The WHL came calling officially on Thursday for yet another Swift Current prospect, as 2003-born defenseman Ryan McCleary signed a Standard Player Agreement with the Portland Winterhawks.

"It's awesome, I've been waiting for this for almost two years now, and I'm really excited for it to finally happen. I think it's a great opportunity for me to further my hockey career," said McCleary, adding that putting pen to paper with Portland may be the best hockey moment yet in his young career.

"It's definitely got to be close to the top, just for the fact that this is what you work for, for basically my entire life so far."  

McCleary was originally drafted in the fifth round (107th overall) of the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft by the Winterhawks after a stellar season with the Bantam AA Broncos that saw 12 goals and 45 points in 37 combined regular-season and playoff games in the southwest.

In the two seasons since then, McCleary won a Midget AA Provincial Championship in the 2018-19 season with Swift Current, recording 11 goals and 50 points in 48 total games. He then jumped to the AAA level with the Home Hardware Legionnaires, posting five goals and 24 points in 48 games in 2019-20.

He noted this past season was a big step in his comfortability as much as anything.

"My confidence really got up this year. At the start of the year, wasn't as confident as I probably should have been, and as the year went on, I really felt like I really developed in the league and got more confident overall as a player," said McCleary.

He added that he feels the strongest parts of his game right now are the ability to make plays from the back end, and his overall hockey sense.

Dating back to the 2016-17 season, the 6-foot, 155-pound blueliner has been a rookie three out of those four seasons.

McCleary noted it's a steep climb ahead of him, if that trend is to continue by securing a spot in Portland this coming campaign.

"It's a little different, because it's just a hard team to make. They have lots of good players, lots of good prospects, so it'll be a tough team to crack coming into the fall," he said. "I feel like I just have to keep developing as a player and as a person - on and off the ice - and just try to be a leader."

A student of the game, McCleary spent a lot of this past season doing just that - tracking the Winterhawks' progress and just trying to absorb all he could about the WHL.

"I watched all the game reviews every time they played. It was good to just watch them to see the way they play and the way other teams play in the league."

And what an example Portland was able to set, as they earned the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the 2019-20 WHL Regular Season Champions.

That idea wasn't the only endearing quality of life in the Pacific Northwest. Getting to be a part of an ultra-competitive U.S. Division - and battle fellow Bantam AA Bronco teammates Reed Jacobson and Mac Gross and their Spokane Chiefs - is just icing on the cake for the competitive prospect.

"It's great hockey, it's always good to be in a super competitive division. I don't think it would be as fun if it wasn't as competitive as it is."

In the meantime, McCleary added that an off-season of increasing strength and all-around physicality is on the agenda, though it's been somewhat tough during the pandemic. Thankfully a home gym to access has aided in progress so far.

"It's really different from anything I've done before. Obviously just for the reason being inside and all," he said. "For me, I've just been working out, trying to eat lots, and finishing up all the school work I can to get all that stuff done before actual summer starts."