When the Red Deer Rebels coaching staff discussed naming a captain for the 2013-14 WHL season, Conner Bleackley was hardly an after-thought.
Just the contrary, in fact.
“He’s a presence guy and he was a unanimous choice as far as our staff was concerned to be our next captain,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said Tuesday, four days after appointing the second-year forward as the club’s official on-ice leader.
“Leadership comes naturally to him. He’s been a captain or an assistant captain on every team he’s played on. Naming him captain and Haydn (Fleury) as an assistant captain shows the direction we’re going here with these young guys, who are certainly two elite players. Conner has proven what type of leader he is. He’s been a very good player for us this season as a 17-year-old.”
Indeed, Bleackley has been the Rebels’ best forward through 21 games and is the team’s scoring leader with 10 goals and 22 points.
Sutter also likes the maturity displayed by the High River native, whose family was hit hard by the June flooding that ravaged the region.
“He went through a lot with that and handled it very well,” said the Rebels bench boss. “He’s a very mature kid for his age.”
Bleackley, who wore the captain’s ‘C’ for back-to-back wins at Cranbrook and Lethbridge Friday and Saturday, has embraced the challenge that comes with being team captain.
“For sure it’s a big responsibility, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to take on. It’s definitely going to be a challenge but I’m ready for it,” he said.
Bleackley knows the duties that come with being the officer in command, and part and parcel of that is simply being a leader by example.
“The biggest thing is playing my game because when I’m playing my game I feel my leadership comes out,” he said. “Of course, saying stuff in the dressing room that needs to be said and picking your spots and making sure the guys are ready . . . that’s also a big responsibility of a captain. You have to know your dressing room too, you have to know what needs to be said and when.”
Bleackley, who projects as a first-round pick in next year’s NHL draft, is proud that he has the confidence of Sutter and the rest of the coaching staff.
“It really makes me feel good that Brent has that kind of trust in me and that he thinks that highly of me,” said the club’s first-round pick — 21st overall — in the 2011 WHL bantam draft. “It’s up to me now to prove him right. I’m a reflection of him now with that ‘C’ on my jersey and I’m just honoured to have that.”
Sutter admitted the coaches were waiting for a decision to be made on Matt Dumba — currently with the Minnesota Wild but subject to being returned to the Rebels at some point — before naming a captain, but decided they had waited long enough.
“We knew we had to make a decision that was best for our hockey team moving forward,” said Sutter. “We can’t make decisions based on what Matt Dumba’s future is in Minnesota. If Matt comes back this season, Conner Bleackley is still our captain.”
“We had to make a firm decision during the road trip, it was important in terms of settling the club down. We asked each other where our leadership has come from this season and it always came back to Conner,” added Sutter.
The Rebels posted a respectable 3-3 record on their recent six-game trip, but more importantly are riding a two-game win streak and a measure of momentum heading into Friday’s home date with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
“We’ve been under-achieving so far this season,” said Bleackley. “Losing three in a row on the road trip . . . that was really tough for us. There were games we should have won and one or two we just didn’t show up for.
“These last two wins against Kootenay and Lethbridge, especially coming off four games in five nights, were huge for us. But it doesn’t mean anything unless we follow it up here Friday.”
l While Dumba recently appeared in his 10th regular-season game for the Wild, which started the clock ticking on his three-year entry-level contract, Sutter hasn’t closed the door on his potential return.
“I was told a month ago by Matt’s agent that 10 games would not be a bench mark,” said Sutter.
The important number, he noted, is 41. If Dumba appears in more than 40 NHL games this season he will be eligible for free agency a year earlier than normal.