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Red Deer's Bleackley readies for Scouting Combine

by Aaron Vickers

Forward Conner Bleackley certainly left everything on the ice following 71 games with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League and seven more for Canada at the 2014 IIHF Under-18 World Championship this season.

Now it's time to leave it all in the gym as he prepares for the 2014 NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto later this month.

"It's a little bit nerve-wracking," said Bleackley, No. 35 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of the top draft-eligible North American skaters.

"You watch a combine on TV and the bike test and the guys throwing up; it can be a little intimidating but I'm going to go approach it like I have every single thing this year and everything a part of the draft process," he said. "It's just a learning experience. It's going to be a fun time to be with all the other top guys and another measuring stick to where I am."

With his Rebels long eliminated from any postseason action and his international schedule wrapped up for the year, the 18-year-old is left with just two remaining events in his draft year: the Combine from May 26-31 and NHL Draft on June 27-28 in Philadelphia.

And though there isn't much prep in the way of the draft, Bleackley is gearing up to have a strong showing as one of 119 prospects set to attend the Combine. He's currently training alongside fellow draft-eligible forward Reid Duke of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and defensemen Ben Thomas of the Calgary Hitmen and Brycen Martin of the Swift Current Broncos at Crash Conditioning in Calgary's southeast.

"I think this three-week window is huge leading up to it," Bleackley said. "It's what I do now that will help me out there.

"For me, it was a little bit different. I was in the gym for two weeks before U18's, then the U-18 lasted almost a month. Now I'm coming back here. Having three weeks, I would like more time, but at the same time you want to get there and want to experience it."

As hard as he's pushed himself in the gym, the High River, Alberta, native is well aware there's more to the Combine than bench presses, pushups and the Wingate Cycle Ergometer bike test.

It's as mental a test as it is physical with the barrage of team interviews Bleackley and other top prospects will undergo, and he's brushing up on that as well.

"I've been asking a lot of questions to guys who have been through the process," Bleackley said. "I had a Skype session with a sports psychologist about what to expect and different questions to answer. All the resources you can use, the better you're prepared. I even had a conversation with [Calgary Flames prospect] Morgan Klimchuk, who went through the process last year. He told me what it was all about. Anytime you can ask questions to guys like that who have been through it, it's good."

Teams will have plenty to quiz Bleackley about. The 6-foot, 197-pound center will cap a memorable lead-up to the draft with his trip to the Combine.

His season started on a tear with eight goals and 19 points in 15 games through September and October.

It was intensified in November when he was given the captaincy of Brent Sutter's Rebels, one of just three first-time draft eligible players to wear the "C" in the Canadian Hockey League with center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice and defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts.

Determined to be a first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft at the end of June in Philadelphia, forward Conner Bleackley of the Red Deer Rebels is eager to make a good impression at the upcoming NHL Scouting Combine. (Photo: Dave Brunner Photography)

"It was a little bit overwhelming at the start, but it was something I felt I was ready for and definitely a huge challenge," said Bleackley, who finished with 29 goals and 68 points this season. "I think looking back on this year, as far as leadership goes, it was a real learning year. The stuff I learned this year about keeping guys together is only going to help me going forward."

But Bleackley's leadership wasn't enough to pull Red Deer into the Western Hockey League playoffs.

The Rebels lost to the Prince Albert Raiders in a one-game tiebreaker to determine the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference after each club finished with 35 wins and 75 points.

"We were up almost 10 points on Prince Albert at a certain point and to let them come back and then play them in that tiebreaking game, that was a heartbreaking loss," said Bleackley, who also earned an invite to the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January. "We have a young team in Red Deer. Hopefully all the guys, myself included, learn from that experience and come into next year ready to go, and hopefully we'll have a better fate for us."

The loss wasn't without a silver lining. It allowed Bleackley to represent Canada at the Under-18 World Championship in Lappeenranta and Imatra, Finland, in April. He came away with a bronze medal after assisting his country with a goal and an assist in seven tournament games.

"It's kind of like a second chance to have a last impression on NHL teams. I think the most important thing is representing your country well," Bleackley said. "I think that we did that coming away with a bronze. Obviously it wasn't the medal that everyone expects or hopes for, but give the other teams credit. There are a lot of good countries out there. Coming out with the bronze, it didn't feel so good, but looking back on it, it doesn't feel so bad now."

Now he's hoping his final impression at the Combine is enough to hear his name called on June 27, when the first round is held at Wells Fargo Center beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

"You dream of getting drafted as a kid, and this year I made it my goal to be a first-rounder," he said. "All the hockey is aside now. The teams have seen what they want. Now it's about getting to know teams with interviews and meetings and such at the Combine.

"I think I'll have a lot better idea of where I'm going to go then. It's out of my control right now."

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