Mariners defenseman Turner Popoff isn’t trying to impress with his fancy stick handling skills or goal-scoring prowess. Instead, the fourth-year accounting major takes a far more blue-collar approach to the game he plays, relishing in the little things that hold a team together. With the team playing in their first BCIHL season, Popoff’s veteran leadership and work-hard mentality both on and off the ice has proven to be a tremendous asset.
He took time to discuss what playing hockey at VIU has been like thus far, and some of his goals for the team moving forward.
With the inaugural regular season in the books, can you talk a bit about the experience of playing in the BCIHL?
All the teams, all the players no matter where they were in the standings played competitive games. It is a league that is growing, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in the future.
How have you personally handled the challenges of student athletics?
I had it easy, being a fourth-year student in university. I had my routines down with doing homework, so it was a little bit easier to balance scheduled hockey practices and games. Looking back to when I was 17, 18-years-old being just a junior A hockey player, I was a hockey player, that’s it. I took minimal schoolwork on; always up to that point a student second, athlete first. Being in university changed my priorities. It takes commitment and hard work. It’s the same thing as sports when in the classroom; you get better with the material by repetition.
In what areas have you seen the most improvement from preseason to this point?
The biggest improvement that I’ve seen is with discipline. Not only with taking penalties and stuff like that, but having that discipline to commit to always playing defense.
What are some of the areas that the team needs to improve the most?
What’s really going to come with time on our team, and with guys playing together, is the chemistry involved with things like special teams. You really start to see the creativity come out when you get guys that have played together for a season and inherently know where each other will be on the ice. It allows you to open up a variety of options.
How has the team been preparing for the playoffs?
In the last couple of weeks we’ve had a new assistant coach come in, Jason Johns. He’s been running practices and we’ve been doing new drills, and he does an excellent job of keeping the compete level really high at practice, so that has prepared us for the playoffs where the level of intensity ramps up. Practicing a lot faster, adding a bit more hitting—that has really brought guys to the next level.
Can you talk about Selkirk as an opponent? What do they bring to the table?
This past weekend we were in Castlegar, playing Selkirk in our last game of the season. That had a nice playoff atmosphere to it. We know what Selkirk is going to bring to the table; They’ve got some experienced players that can put the puck in the back of the net. But we’re just looking to play good defense, and capitalize on our offensive opportunities.
What are some of the team’s goals going into the playoffs?
I mean the ultimate goal is to win a championship. At the end of the day that is what we’re in the playoffs for. However, I really feel like with this being our first year in the league and already making the playoffs, it’s more about bringing a consistent effort. At the end of the day it’s easy to tip your hat to the opponent if you’ve really left it all on the ice.
What has been your favorite hockey moment as a Mariner?
The student nights where we offered free admission to students brought an unbelievable crowd and atmosphere at the rink, so that personally was a highlight. I do hope that carries forward with the team. It’s obvious to say something like my first goal as a Mariner would be my highlight, but being in those games where you have the student body, family, and friends behind you, that for me is something I won’t forget.
How would you describe your playing style?
I’d like to think I play a simple game. I don’t try and complicate things too much. The biggest part of my game without a doubt is the defensive side. There’s nothing I like more than making hits; it feels good to me. For some guys it feels really good to score a goal. For me that joy comes from making a solid clean hit, stealing the puck and getting it going back the other way.
What have you learned playing hockey that you have taken with you off the ice?
The biggest thing for me is self-discipline. When you’re playing a high-level sport, there are different things in your life that you need to keep in check—whether it’s schoolwork, personal life, diet, workouts, or simply finding the time to unwind. Hockey has really taught me how to balance those aspects of my life.
Do you have any pre-game rituals or superstitions?
I’m not a superstitious person at all. There are a couple things that I like to do before every game: I tape my stick, kick around a soccer ball with the guys, or throw a football—stuff to try and help loosen me up before a game.
Besides hockey what other talents do you have?
I’m an accounting major in school so that’s a little different. In the classroom I like to work through problems that are numbers based. Away from the rink, I love to play baseball, and golf.
Who is your favorite NHL player?
When I was a little kid growing up I really idolized a defensemen named Scott Stevens who played for the New Jersey Devils. I feel like the reason I looked up to Stevens so much was because he was considered a great hockey player—not for his offensive skills, but for what he did in every other area on the ice.
What are the long-term goals for the Mariners hockey program?
Being a fourth-year player, I won’t be playing anymore after this season, but I do hope to stay with the team in a different role going forward. I’ve talked to our head coach Steve Paul, and we’re hoping to have me as a member of the staff next year. I think the main goal for this team is not just winning championships, but developing a program that draws interest from high-level hockey players.