Conner Bleackley arrived back in Red Deer this week feeling good about himself and his pro hockey future.
That wasn’t the case one year ago when the Red Deer Rebels star forward and captain was returned to the WHL squad by the Colorado Avalanche earlier than expected, the reason being that Avs head coach Patrick Roy had issues with Bleackley’s conditioning.
This year, the 2014 NHL entry draft first-round selection of the Avs was not only promoted from rookie to main camp, he appeared in a trio of preseason games and even scored his first NHL goal Sept. 22 in a 5-4 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
“To get three exhibition games was huge for me,” Bleackley said Thursday. “Just knowing that I can play at that level was a confidence boost. I think I did the most I could with the ice time I got.”
Bleackley looks more lean and muscled this year than last, which no doubt left a positive impression with Roy.
“Every year I’m just trying to add muscle and keep the body fat down,” said the six-foot-one, 196-pound centre. “It’s especially important for the next level where the guys are a lot bigger and stronger.”
Instead of being reassigned to the Rebels on a negative note as was the case last year, Bleackley came back Wednesday in an upbeat frame of mind.
“It was good. I got some positive feedback and playing in three exhibition games is not something most 19-year-olds do,” he said. “But at the same time it just leaves me hungry for more. I think each year and each season you have to strive to be better and that’s exactly what I plan to do.
“Being an older guy in this league I’m excited for tomorrow night and this season.”
Bleackley, who will make his 2015-16 Rebels debut tonight against the visiting Swift Current Broncos, won’t soon forget his first NHL goal.
“I was pretty fortunate,” he said. “About 10 seconds into my first shift of the game I got a nice chip pass along the wall. I beat the D-man wide with speed, took the puck to the net and kind of got lucky on the goal.
“As I was shooting their player kind of tipped it and (the puck) went up and over (Ducks’ goalie John) Gibson’s shoulder. It felt real nice. Obviously, any time you get a first goal, whether it’s in exhibition or not, it’s pretty cool. As soon as I scored I could feel the extra confidence which I carried through the rest of the camp.”
Bleackley’s third and final preseason contest was Tuesday at Calgary, where the Avalanche dropped a 2-0 decision to the Flames. Being from High River, it was akin to playing in his hometown.
“I was fortunate to be able to be in an Avalanche sweater in Calgary, it was something you dream of growing up and I think it was even more special for my family,” said Bleackley. “I think my dad bought 16 tickets. That was a special night for me and something that I’ll remember. Hopefully I can be there a lot more.”
Bleackley has yet to secure an NHL contract but realizes that his play this season will determine if the Avs come calling with paper and pen.
“I take care of my on-ice and off-ice business and the (contract) stuff just kind of takes care of itself,” he said. “We have a real good team here and I’m impressed with what they’ve done already (2-0 to start the season). I’m just excited to come be a part of the team and only add to it.”
• On Thursday,Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter reassigned forward Akash Bains and defenceman Ethan Sakowich, both 16, leaving the club with 23 players.
Bains will join the Delta Hockey Academy midget prep team, which plays in the Canadian Sport School League, while Sakowich will rejoin the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers of the Alberta Midget League.