When Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Christopher Lipe whips the puck up to a forward, a pass often isn’t just a pass.
“A lot of people will take him for granted and say it’s just a pass,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “It’s the things he had to do to get that passing lane open, that’s what’s really fun to watch.”
The Brown Bears made Lipe, 17, the third overall pick in the North American Hockey League Draft this season and haven’t been disappointed.
“I really enjoy watching him play,” Worlton said. “He sees passing lanes and shooting lanes that a lot of kids at his age don’t and sometimes never will.
“He’s very composed and relaxed. Not only can he see the lanes, but he makes the pass right on time to the tape.”
Where Lipe got this ability from stokes the old debate of nature vs. nurture. Lipe is the son of Jeff and Kelly Lipe of Rockford, Michigan, and neither played hockey.
When he was about 4, Lipe saw a neighbor playing hockey in the street and decided he wanted to play.
“I would say he’s had some good coaching, but a lot of it is he is just born with it,” Worlton said. “It’s just natural for him.
“Some guys do math and science. He’s one of those guys that when he puts on a pair of skates, it comes easy to him.”
Lipe is quick to credit his coaches and his parents for his success.
“I’ve always had good coaches,” he said. “My dad never played hockey, but my parents always had time to drive me to the rink, so I’ve always had a good setup for hockey.”
Rockford is a town of about 5,000, but the rink in Grand Rapids is just 30 minutes away.
It is there that Travis Richards has overseen Lipe’s development since the age of 6. Richards, a defenseman, played in the NHL for a few games, but mostly played in the International Hockey League and American Hockey League from 1993 to 2006.
Lipe said he also has learned from the coaching of Mike Knuble, an NHL right wing from 1996 to 2013.
While Lipe said natural ability plays a part, he also said he learned a ton from competing with Richards in three-on-three games for the cleverest method of passing the puck up the ice.
The development model obviously worked, because Lipe said the overwhelming majority of players from his Michigan Nationals U16 team in the 2014-15 season are currently playing in the NAHL, the second-best junior league in the country, and the United States Hockey League, the country’s best junior league.
Lipe, at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, leads all defensemen on the team with 15 points, coming on three goals and 12 assists. By 16, he had already left home to play in two preseason games and one regular season game with the Des Moines (Iowa) Buccaneers of the USHL, so he was ready when the Bears came calling.
“I’m happy with the choice,” said the billet son of Gwen and Shorty Johnson of Kenai. “It’s helped me develop faster than playing U18 this year.
“I wanted to have a new experience, and not much compares with coming up to Alaska to play hockey. This is a cool place.”
Lipe said the adjustment has actually been pretty easy. Kenai and Rockford are a similar size. With the exception of that snap of minus-20 weather, he also said Kenai Peninsula temperatures compare with those at home.
Plus, with frequent road trips to the Lower 48, Lipe is able to see his parents.
“He’s shown up at study hall and done a great job,” Worlton said. “It was an adjustment to be that far from home, but he has hockey goals in mind, and I don’t think anyone can stop him from his goals.”
As good as Lipe’s hockey mind is, Worlton said that will give him less of an advantage as he advances up the hockey ladder.
“Worly tells me that I have to be more aggressive,” Lipe said. “When I’m thinking I’m not going to get beat, I give too much time.”
Worlton expects Lipe to have a chance to play in the USHL next season and Division I hockey one day. With his size and smarts, Worlton said Lipe has the potential to advance through the pro ranks as well.
“He’s just a very mature kid, and he’s never let success get to his head,” Worlton said. “Like all of our other Brown Bears, when we were struggling he stayed the course.
“He never wavered and thought of leaving. It’s a credit to all of them that they stuck it out.”