For the Red Deer Rebels and stud rookies Conner Bleackley and Haydn Fleury, it’s not about ‘what have you done for me lately’, but rather ‘what will you do for me down the road.’
The pair of 2011 bantam draft picks represent the future of the Rebels, although both have already contributed while showing plenty of promise during their first full season in the Western Hockey League.
“No question, there’s so much potential with both of them. They are two great prospects,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said on Thursday at the Centrium, where he put his charges through a practice session in preparation for tonight’s home game versus the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“They’re both big kids, big strong guys who have skill sets to go with their size. Those are two guys you really want to build your team around. That was all part of the process when we were out looking at younger players to acquire this season . . . was to get players to fit with those two guys in the future.”
Bleackley and Fleury, chosen in the first and second rounds, respectively, of last year’s bantam draft, will compete in the 2013 World Under 17 Challenge running Dec. 29 to Jan. 4 in Drummondville and Victoriaville, Que.
Both players stood out during summer camps for their respective U17 Challenge squads — Bleackley with Team Pacific (Alberta/B.C.) and Fleury with Team West (Manitoba/Saskatchewan). That both were selected to play in the international tournament was hardly a surprise.
“It’s going to be a fun Christmas season, for sure,” said Bleackley, who was with Team Alberta for the 2011 Western Canada U16 Challenge but will be facing international competition for the first time.
“I haven’t played against the European competition yet and obviously this is this is a huge event with the chance to play against those teams,” he added.
Said Fleury, who this season has scored twice and contributed seven assists in 26 games: “It should be a good experience to play against the top players in Canada and the rest of the world.”
Fleury has international experience, having played with a Notre Dame, Sask., midget AAA team during summer and winter tours of Russia and Austria last year.
“The teams we faced played with lots of speed and transition. I expect it will be the same in Quebec,” he said.
Bleackley, a budding power forward with a heavy shot, has scored four goals and collected 10 points in 26 outings this season. He’s satisfied with his play, which he senses is improving along with the overall performance of the team.
“The team has gotten a lot better since the start of the year and I’ve been getting better too,” he said. “We’re starting to roll with Brent behind the bench and I think there’s more of that to come.”
The fact Sutter and new associate coach Jeff Truitt have instituted a more offensive game plan over the past week is just fine with Bleackley.
“Everybody is just more engaged (offensively), that’s the way we’ve been playing,” he said. “We’ve outscored the opposition 12-2 in the last three games. I think that’s the way we have to play to be successful.”
Fleury, a strong skater with the ability to carry the puck, agreed with his teammate.
“It’s been really good. He (Sutter) wants to play with lots of speed and he wants the D-men getting up the ice quick and scoring goals,” said Fleury. “I enjoy getting in on the offence.”
Fleury has rarely resembled a rookie this season and in fact has been among the Rebels’ best rearguards on a regular basis.
“It’s been good. Playing with (20-year-old Brandon) Underwood has really helped my game. He keeps it simple back there,” said Fleury. “We’re also learning under new coaches. Jesse (former bench boss Wallin) was great and now (Truitt) seems like a really good coach.”
For the pair of Red Deer rookies, the opportunity to play in the World U17 Challenge comes with the bonus of getting into the Hockey Canada development stream. If they continue to progress on schedule, both will be candidates for the Canadian national junior team in two to three years.
“They both had outstanding summer camps and they’re among the top players in their age group,” said Sutter.
l Defenceman Kayle Doetzel, who suffered a broken jaw on Oct. 2 at Prince Albert and hasn’t played since, was cleared for contact this week and may be in the Rebels lineup on Saturday when the Moose Jaw Warriors — featuring future Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly — will visit the Centrium.
Doetzel is listed as day-to-day.