He came to the Red Deer Rebels as a listed prospect and left the organization as a captain with a pro contract.
Turner Elson said his good-byes Friday after a four-year stay with the Rebels. The outgoing team captain kept his emotions in check while discussing his WHL career.
“Jesse (former Rebels head coach Wallin) gave me a good opportunity here and I thank him for that,” said Elson, who was over the moon with excitement when he cracked the roster in the fall of 2009.
“I battled hard for it, I worked hard for that spot and I’ve enjoyed my four years here. We’ve had a lot of success, a lot of peaks and valleys, but it’s been good. I’ve loved every minute of it. This is just an awesome place to play. I’m going to miss this place.”
Elson came along nicely over the course of his career, starting as an energy player and evolving into a solid two-way performer. He was clearly the Rebels’ playoff MVP this spring with five goals and nine points and a plus-3 rating in nine games.
“I felt I progressed as a player in terms of skill and all that. I still played a dynamic game this season, but also a defensive game,” he said. “I played a lot of PK (penalty kill) and a lot of different roles, which I think helped prepared me for next year in pro.”
Elson praised his teammates for their ability to climb up the standings over the last few months of the regular season.
“We were in eighth spot (in the Eastern Conference) and came back to finish fourth, and that’s a credit to the guys and the coaching staff,” said the native of St. Albert. “We battled hard, we worked hard every day. I’m proud of the guys and what they’ve done.
“I’ve been treated well here and it’s tough to leave, but it’s my time. I feel like this is my home now, I would rather be here than in St. Albert. The people and the fans here are so great and the organization is first class.”
The return of Brent Sutter as GM/head coach in November sparked the players to dig deeper and helped Elson become a more intense competitor, the feisty winger suggested.
“He (Sutter) makes sure you’re accountable and battling every night. That’s something he takes pride in for himself and everyone in the room. He doesn’t let you slip,” said Elson. “That’s the biggest thing with him and that’s what made us come so far. We all knew we couldn’t slip or we would be in the stands. He’s created a good culture here and it’s going to be an awesome few years here moving forward.
“The Rebels are going to be a great team next year. If they get Patrik (goaltender Bartosak) and maybe (Mathew Dumba) back . . . that will be a dynamic duo and will be great for the organization.”
Elson, who joined defenceman Brandon Underwood and forward Jordan DePape as the Rebels who played their final WHL game in Thursday’s 5-1 playoff loss to the Calgary Hitmen, will join the Calgary Flames AHL affiliate — the Abbotsford Heat — in short order.
“It’s going to be a new experience and hopefully I’ll keep progressing as a player,” he said of officially turning pro. “I will have to start from scratch again, I’ll be on the fourth line and fighting to stay in the lineup. But I’ll do whatever it takes to climb the ladder.”
Underwood joined the Rebels in September in a trade with the Regina Pats. He played three seasons in Kamloops before joining the Pats for the 2011-12 campaign.
“I’ve had a lengthy WHL career, for sure, but it went by real quick,” said the six-foot-three, 220-pound defenceman. “I can remember my first game when I was 16 and last night was my last game. It all went by quickly, but it was quite a journey.”
Underwood and Elson were the last Red Deer players to exit the ice surface at the Saddledome Thursday.
“We definitely had a moment there at the end, we both had some teary eyes and hugged each other,” said Underwood. “That was a serious ‘bro’ moment there. We just kind of looked around and took it all in before we left the ice.
“My time in Red Deer was awesome. It was the best year of my career, for sure. I’m proud to be a Rebel and I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”
Underwood was acquired from the Pats in an attempt to stabilize the Rebels’ back end as well as serve as a mentor to promising rookie Haydn Fleury.
“When I came in the first thing I was told is that I’d be playing with Haydn Fleury, a top prospect,” said Underwood. “We played together all year. He’s a really good player and I enjoyed playing with him. I think we complemented each other pretty well.”
Underwood, who celebrated his 21st birthday in February, will head home to San Marcos, Calif., this weekend to contemplate his future.
“As far as playing next year, I have some stuff on the table,” he said. “I’ve been talking to some schools and pro scouts, but during the playoffs you just try and push all that stuff aside. Now it’s time to think about it.”
DePape joined the Rebels in early February, but due to the fact he underwent shoulder surgery in November — his second such procedure in the space of a year — didn’t get into his first game until the final weekend of the regular season. The Winnipeg native appeared in 11 games, including nine playoff contests.
“My time here was short and sweet. It was pretty amazing considering that four to five months ago I was told I would never play another junior game,” said the six-foot, 194-pound forward, who turned 21 in March.
DePape suffered a shoulder injury last fall while with the Kamloops Blazers. He returned home with the notion that his WHL career was done, but underwent surgery a week later, which gave him the opportunity to return to the ice before the season was over.
Sutter called DePape at the WHL trade deadline to ask if he’d be interested in joining the Rebels as a free agent. The answer was affirmative.
“I always had the thought in the back of my mind that maybe I could make a comeback,” said DePape. “At the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror and have no regrets. I’m proud of myself for coming back even if I just played a few games here.”
DePape scored two goals as a member of the Rebels and is confident that he contributed to the team in other areas.
“I wasn’t in 100 per cent game shape, but I brought a lot of leadership and experience,” he said. “I wasn’t played in a few roles here I was put in at Kamloops and before I had the shoulder injuries I played a more physical game.
“But I thought I still played all right here. I wasn’t a liability. I added some depth and hopefully taught some stuff to the younger guys.”
DePape will attend the University of Manitoba next year to play for the Bisons and pursue a degree in criminology with the hopes of becoming a police officer.
He’ll always treasure his time in Red Deer, as brief as it was. He’s also convinced the Rebels will be a contender in short order.
“I’m leaving here with a lot of memories. I’m just so happy I had the chance to come here and meet so many great people,” said DePape.
“This team is going to be real good in the future, starting with next year. Their young guys are phenomenal, guys like Fleury and (Conner) Bleackley are some of the best rookies I’ve played with in my career. They’re going to be ranked high for the (2014 NHL) draft.”