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Strand standing tall for Rebels

His birth certificate told Austin Strand that his dreams of one day playing for pay would possibly evaporate if he wasn’t in the Western Hockey League this season. The 17-year-old defenceman showed up at the Red Deer Rebels training camp in August coming off an industrious summer of training and determined to earn full time employment with the team that selected him in the third round of the 2012 bantam draft.

His birth certificate told Austin Strand that his dreams of one day playing for pay would possibly evaporate if he wasn’t in the Western Hockey League this season.

The 17-year-old defenceman showed up at the Red Deer Rebels training camp in August coming off an industrious summer of training and determined to earn full time employment with the team that selected him in the third round of the 2012 bantam draft.

He not only nailed down a berth on the Rebels blueline, he’s already a reliable defender.

“I’ve been feeling a lot more confident as the season has gone along,” the Calgary product said Monday. “The first couple of games I wasn’t so confident, I was a little shaky.

“But right now I’m paired with Brett (Cote) and we’ve developed some good chemistry.”

The six-foot-three, 193-pound rookie rearguard, who will take his usual spot on the blueline when the Rebels host the Medicine Hat Tigers tonight, was thought to have a shot at making the club last year, but came up short.

“This year I trained a lot harder in the summer, I kind of knew in the back of my head that this was my NHL draft year,” said Strand. “I realized that this would be my year to get noticed by NHL scouts. I knew this would be the year I’d have to push for it and go hard.

“I worked out at Crash Conditioning in Calgary. The program consisted of mostly hockey workouts. The guys there work with a lot of WHL and NHL players.”

Strand scored his first-ever WHL goal Oct. 14 when his wrist shot from the point evaded a screened Victoria Royals netminder Evan Smith during the third period of a 6-5 home-ice overtime loss.

“That was unreal. I’d been waiting for that goal, although I didn’t think it would come that soon in the season,” said Strand. “It was just a shot from the point, but it went in and I was really excited.”

Strand is exhibiting signs that he can be an effective two-way defenceman with the capability of making an accurate first pass and creating offensive opportunities.

“In the past few games I’ve had a few offensive chances from the blueline and even from jumping up into the play as the weakside D-man,” he said. “That part of my game will improve as I gain more confidence.”

Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt has been inspired by Strand’s development.

“In the first month that he was here there was a lot of instruction and some video work that he had to see,” said Truitt. “He’s taken in a lot of information and has had to make some changes to his game to adapt to the play at the WHL level.

“But he’s done an outstanding job. He’s really been a guy who has absorbed the information and just taken it to another level. His game is growing, and although there are still some things we obviously have to work on with him, he’s taken some great strides and that’s a credit to him.”

• Rebels captain Conner Bleackley enjoyed a prosperous weekend with one goal and five assists in two Red Deer victories and on Monday was rewarded for his efforts.

“We played a solid 120 minutes of hockey here,” said Bleackley, who was named the WHL Denny’s player of the week.

Bleackley’s weekend output raised his season points total to 12 (3g,9a), a timely surge considering he had struggled somewhat for most of his first nine games.

“The team had a slow start and with that were individual performances as well, so it was good to get a week off last week,” he said.

“Everyone kind of reset and refocused and we played well on the weekend. Now we have a big road trip coming up and a huge game tomorrow leading into that.”

The Rebels open a six-game road trip Friday against the Kootenay Ice. Red Deer then heads across the Canada-U.S. border for games at Spokane, Seattle, Everett, Portland and Kennewick, Wash.

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