Red Deer Rebels rookie forward Conner Bleackley never imagined that he would get such a headstart on his Western Hockey League career.
“I always hoped I’d start like this but I didn’t actually think at the beginning of this season that I’d already have nine (WHL) games under my belt by this time. But it’s been great,” the Rebels’ top pick in last year’s bantam draft said Monday.
With the Rebels experiencing a staggering amount of injuries this winter, the club dressed Bleackley for the league-imposed maximum of five games, then last week brought the High River product in for the rest of the season when his midget AAA team, the UFA Bisons, were eliminated from the Alberta Midget League playoffs.
Bleackley, who enrolled at Hunting Hills High School Friday, joined the Rebels halfway through their East Division road trip early last week and played in games at Moose Jaw and Regina.
The five-foot-11, 195-pound centre will dress for his 10th WHL game tonight when the Rebels host the Calgary Hitmen. Bleackley has a single goal to his credit thus far, connecting in a 4-2 home-ice win over the Vancouver Giants Jan. 25.
“I just want to get better every day, be a sponge and soak it all in,” he said. “I’m coming to the rink to have fun and enjoy everything about being here. It’s been an adjustment for me with the strength and speed of the players at this level, but I feel like I’m coming along.”
Bleackley scored 13 goals and collected 30 points in 26 regular-season games with the midget AAA Bisons. He also sniped five goals in seven games at the Mac’s Midget Tournament in Calgary as UFA advanced all the way to the championship final before losing 5-0 to a Russian team.
“I thought I got better as the season went on, so it was good that way,” he said. “It would have been nice to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, but we couldn’t get it done.”
Bleackley has shown a mature side with his on-ice play. He’s not opposed to dumping the puck into the opposition end when a passing play isn’t available and will bank it off the glass while stationed in his own zone.
“In midget I would try and do a little more (with the puck) because the level of hockey is not as good. I’m not afraid to be creative here, either, but just the simplest play is the best play for me,” he said.
Bleackley’s plans for next season are pretty much straight forward.
“Just come to camp, hopefully make the team, continue to improve and make my way up the depth chart,” he offered.
Rebels assistant Bryce Thoma sees plenty of potential in Bleackley but feels that his play has dropped off in recent outings.
“I don’t think he’s played his best the last couple of games,” said Thoma. “It’s a lot bigger adjustment for a young player to come in at the end of the year as opposed to mid-season. The league picks up a lot and everything tightens up.
“But hands-wise, ability-wise and skill-wise, there’s lots to like there.”
If anything, the Rebels coaching staff feels that Bleackley could be in better physical condition.
“During the off-season Conner should focus on his conditioning and bring that up to where it needs to be at this level,” said Thoma. “Some guys take time with that and he’s still a young kid.
“I remember Dion (former Rebels and current Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Phaneuf) played well as a 16-year-old, then once he got his conditioning to where it needed to be he took the next step.”