Griffins defenseman Wyatt Newpower doesn’t believe in doing things halfway.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
If professional hockey players cannot remember all the details of their formative years on the ice, they don’t forget the debt they owe to their parents for the sacrifices they made in time, money, and effort to help them realize their dreams.
Wyatt Newpower is no exception.
The second-oldest of five children born to Chris and Heidi Newpower of Hugo, Minn., he played baseball, football, lacrosse, and – especially – hockey. “All of my siblings played hockey. It’s what you do when you’re from Minnesota,” Newpower said. “My dad built a backyard rink every winter for as long as I can remember. That’s where I learned to skate.”
Newpower could have pursued baseball like his older brother Luke. Their father was a junior college baseball player who appeared in the JUCO World Series. Former MLB pitcher Jerry Koosman, a member of the 1969 Miracle Mets, is a cousin of the family.
“I liked all sports, but hockey is the one that stuck,” he said. “I imagine I liked hockey the most because I put the most into it. Once hockey became a priority, the other sports started to fall away because the other seasons started to intervene.”
His dad served as his coach for the first few years that he played, then became the parent who drove him to practice every day.
“We had to drive to the other side of the Twin Cities,” Newpower recalled. “It would be a day at school, then I’d head home, get off the bus, and get right in the car so my mom could drop me off at his work. He would drive me across the river to the other side, sit at the rink, and then – depending on traffic – get home later that night before we would do it again the next day.
“That was when I was eight or nine years old, still young enough that you wanted to do stuff outside after school with your friends. There were days when I was just not interested and I would throw a little hissy fit or say I didn’t want to go.
“Before every signup deadline, my dad would always say, ‘You don’t have to do this. I’m not making you do this. But if you’re going to do this, you’re going to finish it.’ That’s the one thing that sticks out for me. I am sure that he hated making those drives as much as I did. He probably didn’t like it because he had to work all day and then sit at the rink all night after doing all that driving.
“He never pushed or pressured me or made me do anything I didn’t want to do, but if I signed up for something, he made sure that I did it and I finished it.”
Newpower finally became a full-time hockey player during his freshman year of high school.
“I tried out for the golf team and I was going to make the team, but the first or second week of the golf season conflicted with a spring hockey commitment which I couldn’t afford to miss. That’s when I decided to stick with hockey.”
He played four years of hockey at White Bear Lake High School but generated little interest from colleges. “The one time a scout from Ohio State showed, it was the one game I missed because of a concussion,” said Newpower, who nonetheless had an option to play for the Vernon Vipers in the British Columbia Hockey League.
“One day I was in weights class and I got a call from Joe Pereira, the assistant coach at UConn. I didn’t even know the school had a Division I hockey team, but he said, ‘We like you and we want to see you play.’ I was like, ‘How are you going to do that? My season is over and you’re on the East Coast. I got nowhere to play.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
UConn arranged for Newpower to play in a tournament in Winthrop, Mass., at the Mike Eruzione Community Center.
“Everybody knows the name because of the Miracle on Ice hockey team, so it was pretty cool to play there and see that part of the country,” he said. “I couldn’t even tell you the team I played for, but I remember feeling a little pressure and being a little nervous because I was thrown onto this team and didn’t know a single soul. These kids were teammates who had been playing together for I don’t know how long and I was playing for a potential scholarship. It was definitely a nerve-racking situation.”
Newpower not only was offered a scholarship but was also assured that he would play right away as an underclassman. “I was shocked,” he said. “Through my whole high school career, I had been told that I was going to have to play junior to develop into my big (6-foot-3) frame. But they had zero right-handed defensemen on their roster at the time.”
He had a decent freshman season, appearing in 31 of 36 games for the Huskies. “It was my first time away from home, so there was a little adjustment to college and classes,” he said. “All of a sudden, there’s no school bus and your mom is not waking you up. I did okay but struggled a little in the beginning.”
His hockey adjustment didn’t come until his sophomore season. “I only played 15 games my second year when I was a healthy scratch for the majority of the season,” he said. “It was my first experience with not playing. I felt like I couldn’t get anything going. It felt like one step forward, two steps back. You start to question yourself and you start to think that you might not have what it takes.”
Newpower wondered if there might be another school where he might be a better fit. He toyed with the idea of playing junior hockey in Canada. He talked with family and they suggested that he stick it out. Finish what you start. It was almost as though he was being reminded of his father’s words and all those long car rides so many years earlier. “I never thought about it, but subliminally maybe it was there – the idea that I was not going to quit,” he said.
Rather than walk away, Newpower decided to have a heart-to-heart with his coach. It was time to get on the same page. So instead of leaving, he decided to stay and re-dedicate himself to making the most of his opportunity. He spent the subsequent summer in New England and pushed himself to strengthen his standing with the team.
“I experienced the most growth in my career, even though I played the least amount of hockey,” he said. “We set checkpoints for where I wanted to go and my coach was extremely supportive. There’s probably a laundry list of things I learned. My next two years spoke for the work I put in and I became the player I wanted to become.”
Newpower felt UConn might make a good playoff run during his senior season, but the pandemic’s arrival in the spring of 2020 quickly put an end to those hopes. Down but not out, he bought a plane ticket to Naples, Fla., to visit his grandpa Bill Newpower and finish his studies remotely. “He lives on a golf course, so I played golf every day while I finished college, which seemed like a nice way to end college under the circumstances. He was proud that I had graduated in four years while playing a sport.”
Eager to start his pro career, Newpower was eyeing a deal with the Rockford IceHogs. “Stan Bowman came to watch me at one of our tournaments, so he was orchestrating the whole thing, which had a heavy impact on everything coming from the organization,” he said. “I was pretty locked into taking that deal.”
Before he could sign, his college coach connected with the Cleveland Monsters, who signed him to a one-year AHL contract. “It seemed like I would be in a better depth situation in Cleveland,” he said. “I was just happy to get a deal.”
Unsure of when the 2020-21 season would start in the face of the coronavirus, Newpower moved back home for the first time in four years. He went back to his old gym and spent weekends at his cabin in northern Minnesota, where he usually spends 90 percent of his summer.
In early October 2020, Newpower opted to pack his bags for Ohio, where he was able to work out with Nathan Gerbe, a veteran of 435 NHL games despite his diminutive 5-foot-4 frame. “We don’t even play the same position, but he had a million tips and tricks,” Newpower said. “He’s also a really good skater, which is something I’ve always had to work on, plus he’s a workhorse, almost like he was built in a lab.”
During the season, Newpower was mostly paired with another veteran, Dillon Simpson, a former fourth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers who had played nearly 400 AHL games. As a rookie, Newpower ended up playing 24 games with Cleveland, recording three goals and seven assists.
“I started to figure out my role in pro hockey and what could make me successful,” he said. “They gave me every chance to have success and although I didn’t know what to expect, I thought my first season went really well.”
Apparently so. Following the season, the Red Wings inked Newpower to a two-year entry-level NHL contract. The signing was a stamp of approval for his rookie showing.
“I guess I played well enough against the Griffins to catch their eye,” said Newpower, who appeared in nine of the 10 games between the Monsters and Grand Rapids, tallying two goals and two assists in the process.
He was in a Washington, D.C., airport during a layover on his way to Florida when he got the news that he was now a member of the Red Wings organization. “It was a dream-come-true,” he said. “I knew it would be a good fit because Grand Rapids plays the kind of hockey I like to play.”
Although he had been to development camps with the Carolina Hurricanes and San Jose Sharks during college, last fall marked his first NHL training camp. He saw action in three preseason games with the Red Wings, which helped his adjustment to the organization.
In the Griffins’ dressing room, Newpower’s stall is between those of Luke Witkowski and Brian Lashoff.
“Sitting between those guys is definitely helpful because they play a similar style to me – big, two-way defensemen who kill penalties,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure and a huge help to learn from those guys. It doesn’t even have to involve asking them questions. It can be simply watching them and taking in what they do from a day-to-day basis.”
Newpower wants to keep his game simple.
“Playing steady defense is the first thing for me, matching the top two lines of the opposing team and preventing them from scoring,” he said. “I try to play heavy and physical, stirring up emotions and getting guys frustrated. I contribute when I can in the offensive zone. I’ll try to make plays so other guys can score, but once we leave the zone, that’s when I feel I can play the solid, shutdown style of hockey that will frustrate the other team’s forwards.”
He appeared in 39 games before his season was interrupted by a broken hand suffered after a hit-from-behind sent him crashing into the boards. “I’ve broken two different fingers on the same hand from blocked shots earlier in the season,” he said. “It’s been a long year for my left hand.”
Newcomer was hoping to return to the Griffins’ lineup by early April. He is eager to not only get back on the blue line but also to rejoin the team’s penalty-killing unit. “I take a lot of pride in penalty killing, which is a huge aspect of my game,” he said. “And throughout the season, I’ve gained a lot more confidence as I’ve settled into my role.”
Looking at the hard cast on his hand, Newpower insists that he is going to be back sooner than later. There is no way that he isn’t going to finish what he started.
His dad made sure of that long ago.