The Western Hockey League selection committee chose 21 players to fulfill the roster for Team WHL. Colorado Avalanche prospect Conner Bleackley, drafted 23rd overall last summer, was among five 2014 first-round draft selections named to the roster.
|Conner Bleackley |
Bleackley played his first of two games against Russia on Monday, Nov. 10 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Russia emerged victorious in the back-and-forth contest, coming away with a 3-2 shootout win.
The two teams faced off again the following night in Brandon, Manitoba. Russia defeated Team WHL 3-2 for the second consecutive night, despite the WHL prospects outshooting the Russians by a 2-1 margin. Bleackley tallied a goal in the loss and finished with a plus-1 rating.
The losses for Team WHL can be attributed, in part, to a lack of team synergy. The prospects didn’t have much time to practice together before playing in their first game, making it difficult to form any strong chemistry on the ice.
“We only had one practice and the pregame skates,” Bleackley said when asked about playing with new linemates for the first time. “But no matter who you go with, they’re always good players and everybody can make plays, so that makes it a little bit easier.”
Despite playing with guys he’s used to playing against, Bleackley said there was no animosity in the locker room or on the ice with his new teammates.
“It’s a pretty cool environment,” he said. “Everybody kind of knows each other, but you get away from that competitive environment toward one another when you’re on the same side. The guys do a pretty good job of putting that aside for a couple games and a few days anyway.”
Although his team didn’t finish with a win, Bleackley still enjoyed his experience at the tournament.
“It was great,” he said. “Obviously, we would’ve liked to win at least one game. I thought we deserved better in both games, but the Russians are really opportunistic. They thrive off of any turnovers and they get real good goaltending. But for me it was really good to play with all of the top guys and any time you get to represent your league or your country, it’s always an honor.”
Bleackley will now shift his focus back to the Red Deer Rebels (14-10-3-1), who currently sit in third place with 32 points in the Western Hockey League’s Central Division.
|Conner Bleackley scores in Game 2 of the Super Series for Team WHL on Nov. 11 in Brandon, Manitoba (Credit: Andy Devlin/WHL). |
“It’s been good,” he said when asked about his team’s season. “I think we had a real slow start to the season and now lately, in the last 15 games, we’re probably one of the top teams in the league. We have an eight-game home winning streak going right now so things are looking up. We’re starting to play a lot better and more consistent.”
Currently fifth on the team in scoring with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 26 games this year, Bleackley is focused on playing consistently for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.
With Red Deer set to host the 2016 Memorial Cup next spring, Bleackley and his teammates have a little extra incentive to build upon this season’s success for next year.
“It’s pretty easy to look forward to next year, but this year our goal isn’t any different,” he said. “We want to win the Memorial Cup, that’s the goal going into every single year. But this year is huge as far as gaining playoff experience and hopefully having a real deep run because a lot of guys on this year’s team are obviously going to be on next year’s team too. So gaining that experience in the playoffs is going to be huge as far as the Memorial Cup, and we’re going to try to win it this year.”
The Ontario Hockey League selection committee chose 32 players to complete the roster for Team OHL. The roster consisted of 14 players who attended Canada’s National Junior Team Summer Development Camp, including Avalanche prospect Chris Bigras, who was drafted in the second round (32nd overall) at the 2013 NHL Draft. Two Colorado third round picks, Spencer Martin (63rd overall in 2013) and Kyle Wood (84th overall in 2014), also participated in the tournament.
|Kyle Wood moves the puck up the ice for Team OHL in Game 4 of the Super Series on Nov. 17 in Kingston, Ontario (Credit: Aaron Bell/OHL Images). |
Team OHL played its first game against the Russian National Junior Team on Thursday, Nov. 13 in Peterborough, Ontario. Martin started in goal for the squad, saving 22 of 26 shots in the 4-0 loss to Russia.
On Monday, Nov. 17, Team OHL picked up a 5-1 win to split the two-game series with Russia. Martin did not play in the second game in Kingston, Ontario, but both Bigras and Wood did. Bigras tallied an assist, and both finished the game with a plus-1 rating.
Martin credited the Russian National Junior Team for its competitive play and high skill level, despite playing a different style from what he’s used to seeing in the Ontario Hockey League.
“They were a great team and obviously got a chance to play together a lot more than we did,” he said. “It was pretty tough for us to gel quickly but I think we did a pretty good job, especially in the second game. They had some great skill and obviously they’re a very well-coached team. They play a different style and have a lot of skill being a national team, picked from across their country. But they definitely play a different style than the usual teams we play against in the OHL. They play a very high-skilled game, so it was interesting to see that.”
Overall, Martin enjoyed his experience playing in the Super Series and was happy to see a familiar face in the locker room with fellow Avs prospect and close friend Chris Bigras.
|Team OHL's Spencer Martin during Game 3 of the Super Series on Nov. 13 in Peterborough, Ontario (Credit: Aaron Bell/OHL Images). |
“Bigras and I go way back to when we were six or seven years old,” Martin said. “We played together at [Colorado Avalanche] main camp and development camp too this summer. So it was good to have a friendly face there. To have that extra connection with him being drafted by the same team is fun too.”
Bigras also enjoyed his experience at the tournament and believed the team atmosphere was positive both on and off the ice.
“It was a pretty good atmosphere at both rinks,” he said. “Obviously, you want to impress other players there. You want to play to the best of your abilities because you know people are watching. So it was a lot of fun. It was extremely competitive, and I had a good time there.”
When asked about playing with guys he’s used to playing against, he said, “I think everyone puts that aside pretty quickly. When you put on the same jersey, you’re representing our League there, and we all want that chance to represent Canada. We put that aside pretty quickly and just try to bring the best out of each other.”
Martin (11-9-1) returned to the Mississauga Steelheads to help his team as they currently sit in third place with 23 points in the Ontario Hockey League’s Central Division. The Steelheads (11-12-1-0) have confidence in their starting goaltender as he ranks 10th in the league in goals-against-average (2.94) and second in save percentage (.922). Martin also ranks first in saves (755) among OHL goalies, second in minutes played (1,265) and ninth in wins (11).
The Steelheads are off to a strong start this season, and Martin is thriving off the confidence he gained after signing his first NHL contract with the Avalanche this fall.
“Obviously, Colorado showing confidence in signing me before the season was the right way I wanted to start off. I’ll just continue to try to help my team out in junior and enjoy my last year.”
|Chris Bigras skates with the puck for Team OHL in Game 4 of the Super Series on Nov. 17 in Kingston, Ontario (Credit: Aaron Bell/OHL Images). |
Meanwhile, Bigras returns to the Owen Sound Attack (12-8-1-4) as his team currently sits in fifth place in the Ontario Hockey League’s Midwest Division. He has 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 25 games played, good for sixth in scoring among OHL defensemen. Bigras leads all Attack defensemen in scoring and ranks fourth overall in team scoring. He hopes to continue helping his team succeed, as well as improve on his own game for the remainder of the season.
“We’ve been meeting our expectations so far this year as a team. We’re just going to try to get better and be more aware in the defensive zone as a whole,” said Bigras. “Personally, it’s been going well so far this year. I’ve been able to put up some numbers that are better and more pleasing. I think it’s mostly attributed to having success as a team and getting a little stronger, plus focusing on certain details of my game throughout the beginning of the season.”
Bigras is also eyeing a returning spot on Canada’s World Junior roster, but said he tries not to think about it too much.
“Yeah, you try to keep that in the back of your mind,” he said. “Obviously, when you’re not out there, you think about it a little bit. That would be an extremely big honor again to be able to play in the World Juniors and to play in Canada. The atmosphere would be unbelievable.”