The player appears from behind the dressing room door and sidles over to a reporter holding up a concrete wall deep inside Prospera Place.
“Hi, are you Dave?” he asks, looking slightly down and to the right.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“I’m Mark Liwiski.”
“Oh, yes, sorry I didn’t recognize you. Thanks for talking to me.”
It’s easy to miss these guys after they shed the helmets, skates and pads. But it’s especially tough to recognize Liwiski. The way he plays, you expect to hear him coming before an interview, not have him appear quietly and politely from the corner of your eye.
That’s because he crashes through most hockey games like a wailing firetruck cutting through traffic.
It’s something you just don’t see very much in today’s increasingly regimented, highly structured approach, and it’s what makes him an intriguing character.
While everyone else is headed north and south, Liwiski is changing lanes searching for a hit.
For some of these kids, who live and breathe following the “rules,” it must be horrible to play against him.
His coach, Adam Foote, played with and against an entire generation of players like that.
“He leads by example with his work ethic every day,” Foote says. “He comes to play.”
He might remind you of grinders like Kris Draper, Chris Neil or – for today’s younger fans – a dialed-in Zach Kassian, guys who take some sort of twisted pleasure in making your life miserable.
They don’t have to, but they enjoy knocking you flat, and then scoring on your net.
Liwiski isn’t quite there yet — he scored just 11 goals and added six assists in 60 games last year, his first full WHL season — but the potential is headed in that direction.
“In this day and age, it’s hard to find guys like that. It’s changed, not just in hockey, but in youth in general,” his coach adds. “This guy’s a worker. He doesn’t mind putting the work boots on, and I think it rubs off on guys.”
That’s what the Rockets are hoping for as they embark on a season filled with expectation. Having just turned 18, a vital age in junior hockey, the Rockets are counting on players like Liwiski to shoulder more responsibility.
Given what you saw on the ice last season from him, it seems entirely possible for Liwiski to break out this year.
He could very well be doing quite a few more interviews over the next eight or nine months, and that might require the biggest adjustment for many of the Rockets.
They’re hosting the Memorial Cup in May, and are living under the shadow of the legendary 2004 Rockets’ team that not only hosted the event, but won in dramatic fashion.
Liwiski seems relaxed, though, as the talk continues about the season ahead. He’s “stoked” to start.
“It’s a battle for the first two weeks,” he says of training camp.
But he can’t wait to pick up where he left off last March. Nine of his goals last season came in the final 20 games.
“I feel like I can progress this year,” he said. “I feel like last year, I ended off with a little bit better of a year (than expected).”
Scoring will be important, yes, but what will challenge Liwiski most is controlling his emotions.
“He goes to the net hard. He plays hard,” Foote says. “Every game you know you’re getting 150% effort. He’s a year older and I think he’s going to keep getting better at controlling his emotions. His emotions help him have success on the ice, but also could get him caught.”
Ah, yes, caught. Early last March during a pivotal game against the Portland Winterhawks, Liwiski was nailed for a major boarding penalty and ejected. He served a three-game suspension as a result.
It didn’t cost his team the game (they won 4-3), but it meant he was out of the lineup as Kelowna tried to protect the narrowest of playoff positions.
“I learned a lot from it, to be honest,” he said after practice this week. “It was probably one of the better things that happened to me through the course of the season. … I didn’t totally agree with the call, but what can you do? You live and learn from it.”
He probably couldn’t change much even if he wanted to.
For a player who thrives on the edges of a hockey game, there’s no way he could skip past a hit or avoid the front of the net just to be safe.
“It’s just how I’ve always played hockey. When I was younger, I just always liked battling and getting to the gritty, dirty areas,” he says. “That’s the way I play, and that’s how I’m going to be successful to move on in hockey.”
Liwiski did promise, though, to better pick his spots this year.
“I’ve got to go to the net. I’ve got to finish my checks. I’ve got to block shots—the little things that help elevate my game and get people’s attention.”
And that all starts tonight for Liwiski and the Rockets, who open their Memorial Cup season against the Spokane Chiefs at Prospera Place.
Game time is 7 p.m.
Dave Trifunov is a reporter at The Daily Courier. Call 250-470-0753, email email@example.com or find him on Twitter @da_trif.