Rebel paces Pacific into top five
Hockey: Conner Bleackley reflects on World U17 Challenge
Wednesday, Jan 09, 2013 06:00 am
With the game on his stick a foothills hockey product earned Team Pacific its first win over Ontario in eight years at the World U17 Hockey Challenge.
Conner Bleackley buried the game-winning goal with 91 seconds left to give Team Pacific the 7-6 victory in the fifth-place game Jan. 3 at the U17 challenge in Victoriaville, QC against the prohibitive pre-tournament favourites from eastern Canada.
“I was in the slot and the pass came out on the wrong side and I turned to my backhand and it was almost like a backhand slapshot,” said Bleackley, a centre for the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. “It ended up going top-shelf. I probably haven’t scored a goal like that in my career.”
On paper, Team Ontario looked to be the class of the U17 Challenge, a tournament featuring the elite 1996-born players from Canada, the United States and Europe, as Ontario featured highly touted prospects Connor McDavid and Aaron Ekblad.
“They were definitely the favourite coming in with all the star power they have on their team. We wanted to play them for the gold medal obviously,” said Bleackley, a native of High River and a former Okotoks Bantam AAA Oiler. “But it was good to end the tournament off with a win and against them it made it all the more special.”
Bleackley, 16, was entrusted with the role of shutting down McDavid, a 15-year-old standout for the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters who’s garnering international acclaim as the next great Canadian prospect.
“I got matched up against him and got to see a lot of the things he can do first-hand,” Bleackley said. “It doesn’t look like he’s trying out there and he’s going around guys like it’s nothing. It’s pretty incredible what he can do at 15.”
The Red Deer Rebel was no slouch himself in Victoriaville as Bleackley registered three goals in five games for Team Pacific in a checking-centre role.
“It was a lot more two-way than I’m used to and that’s something I can definitely play,” Bleackley said. “I got quite a bit of penalty-killing time which I don’t normally do. I was the assistant captain so I had a leadership role and chipped in well offensively.
“I think it was a good tournament for me.”
Team Pacific head coach Jason Becker said the High River native brought a physical element the forward group was lacking.
“Conner played an important role for Team Pacific,” said Becker, also an assistant coach with the Prince George Cougars. “He played a solid 200 foot game, his effort in the offensive end was the same in the defensive end.”
The six-foot, 200-pound forward stormed out of the gate at the U17 challenge with a two-goal performance in Pacific’s opening tilt, an 8-7 overtime victory over Russia.
Team Sweden, the eventual gold medal winners, then skated to a 6-3 win over Team Pacific, which was composed of 23 players from Alberta, B.C. and the Yukon Territories.
Pacific got back to its overtime heroics in rallying for a 5-4 win in a shootout over Finland and edging Team Canada West 4-3 in extra time.
Unfortunately, all the trips into extra sessions came back to haunt Team Pacific who needed a regulation win over West to advance to the semifinals.
“If you would have told me we would have four wins, one loss before the tournament I would have taken that,” he said. “It wasn’t the result we wanted, but every single guy on the team took a lot away from that tournament and we’re all going to be better for it.”
Bleackley returns to a Red Deer team looking to find consistency on a team now coached by former Calgary Flames bench boss Brent Sutter.
Bleackley has registered seven goals and 15 points with the Rebels along with two game-winning shootout tallies.
However, it’s Bleackley’s experience in Victoriaville that has really given him a barometer for where his game needs to be with an eye on the National Hockey League Entry Draft in 2014.
“It’s an eye-opener for what I’m up against next year in the draft in where I need to be and what I need to work on,” he said. “The biggest thing I’m going to take away from it is coming together with a group of guys and playing for your country is something that I’ve always dreamed about. It was a great opportunity to be able to do that.”