CHILLIWACK, B.C. -- There's a hill, roughly two stories tall, sitting in front of the Prospera Centre, home of the Chilliwack Chiefs.

Once you climb to the top, the first thing you see is a huge mural on the front door.

It's Jordan Kawaguchi, wearing his No. 28 jersey with a big smile.

It doesn't matter that he's been gone since the 2016-17 season. Kawaguchi was one of the best and most admired players to go through the storied junior hockey program.

He scored more goals than any player ever in a Chilliwack uniform and endeared himself -- on and off the ice -- to the town of 84,000 during his four years with the Chiefs.

"We love him," said Chilliwack head coach Brian Maloney, who was a first-year assistant during Kawaguchi's final year of juniors. "We all do. A lot of great players have come through here. We've pumped out some good ones. Jordan is one of those kids you cheer for because he's such a good person. There are a lot of negative people out there in the world who kind of pick apart people's flaws, but you'll seldom hear any of that about Jordan Kawaguchi. It's hard to pick flaws out of a kid who is so genuine.

"As his time here progressed, he became more than just a hockey player. He became a figure in the community. He was great with young kids. He always stopped and had conversations with fans, whether they were adults or young kids. He grew into this great person. His game blossomed as well. You're getting the full package from Jordan there as well."

Kawaguchi, now a UND junior, stormed onto the national scene this season. He's a Hobey Baker Award candidate, leading the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with 41 points in 27 games. He's twice been named NCHC player of the month and is just five points shy of the national lead in scoring.

Kawaguchi is on the verge of becoming the first player to lead UND in scoring in back-to-back years since Brandon Bochenski in 2002 and 2003.

Stunningly, he is far ahead of the pace set by Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, Matt Frattin, Ryan Duncan and T.J. Oshie during their Hobey Baker Award finalist seasons. He's also ahead of the pace of all three members of the CBS Line -- Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz -- who led the Fighting Hawks to the 2016 national title.

Recent notable UND seasons Through 27 team games played
Player Season Points
Jordan Kawaguchi 2019-20 15-26--41
Danny Kristo* 2012-13 16-18--34
Corban Knight* 2012-13 11-23--34
Ryan Duncan* 2006-07 19-13--32
Matt Frattin* 2010-11 20-10--30
Drake Caggiula 2015-16 15-15--30
Brock Boeser 2015-16 17-12--29
Nick Schmaltz 2015-16 3-24--27
T.J. Oshie* 2007-08 12-14--24
*: Denotes Hobey Baker Award finalists

A change in conditioning

The sudden ascent for Kawaguchi didn't come easy.

Maloney remembered the questions he had about Kawaguchi when he left for college hockey three years ago. Maloney said under the previous coaching staff in Chilliwack, Kawaguchi didn't have the same off-ice training as he now stresses to Chiefs players.

"I wasn't sure about the pace in his game and if he was going to take off ice serious, because he had never been held accountable in previous years in Chilliwack," Maloney said. "I was worried: 'Is this going to be too much for him all at once?'

"But he was starving for that. Once he got under Brad Berry and his group, he was a sponge, waiting to learn and listen and be directed in the right way. He took it and ran with it. He was healthy scratched when he first started. Instead of complaining, he put work in."

One of the first projects for Kawaguchi was improving his conditioning and speed. He came back for his sophomore season noticeably lighter and quicker. He had the endurance to play significant minutes.

After scoring five goals and 19 points as a rookie, he led UND with 10 goals and 26 points as a sophomore.

"He knew his conditioning was a big area he wanted to improve," Maloney said. "He started training like a pro athlete. He surrounded himself with good people. He followed a workout regimen. He studied it like a dictionary. He became interested in learning all aspects: nutrition, how to lift properly. He asked a lot of questions. He surrounded himself with people who have gone through it."

A breakout junior year

After last season, Kawaguchi had surgery to repair his shoulder, which had ailed him for a couple of years. He began skating again in the summer and quickly got on a roll this season.

Playing on a line with junior classmates Grant Mismash and Collin Adams, Kawaguchi has consistently put up points. He leads No. 1-ranked UND in nearly every category: goals, assists, points, power-play points and game-winning goals.

Kawaguchi has already surpassed the point total of UND's scoring leader the past three seasons.

He's done it with style at times, too, scoring a between-the-legs goal against Alabama Huntsville.

"I wasn't shocked to see that, to be honest," Maloney said. "I've seen that stuff before. He has that ability. He's a phenomenal player around the net. We'll do some skates here with college and pro players. I've played pro for 14 years and there will be some really good players on the ice. Then, there are some players who have that knack of putting the puck in areas we all wish we could. Jordan definitely has that knack around the net. I don't think he'll ever lose that.

"He's strong and hard to knock off the puck. He's got silky hands and a brain and hockey IQ that's above and beyond. As he keeps working on his foot speed, conditioning and strength, he's really going to take off."

Maloney also said you can't discount Kawaguchi's leadership abilities. He wears an 'A' as an alternate captain and Maloney has seen the way Kawaguchi can rally a team.

"It's tough to find leadership like that nowadays," Maloney said. "For whatever reason, kids struggle with holding each other accountable. Jordan didn't have a problem with it. He put it all out there on the ice. When he spoke in the locker room, people stopped and listened. He was one of those rare guys. We've had a real good bunch of kids here who lead in their own way, but we haven't had leadership like Jordan since.

"Jordan could grasp that whole locker room and take it in any direction he wanted to. If he wanted to calm them down or if he wanted to motivate them, he could. He was definitely a big part of our organization, for sure."

A Jordan Kawaguchi mural is on the front door of the Prospera Centre in Chilliwack, B.C.
A Jordan Kawaguchi mural is on the front door of the Prospera Centre in Chilliwack, B.C.

No. 6 Denver at No. 1 UND

When: 7:37 p.m. tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena (tickets available).

Records: UND 21-3-3 (12-2-2); Denver 17-6-5 (7-5-4).

TV: CBS Sports Network tonight; Midco Sports Network on Saturday.

Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).

Webcast: NCHC.tv on Saturday only.