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Resilient Bleackley on comeback trail

Forward leading Red Deer in Memorial Cup, eyeing career in NHL

by Aaron Vickers / NHL.com Correspondent

RED DEER, Alberta -- It seems like ages to Red Deer Rebels forward Conner Bleackley.

Two years ago, it was Bleackley whose arms were draped around legends Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic onstage in Philadelphia as a first-round pick (No. 23) of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2014 NHL Draft.

It's ancient history to the now-20-year-old, who as a member of the Arizona Coyotes organization has until June 1 to sign an entry-level contract. If he remains unsigned, he would be eligible for the 2016 draft, set for June 24-25 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

Read more: Coyotes' Bleackley could re-enter draft

"I'm standing here without a contract almost two years later," Bleackley said. "At the end of the day, if you're a good player, you believe in yourself, you put in the work, it's going to happen whether you're undrafted, drafted in the first round or drafted in the seventh round. For myself, no one can tell me otherwise until it's all said and done. That's the attitude you have to have.

"I don't know if I'm going to be drafted or if I'm going to be signed, or where I'm going to be taken. I know it'll be a huge summer. I'll be going to an NHL camp almost certainly and trying to get a job."

It's one of many dips in a trying season for Bleackley.

After a rough start, Red Deer coach Brent Sutter stripped him of the team's captaincy in October.

On Jan. 23, he sustained a broken kneecap and missed more than a month.

On Feb. 29, his NHL rights were traded from Colorado to the Arizona Coyotes, along with forward Alex Tanguay and defenseman Kyle Wood, for forward Mikkel Boedker. Bleackley learned of the trade during a radio interview in Red Deer.

On March 4, he had surgery to repair severed tendons in his wrist, sliced by a skate blade in a regular-season game against the Edmonton Oil Kings on March 19. He missed the entirety of the WHL playoffs and wasn't expected to return in 2015-16.

Trying times.

"I thought he handled it well right from the get-go this season when he came in and struggled early in the year," Sutter said. "I felt there was so much on his shoulders. He was so worried about a contract. He was so worried about everything except playing well. That's why I took the captaincy off him, just so he could refocus and not put another burden on his shoulders.

"He's probably handled it maybe better than he would if he continued to play through all of it. [Injuries] gave him some time to sit back and reflect on things and think it through properly, and not deal with it through the emotions of playing and the emotions of it all.

"He's been awesome. He's handled everything as well as you'd expect a young man to handle it. I'm proud of him."

Bleackley's quick return has helped lead the host Rebels into the Memorial Cup semifinal.

His assist eliminated the Brandon Wheat Kings from the tournament in a 2-1 win Wednesday. He stripped center Duncan Campbell of the puck in Brandon's end before sliding a cross-slot pass to Evan Polei for the winner at 3:50 of overtime.

Bleackley has two assists through three games for Red Deer.

"A lot of people, doctors and stuff, gave me no chance to play in the Memorial Cup," Bleackley said. "I'm a pretty stubborn guy. I wasn't going to say never until the end of the tournament. It's huge to be here. I wouldn't miss this Memorial Cup for the world. We have a job to do. We're looking forward to it."

Red Deer will face the QMJHL-champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies on Friday in a rematch of the tournament's third game. Red Deer won the initial game 5-2.

A berth in the final would all but erase a tumultuous eight months for Bleackley.

"Ever since we got the Memorial Cup berth two years ago, it's been everybody's thought," Bleackley said. "The tournament is here. We're playing in the semifinal. If you would have told me two years ago we would be in the semifinal, playing for a chance to get into the dance on the final day, I would take that any day.

"All that stuff has been on me. … it's nothing new. Helping this team win and being a big part of that is going to go a long way with whatever happens to that side of it. It's pretty crazy. In the past four months I could probably write a book. Hopefully the ending is a really sweet one."

MEMORIAL CUP OF JOE

What we learned: Red Deer didn't let an early two-goal deficit bury them, and responded to a timeout by Sutter by scoring five unanswered goals to upend the Rouyn-Noranda 5-2 in the tournament's third game on May 22. It was an undisciplined outing for Rouyn-Noranda, which surrendered three power-play goals on nine opportunities. It was the first of two consecutive wins for Red Deer, which finished the round-robin 2-1. Rouyn-Noranda enter the semifinal 1-2 with consecutive losses to Red Deer and London after a tournament-opening win against Brandon.

Players to watch: Adam Helewka scored twice, and Jake DeBrusk had a goal and two assists for Red Deer. Helewka and DeBrusk each have four points to lead Red Deer. Timo Meier, who has a team-leading five goals through three games, scored for the Rouyn-Noranda.

Quotable: "They've got four lines that they play. They're really fast up front. They've got some forwards with tremendous speed, pretty good defense back there, and a big goalie back there. We played them real well. Obviously we want a better start than we had going down 2-0. I thought that was our best 50, 55 minutes of the tournament so far. We're going to have to be that good, if not better." - Red Deer forward Conner Bleackley

Friday's game: Semifinal, Red Deer vs Rouyn-Noranda (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2)

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