SYLVAN LAKE — He’s the classic underdog, a feisty player who worked his way on to the Red Deer Rebels roster as an invited player in 2009 and is now pushing for an NHL job.
Turner Elson was a wide-eyed 17-year-old when he checked into his first Rebels training camp five years ago. The St. Albert native was somewhat of a longshot WHL prospect but his perseverance and dogged work ethic made it impossible for then head coach Jesse Wallin to deny him a spot on the club.
Elson progressed to the point where he scored 21 goals in his third season and as a 20-year-old racked up 26 goals and 57 points during the regular season and another nine points (5g,4a) in nine playoff games as the Rebels captain and undisputed leader.
“I’ve come a really long way and it’s all thanks to the coaching staff I had in Red Deer, my teammates and my family. I couldn’t have asked for more as a young player,” the 22-year-old said Wednesday, after suiting up for the Calgary Flames in a 4-3 overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes in the Kraft Hockeyville NHL preseason game at the Sylvan Lake Multiplex.
“Jesse and Brent (Rebels owner and current GM/head coach) were great to me and really helped me progress as a player. Now, as a pro, I’m confident I’m going to progress even more.”
Elson was passed over in the 2011 NHL entry draft but the Flames thought enough of the St. Albert native to sign him to a two-way contract in September of that year.
He turned pro at the end of the Rebels 2012-13 season and played two games with the Flames’ AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat. He appeared in 37 games with the Heat last winter, scoring two goals and adding one assist, and was then assigned to the Alaska Aces of the ECHL later in the season.
“It was disappointing at the start,” said Elson, in reference to his demotion. “But after awhile I realized that it was going to be good for me. It was going to develop me more, I was going to get more ice time.
“Then I started feeling excited about going down there and it was an exciting time. Alaska had a good team and we pushed hard through the playoffs.”
Elson flourished with the Aces, collecting 15 points — including five goals — in 18 regular-season outings, and then playing a key role in the post-season, scoring seven goals and accumulating 11 points as the Anchorage-based team captured the ECHL championship.
“Just being a big part of the team gave me a lot of confidence and I carried that into the off-season,” he said. “I felt really good about myself and carried it through to the Flames camp.”
Elson has always maintained a high level of fitness and bulked up to 185 pounds during the summer.
“I feel like I worked hard but worked the hardest at gaining weight,” said the six-foot winger. “I gained weight while working as hard as I could on my conditioning. In past years I just worked on my conditioning but this year I really focused on getting a lot of meals in me and getting my weight to the point that I could play in the NHL. That was my main focus this summer.”
Elson is a longshot to earn regular employment this season with the Flames, considering the team’s depth chart and significant number of players signed to one-way deals.
“If I play in the NHL this season that will be the best possible scenario, but if I go down to (Calgary’s new AHL affiliate in Adirondack, N.Y.) I just want to be an impact player, a guy who the coaches look to on the bench and a guy who the coaches want on the ice in every situation,” he said.
“I feel like I’ve taken a step each of the last few years and that I’ve improved game to game. This year is going to be big for me to push for a new contract.”
Elson played a regular shift Wednesday and enjoyed the atmosphere while playing in front of a capacity gathering of 1,000 fans.
“It was a back-and-forth game. Both teams were working hard for the win and the game couldn’t have had a better finish with the hometown guy scoring the winning goal,” he said, referring to the overtime marker tallied by Sylvan Lake off-season resident Curtis Glencross.
“It was pretty cool to play here. It was nice to see some familiar faces from my time playing in Red Deer. It was pretty sweet.”