Fort St. John Flyers Rick Cleaver wins North Peace Hockey League MVP award
Posted on February 1st, 2016
Byron Hackett / Alaska Highway News
FEBRUARY 1, 2016
On the ice at North Peace Arena in October, as the Fort St. John Flyers tuned up for another season of North Peace Hockey League action, a familiar face was dominating in seemingly surprising fashion.
It was Flyers veteran Rick Cleaver and the early standout performance was nothing new to the player or his coach.
“Last year he was working in the oil patch and missed a lot of games and it’s hard to get a rhythm going when you miss a lot of games. Now he has a job in town and he can make it, he’s in shape and when he’s shooting the puck the way he is he’s a plus,” Flyers head coach Andrew Leriger said after Cleaver’s five point performance on an October weekend in the preseason.
Little did the two men know what was in store for this season, as the year was capped Sunday when Cleaver was named NPHL MVP.
“The fact that I have played all of the games definitely helped, being able to make practices and just being able to stay on the ice on a consistent basis.” Cleaver, who went from pipelining to working at Rosebrook Flooring in Fort St. John this year said, was the biggest difference in his game from previous seasons to this one.
“Most nights [in the past] I was coming to the arena and I hadn’t skated in a week or a couple weeks and you are just going out and playing for the first time and you don’t have the conditioning or feel for the game. It was just hard to all of a sudden step into the game and be successful.”
Cleaver has been with the team since their AAA Allen Cup days and his hockey adventure has taken him across Canada and the United States, including four years at Norwich University, three separate stints in the East Coast Hockey League with the Phoenix Roadrunners, Kalamazoo Wings and Victoria Salmon Kings, as well as a seven-game cup of coffee in the American Hockey League.
With that resume, which had three seasons of 30 goals or more, his production in a northern AA senior team is not such a surprise.
But because Cleaver goes quietly about his business and hasn’t been able to be at the rink consistently since he joined the team full-time three years ago, his talent perhaps hasn’t been fully exposed.
“I know a lot of the guys on the team were like ‘holy, where did this come from?’ that’s what I found kind of funny. I’ve played junior A, went to college on a scholarship and played pro hockey, It was funny to me that guys would say that,” Cleaver recalled.
“Because I was always a good player, but no matter who you are if you don’t play on a regular basis or take two or three weeks off, no matter what level, to keep your cardio, your strength and feel for the game up that makes it that much harder.”
And while there have been changes in his own game, ones that mostly have to do with the ability to be at the rink on a more consistent basis, Cleaver said there was a renewed commitment in the locker room this season, one that’s helped the makeup of the group throughout the season.
“The commitment level of everyone has been a bit better and some fresh faces and new guys which helps,” Cleaver said.
“It’s always fun to come to arena when you’re a first place team and you’re winning and we have a good group of guys, everyone gets along, a laugh or a joke in the dressing room and that’s a huge part of why I play.”
Along with the MVP honours Cleaver was named to the NPHL west division all-star team and was joined by teammate Troy Hunt who was the top goaltender. Chris Stevens and Damon Kipp of the Dawson Creek Canucks were also named to the west division all-star squad.
The rest of the major award winners were Tyrin Wiebe, (Grimshaw Huskies, rookie of the year), Braden Gamble (Manning Comets, best goaltender), Alex Curran (Sprit River Rangers, best defenseman), Sheldon Szmata (Grimshaw Huskies, coach of the year), and Pat Rowan (Falher Pirates, most gentlemanly player).