled for an illegal check to the back. The misconduct call resulted in a suspension, meaning Hibbard will miss his team's regular-season finale tonight against rival Rockford at Edge Ice Arena in Holland.
"He sometimes loses his cool," Gadbois admitted. "He's got 75 penalty minutes, which is almost twice as many as anyone else on our team. His fierceness sometimes gets out of control, and he's been hit with a misconduct. But you know what? I wouldn't change him at all. I wish I had it in 90 percent of my players."
For a player who learned to skate at the age of 4, honed his skills in youth roller hockey leagues at Mercury Park Rink, and joined his first ice hockey team as the age of 7, Hibbard said he's always carried a passion for the game.
It was clearly evident to Grand Haven coaches, as they welcomed him to the varsity roster as a freshmen. Four years later, he's just the fourth player ever in the program's 13-year history to play all four seasons at the varsity level. Hibbard's current teammate, Tyler Ploeg is also on the list, as well as Brandon Grevel and Will VerDuin.
"When I played my freshman and sophomore years, I wasn't as physical," Hibbard said. "But I've gotten stronger and gained more confidence in my abilities. Plus, I've seen older players (play physical), so that's inspired me to play like that."
Hibbard has improved his overall skill set by attending numerous camps during the off-season, including a handful of trips to the Michigan High School Hockey Excellence Program in Chelsea, where some of the top prep players have their skills evaluated by National Hockey League scouts in attendance.
"The last time I was there, they said some of my strengths were my aggressiveness, that I'm a hard worker and my hands," Hibbard said. "They said I needed to improve my speed and strength, which I felt were two pretty good weaknesses, because that's simple stuff that you can work at. I've spent a lot of time lifting and working out in an effort to get better."
Gadbois has seen Hibbard’s hard work pay off on the ice this winter, as Hibbard has led the Bucs to a 14-8-2 record and a second-place finish in the O-K Tier II Conference.
"Ian is a very talented passing the puck," Gadbois said. "He has an ability to make the phenomenal play, simply because of his passing. He's not as fast as say, a Tommy Zelenka, but Ian is quick. He's quick to the puck. He also reads the ice really well."
Grand Haven had some scoring issues early, as much of the scoring punch fell only on Hibbard and fellow forward Zelenka and the ideal balanced attack from multiple lines was missing.
But since the winter break, Hibbard said the Bucs have picked it up a notch offensively, with senior Asa Pellegrom's move from defense to forward being a key ingredient.
"Our second line with Asa, Patrick Ferris and Jordan Klassen have give us some scoring," Hibbard said. "We feel we can score with our first, second or other lines out there and that gives us confidence. Hopefully that continues."
With the postseason looming, Hibbard feels the Bucs are peaking at the right time and capable of making an extended run in the playoffs. Their expected first challenge will likely be Traverse City Central in Wednesday's Division 2 pre-regional at Howe Arena in Traverse City. The Trojans, the No. 2 ranked team in Division 2, are heavy favorites against Grand Rapids West Catholic in Monday's pre-regional opener. Grand Haven is ranked No. 10 in Division 2.
"We haven't played them, but we've seen them a couple times," Hibbard said. "They have a real powerful offense.
"All we need to do is play our game and play our positions. We can't get caught out of position and running around unorganized. If we do that, we're very capable going far in the playoffs.”