For Bellingham Blazers' Cody Rich, it's great to be back home.
After playing a year in Minnesota with the junior hockey team Hudson Crusaders, Rich was all in when he found out the Blazers were coming to town.
"I just love playing hockey where I grew up," Rich said in a phone interview. "I remember coming to the Bulls games when they were here as a kid, and now I'm a hometown player and people are coming to watch me. You can hear kids talking about us at their practices. It's really cool."
Rich, 19, played his entire minor hockey career in Bellingham and has been coached by Mark Collins the previous five years.
"He is a real heart and soul kid," Collins said in a phone interview. "Whenever I ask something of him, he does it and is a great leader by example. He doesn't ask anything of anyone that he wouldn't do himself."
Rich is one of the older players on the squad and wants the Blazers to succeed for the younger players.
He said there is a big jump from the minor to the junior level.
"When you get to juniors, you are now responsible for yourself and you have to be accountable," Rich said. "You need to be more disciplined and I think the younger guys are figuring that out and seeing what it takes to get to the next level."
He said getting to the national championships would be a great way to motivate the other players to move on to higher levels of hockey.
Rich was invited to the national tournament as one of the top rookies in his league last season.
"It's an experience," Rich said. "There are scouts everywhere, and 4,000 people at the games. I just want everyone on my team to feel that and see what it's about, and I want to get there with my team."
Rich is confident the Blazers can make it to the national tournament. He said the coaches have raised intensity of the squad's practices the past few weeks. The team works out four times a week at the gym on top of regular on-ice practices.
Because of a concussion before the season started, Rich has played five fewer games than most of his teammates. But that hasn't stopped him from leading the stat book.
In only 14 games, Rich has scored 16 goals and has 13 assists for 29 points. Two of those goals were game winners.
"He is one of those players that I want on the ice when the game is on the line," Collins said. "Some players don't want to mess up and have it be their fault, but he can handle that responsibility and I trust him."
Collins said Rich is a dominant force on the ice that can carry the puck and control the game.
But Rich isn't looking at the stats. He just wants the win.
"I'm a leader out there," Rich said. "I can score goals, too, but I'm not afraid to get in there and get dirty and stand up for my guys."
Collins said the Blazers have truly band together since Rich's entrance into the lineup. The Bellingham coach said he's seen a difference in team play, as well.
Rich credits the teams 8-5 win over West Sound Warriors on Dec. 8, as a major step for the team.
The Bellingham native doesn't know his next step in his young career, but he's considering college-level hockey. But, he isn't looking to the future yet. Instead, he's focused on the rest of the Blazers' season.
"He is an honest hockey player," Collins said. "Once he is in the game, he just loves to play and you can see that in his eyes."
The Blazers next home game is Friday, Dec. 28, against Tri-Cities at 7:35 p.m. at the Sportsplex.
Reach Kyle Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2271