He had an inkling, make that a positive inkling, that his name would be on the list of players invited to the Canadian national junior team selection camp.
With the calibre of major junior defencemen across the country, nothing was etched in stone. Still, there was Haydn Fleury’s moniker, nicely adjoined to 10 fellow blueline candidates, on the Hockey Canada list released Tuesday.
“Any time you get that group of defencemen you can’t be 100 per cent sure (of receiving an invitation),” said the Red Deer Rebels veteran rearguard. “But just from going to camp last year, I kind of had a good idea.”
Fleury was one of the final Team Canada cuts last December and insisted he came away with a better knowledge of what it will take to crack the Canadian roster for the 2016 World Junior Championship beginning Dec. 26 in Helsinki, Finland.
“I’ll know what to expect going into the camp,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on the team, lots of media attention and you have to know how to handle it. I think I’ll just learn from last year.”
Fleury’s on-ice performance to this point in the Western Hockey League season would indicate he’s a favourite to earn his national junior stripes the second time around and even be employed on the Canadian power play.
The six-foot-three defender was selected in the first round — seventh overall — of the 2014 NHL entry draft, but after returning to Red Deer from the Hurricanes’ camp last year appeared to lose sight of his offensive game.
He was better all around in the second half of the season and finished with six goals and 28 points; he’s currently well ahead of that pace with seven goals and 18 points in 21 outings.
“Ever since getting cut (from the national junior team) last year I’ve turned my game around,” said Fleury. “I got off to a slow start last year and coming back from Carolina this year that didn’t happen. I think I learned from everything that happened and became better for it.”
Fleury got an extended look with the ‘Canes this fall and saw some NHL preseason action before being reassigned to the Rebels at the end of September. He returned to Red Deer with a healthy feeling of self-assurance.
“I just have a lot of confidence right now,” he said.
“I put in the work this summer to bring my game to a good spot. I was close in Carolina and kind of brought that back here.”
The pride of Carlyle, Sask., admitted that wearing the Canadian jersey in the global junior championship would be a fantasy realized.
“Every Christmas as a kid I would play mini sticks, pretending I was one of those guys on the team. To actually be on the team would really be a dream come true,” he said.
While Fleury was all smiles Tuesday, teammate Conner Bleackley was anything but upbeat. After attending the national squad’s summer camp, he didn’t make the selection camp list.
“For sure I’m happy for Haydn, but (for me) it sucks right now,” said the Rebels forward and Colorado Avalanche prospect. “It’s really disappointing but there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
Bleackley has been stuck in a mystifying funk this season that may be drawing to a conclusion.
A strong skater with a heavy shot, he struck for 29 goals as a 17-year-old and scored 27 times and collected 68 points last season.
However, the High River native has a mere five goals to his credit in 25 outings this season and suffered through a 13-game scoreless stretch. On a positive note, three of his markers have come in the last four games.
“It’s gone better lately, it was just a matter of time,” he said. “I know I’m a better player than I was last year and the year before. Hopefully I can keep it up and they can start going in in bunches.
“My chances of making the (national) team were a lot better at the start of the season. It’s frustrating, but I’ve started to play better these last few games. Hopefully I can just keep playing better and prove them wrong.”
Bleackley’s lack of goals hasn’t been connected to the number of scoring opportunities he has been presented.
“I think if you look at my shooting percentage, it’s probably about five per cent or something like that,” he noted.
“That will go up, we have lots of games left to play. We could play up to 100 games this season.
“We’re going to keep winning and that’s the most important thing.”
• The selection camp goes Dec. 10-14 in Toronto and will be attended by 10 WHL players, the others being defencemen Joe Hicketts of the Victoria Royals, Travis Sandheim of the Calgary Hitmen and Noah Juulsen of the Everett Silvertips, and forwards Matthew Barzal of the Seattle Thundebirds, Rourke Chartier and Nick Merkley of the Kelowna Rockets, Brayden Point of the Moose Jaw Warriors and John Quenneville and Jayce Hawryluk of the Brandon Wheat Kings.