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Confident Thomas thriving with hometown Hitmen

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- Ben Thomas can remember a time when the only way he was allowed to step foot in Scotiabank Saddledome was to buy a ticket.

Now he calls it home.

The 2014 NHL Draft-eligible defenseman has blossomed with the Calgary Hitmen this season in the rink he grew up cheering in, no less.

"It's pretty amazing," Thomas said. "I used to go to Flames games and Hitmen games all the time as a kid. I remember the first time I went out for practice with the Hitmen. It was just a really weird feeling being out there after all those years of watching other teams on the ice. To be able to have this as my home rink is pretty special."

Navigating through his draft year, the 17-year-old Thomas doesn't have to look far to find motivation.

Defenseman Ben Thomas, 17, plays for the Calgary Hitmen in the same arena where he cheered on the Flames as a kid. (Photo: Calgary Hitmen, WHL)

Just down the hall, in fact.

"It's kind of weird seeing all these guys that you'd see on TV walking by in the hallway and seeing them at the rink sometimes," said Thomas, who has three goals and 17 points in 37 games with the Hitmen this season. "It's pretty cool that we get to come to the rink and see how they conduct themselves and see them on the ice every day.

"I look at the good defensemen out there and see their practice habits and pick up a few tips of what they do and apply them to my game as well."

Those tips have certainly helped.

The 6-foot-2, 193-pound blueliner has been making big strides toward carving out a career of his own.

Buried down the Hitmen's depth chart and relegated primarily to Alberta Junior Hockey League action last season, Thomas has thrived, not survived, in Calgary this year.

"He's more consistent," Hitmen coach Mike Williamson said. "We saw stretches even last year when Benny got called up that he looked poised and polished, but there was a lot of gaps in between his top shifts and bottom shifts.

"The biggest thing for Ben, he's gotten better and he's continued to improve his consistency. When he does that, he continues to improve. He's got a great skill set and he's a multi-dimensional player. He's got good poise and vision offensively but he can play a good, sound defensive game as well, so he's a guy that can eat up a lot of minutes."

That poise has come with a newfound confidence, Thomas said.

"I took my game to a new level," he said. "This year I'm playing with confidence and it's setting my game up a little bit. Everything's working out for me this year. I'm really excited. I'm hoping it'll keep going.

"I've always had the skill set, I think. It's just about believing I can play at this level and having belief in yourself on the ice, I think, is the biggest thing you can have as a player."

That new confidence hasn't gone unnoticed.

Scouts are perking up every time Thomas jumps the boards to take a shift.

"Benny had a great start to the season and really opened up a lot of eyes when we had a lot of scouts in the first five, 10 games of the season," Williamson said. "We had a lot of guys come down and say, 'Who is this guy and where'd he come from?' because they had him on the radar, but not to do what he was doing."

It's not just scouts that have come away impressed with Thomas' progression.

Hitmen goaltender Chris Driedger has come away impressed in the way his teammate has so rapidly developed.

"At the beginning of the year, we all knew he had the offensive skill," said Driedger, drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the third round (No. 76) in 2012. "After the first couple games he was struggling a bit defensively, but as of late he's been probably the best guy, from my standpoint, on getting sticks on pucks and on rushes keeping a great gap. He's come a long way.

"When it comes to that, I feel like guys that improve quicker are more likely to make the NHL. You see that in this guy. There's some real potential there, in my personal opinion."

Many have agreed with Driedger's assessment.

Central Scouting ranked Thomas as a 'C' skater in its Preliminary 2014 Players to Watch for November and named him as one of the 40 players that will participate in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January.

From Williamson's view, it's well deserved.

"He opened up a lot of eyes and with the first half, he's earned himself a great opportunity to participate in that game and represent us well and do well for himself there," he said. "He's done a great job and has earned everything to date."

The game, which pits much of the top draft-eligible talent against each other, is in Calgary no less, and has given Thomas another reason to be confident in his game.

"That's definitely a little bit of a booster there," said Thomas, who will represent Team Orr at the event. "It's going to be nice to be able to be in my home rink and have the fans out there."

Thomas started out as one of those fans. Now, he's in charge of bringing them out of their seats.

And come June in Philadelphia, Thomas hopes an NHL team will return the favor at the draft.

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