To say that Joey Nitychoruk was highly touted coming out of high school would be an extreme understatement. Along with being a significant contributor on the U17 provincial squad, the six-foot-six wingman was also named the top high school basketball player in Manitoba in the Winnipeg Sun coaches’ poll during his senior year with St. Paul’s High School in 2010-11.
A number of CIS schools wanted Nitychoruk, but it was the Bisons he had the deepest connection for many reasons. The first was his relationship with head coach Kirby Schepp.
“I got recruited kind of earlier by the U of M here, just because I did know coach Kirby Schepp really well,” Nitychoruk said. “I knew him from provincials when I was 16 and that was a great experience so we kind of had a great relationship and were always talking.”
The other pull to stay at home came from his head coach in grades 11 and 12, Jeff Laping, who was also an assistant coach with the Bisons.
“Mr. Laping always had strong words for the U of M as they were a good program at the time, but he was also very helpful with helping me with other options too,” Nitychoruk said.
Manitoba and Victoria were both serious considerations for Nitychoruk, but he ultimately chose to attend Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. for the 2011-12 season.
“The program for education at the time was really good, the team was coming off an OUA championship so they were one of the most competitive programs in the country, and I was highly recruited out of Winnipeg so it was a good chance for me to stretch my wings and kind of see how other places operated,” Nitychoruk said.
His time with the Lakehead Thunderwolves was productive. Nitychoruk saw action as a true freshman in his first season on a very talented team, and a year later won a silver medal at the CIS Final Eight with the squad from Thunder Bay.
“It was a very serious tone that everyone takes,” Nitychoruk said of the team’s work ethic.
“You come in to work. You’re working to get better, you’re working as a team, you’re working on the chemistry, and you’re working on all the little things that you might not think about in high school.”
Nitychoruk also appreciated the way that the small town responded to its basketball club. Looking back, he has nothing but positive memories.
“Lakehead gave me a lot of love. It was a great time there – the program is unreal, the people are great, and the town was good. The fan support is unreal there too, it’s one of the best in the country for sure.”
The transition back home
In his third season with the Thunderwolves, Nitychoruk sustained a severe ankle injury that in a way got the ball rolling towards his return to Manitoba.
He tore two tendons and broke four bones at the start of the 2013-14 campaign, yet somehow managed the play through the pain. But as soon as the season ended, he knew he had to take some time off in order to prevent further damage, choosing to sit out all of 2014-15.
Because Nitychoruk wasn’t officially a part of the team last season, he had the chance to chat seriously with other schools – something that wouldn’t be permitted if he were on the active roster.
That’s when the thoughts of coming back home began to become realistic, as Lakehead was in a transitional period with the roster.
“It was a new era almost in a sense – there were a lot of new guys coming in and I felt my time there was done,” Nitychoruk said.
A few other programs were hoping to land the versatile forward for the 2015-16 season, but Nitychoruk had his heart set on coming back home and after a number of discussions with Schepp, he chose to return to familiar territory.
He’ll have two years of eligibility left to play out with the herd, and his combination of great shooting range and strong defending will be invaluable to this roster.
“I wanted to play for the U of M, I wanted to play for coach Kirby Schepp,” Nitychoruk said. “I like being in my community, I love my city, I love everything that has to do with Winnipeg, so I wanted to really support it here with the U of M program.”