During his rookie season with the Red Deer Rebels last year John Persson sat back, watched and learned.
When he did play he worked hard at improving his game, but for the most part the Mora, Sweden native was trying to get accustomed to a different style of play in the Western Hockey League than he was used to.
“I didn’t have a lot of expectations last year as I wanted to see what it’s like in the smaller rinks and playing over here,” explained the 18-year-old.
“Of course I wanted to play more, but that was the way it was.”
Persson, who received the full support of his family to come to Canada, proved to be a perfect student. He returned his season, bigger and stronger and with an idea what it took to be a top-six forward.
“I learned a lot last year. The game is so much faster and the rinks are smaller, so it took time to learn that, but I worked hard all summer and coming back more experienced helped a lot. Also I’m getting a chance to play with better players.”
Persson. who had seven goals and four assists last year, wasn’t 100 per cent coming into camp, but once he shook off the affects of the flu he started to show head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin that he earned the right to take a regular shift.
And he hasn’t disappointed as he sits fourth in team scoring with 28 points, including 12 goals, which is third best on the team. He also leads the team in plus-minus at plus-16.
“It feels good,” said Persson. “I’m getting a lot of power play time and playing with players like (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins and Andrej Kudrna helps a lot. As well I’m with (Byron) Froese and (Alex) Petrovic on the power play and I do get some tap-ins.”
Wallin likes what he sees from the six-foot-two, 200-pound left winger.
“He’s been a key guy for us. You could see at times last year that he had the potential in him, and even after Christmas last year he was a different player. It’s a big adjustment for any 17-year-old coming into this league even if they’re coming out of midget. And certainly coming across the ocean and living in a different life style and culture is a big adjustment.
“He’s the type of guy who have to be patient with and while be had a bit of a slow start to camp he continued to get better and better as we went along. At this point he’s found his comfort level and realizes he’s a good player.”
Persson has never been one to shy away from the physical side of the game.
“I always played a physical game even back home,” he said. “It’s certainly more physical here, so I’m just a normal physical guy, while back home I was more so.”
“He’s at his best when he used his size to his advantage,” added Wallin.
“He’s strong at 200 pounds and has grown into his body. He’s strong on the puck and shoots well and is a better player when he uses that to his advantage. He’s not a European style player. He’s willing to dig for the puck and willing to take a hit to make a play. Plus a lot of people don’t know that he played much of the first half of the season injured. He had a wrist injury early on that he fought through. It would have kept a lot of players out. He’s very committed to being here and committed to the team and a very good human being. I’m proud of the way he’s come along and he’ll be a big part of the team over the next couple of years.”
Persson will go into the NHL draft in June, and while he won’t be as highly ranked as Nugent-Hopkins, he’ll get some consideration.
“He’s certainly garnering some attention,” said Wallin. “He’s opening some eyes. You can’t teach size, which is a definite asset. He has the size and body type to be a pro player and I’d love to see him get the opportunity to be drafted, or at least attend a pro camp. If he continues to improve he’ll get that chance.”
Persson would love to see that as well.
“I haven’t talked with any scouts, but that’s my dream,” he said.
• Rebels host the Lethbnridge Hurricanes tonight at 7 p.m. at the Centrium . . . . Rebels are without Kudrna, who is with the Slovakian team at the world juniors and Matt Dumba and Lucas Grayson, who are with Team Pacific at the World U17 Challenge.