By: Lanny Stewart
The memory is firmly entrenched in Tyler Kirkup’s mind.
Rewind the clock back to last season. It was the first round of the playoffs and the Oil Caps were coming off what would be their only loss of the series against the Selkirk Steelers. Kirkup, who had been chatting with officials from Bemidji State University throughout the season, received word just outside the Oil Caps dressing room from the school’s assistant coach that they were prepared to offer him a scholarship to join the Division I men’s hockey program next season.
“It all happened so fast,” the Virden product recalled. “I wasn’t hesitant at all. I called them the next morning and told them I was coming.”
It’s not like Kirkup didn’t know what he was getting himself into as the 20-year-old vividly remembered touring the campus and the hockey facilities back when his older sister Karissa, currently a member of the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team, was checking out what Bemidji State had to offer during a recruiting visit several years ago.
“I remember how beautiful the campus was,” he said. “I really had no second thoughts about it. I had heard nothing but great things from there and about that school.”
Although his sights were set on Bemidji State for quite a while, it wasn’t an easy road for Kirkup to get there. Just like any young aspiring hockey player, it takes a lot of time and energy on the ice and in the gym to advance to the next level – and it was evident Kirkup had what it took back when he first joined the Oil Caps on a full-time basis three seasons ago.
“I knew all the intangibles were there right off the hop,” said Troy Leslie, Oil Caps head coach and GM. “In his rookie year, when he got here, we were just so impressed with how hard he worked, night in and night out, always leading by example. He’s a real positive guy and comes to work everyday. He’s a real easy guy to coach.”
Kirkup spent a considerable amount of time in the gym with Brock Davies, the Oil Caps strength and conditioning coach for years before joining his buddy Kyle Braybrook this past offseason, working on his core strength. The hard work continues to pay off, he says.
“It’s definitely benefited me. It was tough battling against the bigger guys my first year, but last year I noticed a big difference in my strength and speed for sure. It helped my game a ton.”
Davies remembers when he first started working with Kirkup several years ago – back when he was a 135-pound, lanky kid in Grade 10. Davies says at that time, Kirkup’s goals were simple: get bigger, stronger and faster.
“Whenever I give speeches to young athletes on offseason training, Tyler is my No. 1 example of what hard work and dedication looks like,” Davies said of Kirkup, who is now listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. “Tyler has worked very hard to have this opportunity to play Division I hockey.”
After 10 and 17 goal campaigns respectively with the Oil Caps, Kirkup really broke out offensively during the 2017-2018 year as he ended up leading the league with 40 goals during the regular season. He’d eventually be named the Oil Caps MVP and was also named to the MJHL second all-star team.
Like the leader he’s described to be, Kirkup credited his linemates Dylan Thiessen and Ben Dalke for helping him put up the big offensive numbers.
“They were a big help as we were a pretty productive line throughout the whole year. It was a lot of fun playing with them,” he said.
Kirkup plans to head down to Bemidji to train with some of his new teammates sometime soon for a while before heading back out for the school year, which begins Aug. 20. The hockey season begins early October.
“It’s a huge feather in Tyler’s cap to receive the scholarship from Bemidji and the organization wishes him all the best moving forward,” said Jamie Hodson, director of business and hockey operations for the Oil Caps. “I’m sure there will be an adjustment to the college game for him as it’s very systematic and a fast game, but he’ll adjust pretty quickly. He’s a smart hockey player who is very astute on the ice. He’s a great person from a great family and you just know what you’re going to get from him every night. From a team perspective, those are the types of guys you want on your team.”
‘Family always there for me’
Kirkup credits his family’s love and support for his overall makeup, praising his mom and dad for being so encouraging during his younger years in hockey.
“Ever since I was little, my dad would always take me out on the ice one-on-one and talk to me, just showing me things to do, things to help me get better on the ice,” Kirkup said. “My mom, after every game, even if I played good or bad, she’d always be encouraging.”
He remembers spending time on the ice shooting pucks with his sister, adding that he always looked up to her.
“She was always in the gym and she took it very seriously,” he concluded.