Maine Nordiques defenseman James Philpott plays the puck in a game at The Colisee earlier this season Ron Morin photo

James Philpott had plenty of offers on the table on where he would play during the 2020-21 junior hockey season.

Teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and British Columbia Hockey League two of the top Junior A leagues in Canada were looking to sign the Calgary, Alberta defenseman for his final junior hockey season. He also had a chance to go back to the La Ronge Ice Wolves of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, the team he played for in 2019-20.

Instead, he decided to take a leap of faith in the middle of global pandemic to come Lewiston, Maine after the Maine Nordiques of the North American Hockey League took him with their first pick in the NAHL Entry Draft last summer.

“So at first, it was a little bit of a leap of faith coming down here. It’s pretty far away from home,” Philpott said “I came down to the NAHL because they’re one of the leagues that was (looking) promising the (season would start). I thought there’d be a good opportunity here with the Nordiques and turned out to be anything better than I could have imagined. We’ve had a successful season and hope to continue that with two wins here this weekend.”

Leagues across Canada, including the AJHL, BCHL and the SJHL, struggled to get the season going with multiple starts and stops.

Philpott was comfortable making his way across North America after multiple phone calls and Zoom meetings with the Nordiques organization throughout last summer.

“It was a long recruiting process through the summer, especially with COVID and coming across the border,” Maine Nordiques coach Nolan Howe said. “The family had their concerns and we were unsure if it would come to fruition. With that, we were very happy and he was someone off the bat who you knew he was going to be a very important part to the season, and he has lived up to that.”

James Philpott skates with the puck in a game at The Colisee earlier this season. Ron Morin photo

Howe said Philpott made an impression since training camp off the ice and that led to Philpott wearing the “C” among the defenseman this season.

Philpott took note on what captains did on teams he previously played for.

“One of the things I’ve always done, and all of the captains that I previously had have done, is just to establish a relationship with every player on an individual basis,” Philpott said. “Like, you come to the rink, you do your work, you work out and you leave, but it’s that time away from the rink that those relationships can really grow. I took that under my wing and just wanted to get to know every guy and spend some time with them in one way or another.”

He did activities with the players, whether it was going to the batting cages, movies or a trip down to Portland to get to know his teammates.

Howe said Philpott is someone you wanted to be around.

“I think it’s his personality, he’s a very genuine person,” Howe said. “Being from Western Canada, a good ole (Alberta) boy, similar heritage to my grandfather (Gordie Howe), so I am very familiar with the area.”

On the ice, he made his presence felt very quickly. In the first month of the season last October, he was named NAHL defenseman of the month after he racked up two goals and six assists in the nine games played.

“I stepped in and tried to play my game,” Philpott said. “Fortunately, I had a good start right through training camp. So I believe that kind of just carried over; and yeah, our team was practicing twice a week. We’re practicing hard and I think just being able to adjust to the caliber of the (NAHL) as quickly as I could.”

Philpott finished the regular season with six goals and 21 assists in 52 games played, which led all defensemen on the team while finishing 12th in the entire league among defensemen.

Howe said Philpott likes to play a puck-possession game, which fits in with the Nordiques’ pro-style game.

“He has the skill, but more importantly, he has the hockey IQ and the intelligence to play our brand (of hockey),” Howe said. “That’s why we wanted to use a first (round) pick on him, and we did it the year before with Casper Soderling.”

While he showed off his offensive abilities in the first month of the season, and last year when he had 10 goals and 28 assists in 38 games with the Ice Wolves, he felt like other parts of his game became stronger as this season went along.

“The one thing I found with (NAHL) is definitely the skating ability of players and even just the size and strength,” Philpott said. “Like you’re playing against guys who are going into college next year and a lot of them on most teams. So, just being able to switch to that higher-caliber play.

“I think offensively I’ve always been on the top of the power play, so I got some experience (on different positions on the power play). I just kind of rounded that side of my game out and then defensively, just differently, with a little bit more speed. We’re playing on a bigger rink than I did last year. So all of that kind of helped me shift my game from a different style, not as much hit and pin (but) more using my stick and just like actively defending while moving my feet.”


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