Vukie Mpofu is making his second-straight TELUS Cup appearance with the Saskatoon Contacts, but will have a much different role this time.
Last year, Mpofu was a stay-at-home defenceman on a Contacts squad that won a bronze medal in Leduc, Alta.
Fast forward 12 months, the 17-year-old winger is the team’s top scoring threat and will be counted heavily at the other end of the ice in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
“It’s an exciting challenge,” said Mpofu, who led all Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League players with 71 points this season. “I know what it’s all about there this year. I’m comfortable and confident going in.
“I know the team we have here, led by our goalie (Rylan Parenteau), is a very good one. With team success, comes personal success. If we work hard as a team, then all the individuals – myself included – will have a successful tournament.”
Mpofu’s transition from rookie stopper to offensive dynamo started late last summer.
A 2011 fourth-round WHL Bantam Draft pick of the Red Deer Rebels, Mpofu was asked by then-coach Jesse Wallin and owner and general manager Brent Sutter at training camp if he’d be willing to move to the wing.
Mpofu jumped at the opportunity.
While he admits he struggled initially with his positioning on the ice, the 5-foot-8, 168-pounder relied on his teammates in Red Deer and later his Contacts linemate Kolten Olynek for help.
He quickly found chemistry with Olynek – who would finish two points behind him in the SMAAAHL scoring race – and the third member of the trio, Rodney Southam.
It was all part of a campaign that saw Mpofu suit up for Team West at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, play four games for the Rebels and net the winning goal for Saskatoon in the West Regional final.
The Contacts reached the regional after winning their second consecutive SMAAAHL championship by beating the Prince Albert Mintos 3-1 in the decisive game of the five-game final series.
“It’s been a pretty successful year,” said Mpofu. “I’ve been privileged to play with some pretty good linemates all year.
“I’ve had good coaches in Red Deer and then when I came back here to Saskatoon they all helped me make the transition to forward. It’s been a great ride, not only for myself but for us as a team.”
Born in the United Arab Emirates to parents from Zimbabwe, Mpofu moved to Saskatoon when he was a month old.
After a excelling at his skating lesions, Mpofu started playing competitive hockey in the city when he was six.
His position of choice was a forward, but was moved to defence when his team was short players. It clicked and that’s where he stayed until this season.
“He’s a very competitive kid,” said Contacts head coach Marc Chartier. “You can put him in any kind of position.
“He has what some players don’t have: his compete-level is so high. He’s just happy to be playing hockey. He’s a great kid to coach. He goes hard. Whatever you ask from him he does.”
That flexibility is a nice luxury for Chartier.
It allows him to use his speedy winger as a quarterback when his team has the man advantage and not have to worry about any defensive lapses.
“He’s a high-end forward and then becomes a high-end D when he anchors the point on the power play,” said Chartier. “He’s very versatile.”
“He’s a good leader in the room,” added Chartier. “He’s going to be missed next year. He’s going to end up in a pretty good spot in Red Deer. I think down the road you’re going to find him wearing the captaincy of that team.”
After encouraging Mpofu to try his hand upfront, the Rebels will have to wait until new season to see him in action.
For now, it’s the Contacts that are the beneficiaries of his newfound offensive flair. That’s something Mpofu wants to put to good use in the Soo to help the Contacts earn their first national title since 2005.
“Not many people get to go to the TELUS Cup twice,” said Mpofu, who joins Olynek, Southam, Parenteau and defencemen Branden Scheidl, Ross Hnidy and Jeremy Leclerc as the seven returnees from the 2012 team.
“I’m very excited that I get a second chance after winning bronze last year – which was great – but we really want to win the gold.”