In any sport, it’s an advantage to be a well-rounded player. Colton Heffley of the Dalhousie University men’s hockey team takes that to another level.
His unusual ability to play defence, right-wing, or centre, makes him extremely valuable.
“Being able to play anywhere on the ice is a huge asset, especially given the constraints in our league,” says Head Coach Chris Donnelly. “We have a 22-skater roster cap, so if somebody gets injured you can’t replace them. Having players on your roster that can play both positions is a real big bonus for us.”
Heffley is a third-year arts student who spent his first two seasons with the Tigers playing defence. But this year, defenceman Aiden Jamieson joined the team late in the recruiting process after two other defence recruits – Duncan MacIntyre and Evan Scott – were already committed to Dal. Then, Tigers’ captain Luke Madill found out that he’d be returning for a fifth year after getting into law school.
That brought the total defence tally on the roster to seven.
“It became either we could take out a pretty good player on our defensive side or we could move Colton back to forward and get him going there,” said Donnelly.
They chose the latter. Heffley played right-wing in the first half of the season and switched to centre since the winter break.
After two years on the back end, switching to offence was challenging.
“I played forward in junior so I have a little bit of familiarity with it, but it was obviously a tough switch to go back,” Heffley said.
He started his minor hockey career as a defenceman, but switched in second year bantam because his team didn’t have enough forwards.
“I ended up doing pretty well and they kept me a forward through junior” he says, “so then I had some understanding of both,” said Heffley.
He played right-wing through four seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Kelowna Rockets and the Prince Albert Raiders before playing defence for the Tigers.
“It’s a big jump from junior to university hockey in your own given position that you’ve played since you were young, let alone having a guy transition into defence at that stage,” said Donnelly.
“He did a great job in that capacity.”
The biggest change for Heffley was the difference in mentality. While every position has an defensive and offensive component, defence tend to control the set-up of plays, especially on the break out, while also stopping the oponent from scoring.
Forwards, on the other hand, tend to skate more and try to find creative ways to get to the net and score goals.
“As a D-man you’re scanning everything and you have to make different decisions as you would a forward,” he said. “You have different responsibilities.”
As a forward, Heffley has “a nose for the net. He’s a big guy and he plays a gritty game,” Donnelly says.
A nose for the net is right. This season, Heffley is the leading scorer on the team, with 12 goals and 21 points in 24 games as of the time of writing. That’s a huge component of the team’s total offensive production. Heffley’s 12 goals make up almost a fifth of the team’s 67.
An assistant captain on the team this year, Heffley, who is 6’3, models his play after Joe Thornton, a 6’4″ centre on the San Jose Sharks of the NHL.
“I’m obviously not as skilled as him, but we’re kinda the same size so I try to use my size to create space for myself like he does,” said Heffley.
It’s been effective. Heffley has been a big piece of the Tigers making the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The team is on a five game win streak at the time of writing, and Heffley had three goals and five assists in that stretch.
With two games remaining in the regular season, he’s hoping to continue that momentum into the playoffs.
Looking ahead, it’s likely that Heffley will keep playing forward.
“He’s got a nice chemistry going with [first year line mate] CJ [Chandler] Yakimowicz,” said Donnelly.
“That gives us a pretty good line going forward next season.”