As Red Deer Rebels winger Evan Polei admitted Friday, if you want to be a player “you have to work your ass off.”
Polei certainly busted his butt during the summer while serving as an instructor at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C., and reaped the rewards as he dropped 10 pounds and worked himself into tip-top physical condition.
“It was nuts. It was a long, hard summer,” the 18-year-old said Friday at the Enmax Centrium, prior to the main camp scrimmage that closed out the second day of the Rebels training camp.
While serving as an instructor to the seven- to 12-year-olds students at the OHA, the Wetaskiwin native participated in a boot camp of sorts.
“There was a ex-special ops sergeant who was around the camp every morning at 6:30,” said Polei. “Most of what he was teaching was mental stuff. He’d tell you how to overcome the pain of being tired and work past it and push yourself to be a leader.”
And then there was the physical part of the ‘ol serge’s’ routine.
“He made us wear pants and tread water,” said Polei. “He didn’t push it that hard, just to the point where you were uncomfortable by not drowning. We were out 10 feet, past the buoys, and treaded water for an hour and a half. I’m not a good swimmer. It was tough.”
But it was also fulfilling for the six-foot-one Polei, who dropped “10 to 12 pounds” and checked into Rebels camp at a more defined and svelte 218 pounds.
Polei, who also upped his heart rate on a regular basis with extensive beach runs, was passed over in June’s NHL entry draft after scoring seven goals and collecting 16 points in 60 games following his acquisition from the Saskatoon Blades in mid-October.
But he clearly wasn’t oblivious to the NHL scouts and attended the New York Islanders rookie camp in June.
“That was an unreal, amazing experience,” said Polei, who remained in Red Deer following the 2013-14 WHL season and worked out at Al Parada’s Can-Pro gym while completing his high school studies before attending the Islanders camp.
“After being in New York, I went to Penticton and have pretty been much on the go every since,” he added. “I got home for three days this summer.”
Polei didn’t catch just the attention of the Islanders; the St. Louis Blues came on board and invited him to join their rookie squad for a tournament next month in Traverse City, Mich.
Polei wasn’t a major hit for the first two months after arriving in Red Deer last fall, but he was one of the club’s better players down the stretch.
“I felt like I finished the season off strong and I just want to carry on,” he said.
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter likes Polei’s chances of advancing his game during the 2014-15 season and in fact will be counting on the budding power forward to play a bigger role with the team.
“I thought he improved a lot after we got him last year and now our expectations of him are certainly higher and he has to play a more prominent role,” said Sutter. “To do that, he has to play a heavy game for us, he has to be a guy who gets involved, who gets engaged, a guy who is going to score some goals for us.
“He has good hands for a big guy, but he has to be an up-and-down winger, a power forward type of guy . . . that’s what’s going to allow him to get to the next level. There’s a reason why the Islanders looked at him in their prospects camp and why St. Louis is interested in him.”
But as the Rebels boss pointed out, Polei has to continue to help himself.
“He has to continue to work on his foot speed, continue to work on being a better skater,” said Sutter, who added that Polei has to maintain his conditioning in order to improve his footwork.
“He came here last year out of shape. He wasn’t at the proper conditioning level,” said Sutter. “He was too heavy, he had to lose some weight during the year and he did and in the summer he trained hard.
“He trained hard and he looks good. He lost a lot of that excess weight and he’s more of a defined guy now as far as his body status, and that’s encouraging. His body fat is certainly lower and his conditioning and fitness testing was better this year.
“Now he has to put that to use on the ice.”
• Training camp concludes today with a main practice at 8 a.m., a final rookie scrimmage at 9 a.m. , a second main practice at 10:45 a.m., an alumni pro skate at noon and a Black and White game preview at 4:30 p.m.
Pre-game skates are set for 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. Sunday, to be followed by the Black and White instrasquad game at 5 p.m.