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Pair of local sharpshooters lighting up SJHL

 

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One is a three-year veteran of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL), while the other is only 20-odd games into his junior career, but Igor Leonenko and Coby Downs have more in common than both hailing from California.

Both are giving goalies north of the border fits.

The Battlefords North Stars were off to a scorching start, sitting atop the 12-team SJHL standings as of mid-November with a 14-5-0-2 record due in part to a league-leading 84 goals scored.

When it comes to putting up points, few have been better this season than Leonenko (11 goals for 26 points in 21 games) and Downs (nine goals for 20 points in 20 games).

“I feel like Igor has really figured out this league,” said North Stars head coach and general manager Kevin Hasselberg of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Leonenko. “He’s a talent.

“When you have such a big guy who can really get around the ice and has such soft hands, we always felt he’d be able to put up the numbers he’s putting up this year.

“He’s an offensive force, but he does need some work defensively. If we keep working on his defensive game, he’s a guy you could definitely see playing professionally somewhere.”

When it comes to Downs, who helped lead the Ontario Avalanche’s 18U AAA team to the Pacific District regional championship last year, Hasselberg was impressed by his play at a tournament in Calgary last December, but knew landing the Montclair native was far from a lock.

“I honestly didn’t think we had a hope in getting him up here,” said Hasselberg. “Honestly, we just kind of picked up the phone and started talking to him; we kind of threw a dart out there, and he ended up here.

“But he’s such an explosive player, and we didn’t want to change anything about him when we brought him here. I knew right from the start he was special, but I didn’t think he’d be this good this fast.”

Located in the west-central portion of the province of Saskatchewan, North Battleford is a town of about 14,000 people some 270 miles north of the Montana border.

However, despite the distance and some competing interest from teams in the North American Hockey League, after several conversations with Hasselberg and head scout Randy Buffie, Downs says he didn’t think twice about packing up and heading north.

“It’s a big change for me, no question,” said the 19-year-old Downs, who was named SJHL Rookie of the Month for October. “But when I came up for spring camp and met some of the guys and saw the city, I loved it here, and the fans are great.

“Kevin is the kind of coach that pushes me to get better, and that’s why I came up here – to improve my game as much as I possibly can.”

For Leonenko, it’s just a relief to finally be healthy. After a broken wrist limited him to 21 games last year, the Belarus-born winger is quickly making up for lost time.

“It was really hard,” said the 20-year-old Leonenko, who calls Santa Cruz home and suited up for the San Jose Jr. Sharks before moving north. “All I could do was keep working out the best I could, so I was really excited to get back on the ice to start this year.

“I’ve had a pretty good start, and I hope I can help our team keep winning hockey games.”

While the North Stars have been hot early on, Hasselberg knows there’s a long ways to go, which is why he’ll keep looking to Leonenko and Downs to stay consistent as part of the SJHL’s most potent offense.

“We’ve seen a big spike in our offensive production as a team, and these two guys are a big reason why,” said Hasselberg. “We’re going to be leaning on them heavily, and for us to be successful those guys are going to have to be contributing.

“That’s why they’re here.”

– John B. Spigott