“Making it to the highest level in professional sports is easy,” said no one, ever.
Take Reece Willcox, for example.
He’s a young defenceman from Surrey who’s honed his craft in the BCHL and the NCAA, before solidifying his spot on a talented AHL team.
Like most young players, he has aspirations of playing in the NHL. His career trajectory is on the right path, but there’s one problem.
Willcox plays with one of the deepest organizations in the NHL.
One of the reasons why people are gushing about their organization is because of the inordinate amount of talented young blueliners in the system.
Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim are all defenceman under 24 years old who have played in the NHL regularly this season.
The 23-year-old Willcox is within a sniff of NHL action, but he recognizes the roadblocks ahead of him.
“It’s difficult,” said Willcox. “We’ve got a lot of talented defenceman in the system, with more on the horizon.”
“All it does is it brings the best out of me.”
Willcox, who was drafted in 141st overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, has finally settled into a permanent role with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL in his second full season with the team. The graduation of the aforementioned Flyers prospects has vaulted Willcox into a larger role.
“I’m just a lot more comfortable at this point. I know what to expect.”
Still, there are veterans, such as T.J. Brennan and Mark Alt occupying spots on the roster. Promising young guns such as World Junior Hockey Championship standout Phillipe Myers and 2014 third round pick Mark Friedman are also teammates of Willcox.
“I’ve continued to work on some of my weaknesses that plagued me in my first year,” said Willcox. “I have to make sure I’m physical game in and game out, and I’ve been working on my power skating.”
The former Sullivan Heights Secondary student plays the type of role that doesn’t garner a lot of love or attention in hockey. Throughout his playing career, he’s been pegged as a shutdown defenceman.
He’s being utilized in the same role for the Phantoms this year.
“It’s no secret that I’m more of a defensive guy,” he said. I’ve been playing a lot in the penalty kill, and I’m often matched up against their top two lines.”
Willcox is being relied upon more in that role this season.
He played 48 games for the organization last year as a rookie. Before that, he got a six-game cup of coffee after graduating from Cornell University.
It was at Cornell where Willcox really worked on honing his game defensively.
“Cornell is known for their defensive game,” he said. “That was definitely one of the reasons why I went there.”
“You can’t go wrong with an Ivy school either.”
In Willcox’s four years at Cornell, he improved defensively as a player and as a leader. During his last season at Cornell, he was named as captain of the team.
Willcox also majored in history while minoring in business during his time at Cornell. That, and he added a few pounds of muscle before taking off.
“I made huge strides physically,” he said. “I went to Cornell at about 185 pounds and I came out 210 [pounds].”
The 6’3” defender admits that the leap to upstate New York from Merritt in the BCHL was monumental for him as an 18-year-old.
“It was definitely a pretty big jump going from the BCHL to college,” he said.
He was drafted by the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL originally but admitted that he wasn’t ready for that level during training camp as a 16-year-old.
Willcox then decided to sign with the Merritt Centennials. He enjoyed two successful seasons there where his team made the BCHL playoffs. After his first season, the Winterhawks wanted to sign him, but he decided to stay with Merritt.
Now, Willcox is on a team that is once again enjoying success. The Phantoms are off to a strong start this season, with a 9-4-2 record through their first fifteen games.
“We’ve got a lot of good players on our team, a lot of guys who can score,” he said.
While Willcox isn’t relied upon so much for offence, he knows that he has to show that side of his game more as the season progresses.
“In this day and age, everyone playing hockey has to be a bit offensive.”
One of the guys who’s helping Willcox hone his game and make that jump to the NHL is Phantoms assistant coach and former NHL defenceman Kerry Huffman.
The former Flyer himself was a similar player to Willcox. Huffman was a big-bodied defender who was relied upon for defence more so than offence.
“Huffman had a good career playing in the NHL, and he’s someone who’s helped me out,” said Willcox. “He’s a good guy.”
As a 23-year-old in a contract year, this is a big year for Willcox to make a solid impression on the Flyers organization. He’s got the hockey IQ and the defensive prowess to make it to the next level, but now it’s about perfecting his craft in the AHL and being ready for that next step.
“I think I’m ready,” said Willcox. “There are parts of my game I still need to work on, but I’m hoping to get that chance soon.”
While the logjam of blueliners in Philadelphia does create a roadblock for Willcox, it does show that they’re willing to give young blueliners in the organization a chance.
Perhaps, Willcox could be one of the next young blueliners to dawn the orange and black in the NHL.