Almost a year and a half ago, Jace Isley was presented with an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
At Rebels training camp and playing defence at the time, Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter proposed Isley make the shift to forward, to centre to be exact.
Isley had been back and forth between the two positions but played most of his Bantam year at OHA Edmonton on the blueline.
As it turns out, the decision was a good one.
In his first and only midget AAA season with the Sherwood Park Kings, Isley was a revelation up front, scoring 12 goals and adding 22 assists in 34 games in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League.
“I mentioned to him at the time I thought he would be better off to be a forward. We drafted him as a defenceman, I just felt with the way he played and how he was, he’d be further ahead as a forward,” said Sutter, who drafted Isley in the fifth round, 107th overall in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.
“Watching him last year, he played extremely well as a centre iceman. I felt like if we get him here and get him going… he’s certainly a guy now from a coaching perspective that I feel comfortable playing in all situations.”
Isley, 17, is a hulking six-foot-one, 180-pound centre that has brought an imposing presence to the Rebels third line this season. But it didn’t exactly start out on the right foot.
. @Rebelshockey fall 3-1 in Saskatoon, 10th loss in the last 11. Two power play goals for the Blades are the difference in the second. Melin scores for Red Deer, first career WHL point for Jace Isley.
Nolan Maier makes 28 saves for the win.
— Byron Hackett (@RDAbyronhackett) November 9, 2019
In just his second game, Isley broke his wrist and missed all of October. He said he’s never suffered a major injury before and said it was very difficult to watch from the stands.
“It was tough, I hated watching the guys practice, just wished I was out there, I’m back now, so I’m happy,” said the soft-spoken forward.
Since his return on Nov. 3, the Grande Prairie product has brought a different energy to the lineup. Centering sparkplugs Ethan Rowland and Dallon Melin, the trio has given Sutter a reliable line that can change the momentum of a game in an instant.
“Energy. He’s a pretty good player and he’s really finding his way now. The thing about him is he’s got some skill but he’s got energy,” Sutter said.
“He’s got some good hockey sense, he knows how to play the game. He’s good defending and he’s hard on the forecheck. He’s got bite and you like that out of these young players. He’s just going to continue to get better and better.”
Isley, for his part, has embraced that role and hopes it will make a difference for the group in the long run.
“My size and my aggressiveness, hopefully, an energy guy. Get the guys going whenever they need it. Just throw hits and bang bodies,” said Isley, who has three assists in his last five games.
“I think it’s huge, honestly. When some of the guys are down, you need some energy. Just go out there fight, get a couple hits and get the guys going.”
He also thinks that has always been a big asset to his game, learning from his big brother Jarrod, who played defence for the Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League last year.
“My dad was also a hockey player and my brother was my role model, I just wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Isley said.
“He played defence, so it’s different roles, but still tough and everything else, aggressive.”
Sutter asserted there’s immense value in a player who brings that approach to the game– with both the high-energy and intensity, as well as a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Often, players we were high scoring forwards in midget, have certain expectations for an offensive-type role at the next level. No so with Isley.
“Those are the type of players you like to have on your team. They’re edgy, they’re great team guys, very respectful players, very coachable and the team comes first, but they can play the game,” Sutter said.
“He’s someone we’re high on and we think he’s going to have a real bright future here.”