Two Red Deer Rebels are exploring their options after playing their final games in the Western Hockey League.
Graduating players Jackson van de Leest and Liam Keeler both say they are contemplating their future after the Rebels were eliminated from the playoffs this past week.
“I’m still looking to continue playing hockey obviously. If I can play pro and that’s in the cards then that’s what I want to do. But I’ve also been in the background talking to some (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) schools. Education is super important to me,” said van de Leest.
Keeler added, “I’m lucky to have quite a few different options. I’ve been in talks with quite a few schools from all over Canada. Obviously this kind of week is going to be a big stage for me making that decision. I’m going to take some time with my parents and the people I care about the most and make that final decision.”
The two players both joined Red Deer via trade this season: Keeler, a forward, was acquired from the Edmonton Oil Kings in the off-season and van de Leest, a defenceman, was acquired from the Calgary Hitmen in January.
“It was my first time getting traded. I was a little nervous coming in. I knew it was going to be a great group of guys coming in. That’s how it always is in hockey,” said van de Leest, who played his 250th career WHL game towards the end of the regular season.
“I really enjoyed my time in Calgary. I made a lot of good friends there and had quite a few great years with that team. But I was ecstatic to come to Red Deer. In the end I think it set me up to be the best hockey player I can be.
“How this organization treats practice and being a Rebel, I think it helped me grow my game and put me in the best place moving forward.”
Van de Leest said he made some great memories in his short time with the Rebels.
“There are some guys in the room that I’m going stay in touch with forever. It was a great group and I’m so happy in my 20-year-old year, my last year, I was able to have a group like that,” said van de Leest, who has 10 points in 34 games with Red Deer.
Keeler had the most productive season of his WHL career in Red Deer, finishing with 25 goals and 20 assists in 65 games. His previous career highs were 12 goals and 24 points.
“I had a lot of really special years in Edmonton, but I think there’s going to be a really big part of my heart that Red Deer will hold,” Keeler said.
“When I got traded here, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure what to expect. I knew I was coming into a new opportunity, but every single day here has been great. I’ve enjoyed it so much and I’m going to miss it a lot.”
Keeler said coming into the season he felt like he was going to have a bigger opportunity to play an offensive role in Red Deer.
“I think my first half (of the season) wasn’t quite my best, but my second half I came back and tried to lay it all on the line every game. I think I had a great second half,” he said.
Keeler provided a piece of advice to any young players entering the WHL: “enjoy it.”
“When I was 16, my captain Colton Kehler told me, ‘Days go slow and years go by fast.’ I’ve obviously seen that. I’ve had a lot of success and a good long career. … You never know when it’s going to end,” he said.
Arshdeep Bains, Red Deer’s other graduating player, signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks earlier this season.
Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk said all three of the Rebels’ graduation player brings something different to the ice, but they are all “quality people.”
“You’re bringing in 16- and 17-year-olds and you want to continue a culture that people want to be part of, and creates good character and gives people the chance to succeed in hockey or whatever else they do,” said Konowalchuk.