Imagine spending two full seasons battling for ice time on a veteran-laden junior hockey team, one that was built to produce high-octane scoring in pursuit of a Western Hockey League championship. And then, when the elite performers finally move on, graduating to professional or Canadian University hockey, your time as a veteran leader emerges as the team is entrenched in rebuilding mode.
Such is the path currently being traveled by Cole Ully (DAL) of the Kamloops Blazers, an 18-year-old product from Calgary, AB who has overcome some personal challenges en route to living his dream in WHL.
“It’s different for sure after having those guys to learn from for the past two years,” Ully said while speaking with Hockey’s Future in Kelowna. “It’s more pressure now, but that’s really what players want.
“You want to be the go-to-guy, I’m just trying to take full advantage of my ice time now. It’s tough when you don’t win a lot of games, but I hope we turn it around a bit in the second half.”
A rookie in Kamloops
Selected by the Blazers in the second round, 30th overall, of the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Ully had a good feeling his name would be called at some point that day.
“It was nice. I had talked with a few teams, but had no idea where I might go. I was at school I think, and I just refreshed the computer and saw my name. Then later I got the call. It was nice to go that early. When I saw it was Kamloops, I knew it was a storied organization, an honor to go there.”
That particular draft also netted the Blazers the likes of Matt Needham, Josh Connolly, and Ryan Rehill. The quartet is an important core group in Kamloops this season, and for the short-term future.
During his first full season in Kamloops, where he scored nine times and added 11 assists in 55 games, Ully began to learn about and adapt to life away from home as a 16-year-old. Then, upon his return home during the WHL’s schedule break near Christmas, his life took an unexpected turn.
On Dec. 23rd of that year, his father Mark received confirmation of a cancer diagnosis. He and his wife Cindy shared the news with their children that Christmas.
“A 16-year-old year is always tough, but when I got home for Christmas, it was great to spend time with my family,” Ully said. “Then I heard the news from my dad and it was tough.
According to Mark Ully, “Cole didn’t really say anything when we told him. He just kind of stared straight ahead for awhile, then he went upstairs. When he came back down, he just looked at me and said, you’re going to be okay. I think he just had to go and Google it all and figure it out on his own.”
Mark was diagnosed with a form of Hodgkins lymphoma, the same affliction that made its way famously into the hockey community when it was announced in early 1993 that NHL Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux had been diagnosed with cancer.
Today, Mark is showing no signs from effects of treatment and is plenty healthy enough to travel frequently with Cindy to watch Cole and the Blazers. Cole looks back at that Christmas and reflects on how he felt then about the challenges his father has overcome.
“I knew he was a fighter, a battler, and it wouldn’t be too hard for him,” Cole said. “It was hard to be away though. It’s tough when you see him and he’s healthy, then after a few months, the next time you see him he’s looking real sick and stuff. He got through it, we all did, and I’m sure it made us stronger as a family.”
Making the most of his draft year
Ully played an important supporting role in Kamloops for the better part of two seasons, the second of which included doing everything in his power to capture the attention of pro scouts. He skated behind a forward group that consisted of Colin Smith (COL), JC Lipon (WPG), Tim Bozon (MTL), Kale Kessey (EDM) and the Blazers career leader in games played, Brendan Ranford.
The Blazers achieved some playoff highlights as an upper echelon team, managing a Western Conference finals appearance during the 2013 playoffs, where they were dispatched in five games by the Portland Winterhawks. In 2012, Kamloops also fell to Portland in a classic semi-final when they forced a seventh game after dropping the first three games of the series to the Winterhawks.
While Ully may have been forgotten at times amid the performances of his high-scoring teammates, he was no shrinking violet. He collected 70 points over his first two seasons, including 22 goals and 28 assists last year. It was enough to garner some attention among pro scouts.
At the 2013 NHL Draft in New Jersey, two Blazers heard their names called. JC Lipon, who had played with Team Canada at the 2013 WJC, was picked up by the Winnipeg Jets after being passed over at the 2012 NHL Draft.
Ully, who checks in at 5’11” and 175 pounds, was selected by the Dallas Stars in the fifth round, 131st overall.
“It was a huge day for my family and I,” Ully said. “It’s a lot different than the WHL Draft, because then I knew I was probably going to be chosen. At the NHL Draft, I suppose that could have gone either way. It was great to be chosen by Dallas.
“I had spoken with Tom Gaglardi (Stars owner) that day and then texted from Craig Bonner (Blazers’ General Manager) and some other guys. It all felt really good. To get to go to camps and play against the pros was real good.
“There was a development camp in Frisco (TX), which is where there’s a training facility for the Stars. I think it was about three days after the draft. Then I went to the Traverse City tournament where we played a few games in the Stars new jerseys, which was pretty cool.”
The eight-team tournament featured the Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues in the Gordie Howe Division, while the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets made up the Ted Lindsay Division.
Back to Kamloops in a leadership role
Due to the exodus of veteran players in Kamloops, the current edition finds itself in capable hands, though the leadership group is relatively young. The torch has been passed on to these youngsters in Kamloops, a city where the hockey fans continue to impose their high expectations on the organization.
Ully is most certainly one of the Blazers veteran players now, taking on a more expanded and demanding role.
“I try not to think about it too much,” Ully said, when asked about his responsibilities as a third-year member of the team this season. “But maybe some of my teammates are looking up to me the way I looked up to some of the guys before me. I really have to just focus on playing my game, the way I have been able to the past couple of years.
The impact of those who played ahead of him is not lost on Ully.
“You can learn from them, and also learn from having to earn your ice time,” he said. “It’s made me appreciate it, the opportunity given to me. The last few years were huge for me and definitely helped my development.”
Through 40 games this season, Ully leads the Blazers in scoring with 18 goals and 25 assists, well on his way to surpassing his scoring output from last season. He has been penciled in with different linemates this season, skating with Matt Needham and Mitch Friesen on this night in Kelowna. He is a key member of the power-play unit, as well.
Collectively, the Blazers have had difficulty putting wins together this season, in what some might suggest is simply the circle of life in junior hockey. Whether it’s referred to as re-tooling or re-building, the group is experiencing some hard knocks this year. The Blazers currently sit in last place among Western Conference teams with only 10 victories in 42 starts.
“Everyone wants to win,” Ully said. “Everyone in our dressing room wants to win. Everyone in the city wants to win. That’s what it comes down to. I think next year things will be better, but I really hope we can turn it around in the second half.”
According to Blazers associate coach Mark Ferner, Ully understands the current state of affairs in Kamloops.
“He’s very popular within our dressing room,” Ferner said when asked about Ully’s veteran presence during the team’s tough season. “Certainly he’s been put in more situations offensively and defensively, but he’s a very passionate player.
“I’ve spoken with him a couple of times over the holidays here, just about the situation we’re in and realizing that we are a young group and he has to be a leader as far as being supportive of our young group. Things will get better here, and he is going to be a big part of it.
“It’s really a credit to an organization when you move as many players on, as they have in the last year. I think it’s between six and eight players moving on to pro hockey. So it’s not only Cole this year, but some other guys, who have been put into situations where they haven’t been in years past.”
For his part, Ully is exactly where he wants to be, playing in the WHL with a very real opportunity to play pro hockey in the NHL.
“I did look at the NCAA route, and even went to Denver and toured the school,” Ully said. “But I just liked the lifestyle in junior here and I want to be a pro hockey player. I felt this was the right way to do it. I felt the fastest way was to play here. The WHL is the best junior league in the world and it’s good to play with and against guys that are going play pro one day.”
The skill set
Ferner didn’t hold back at all when discussing the attributes that make Ully a key player in Kamloops.
“In Cole’s situation, he’s a talented player no question, but what I like about him is he is so competitive,” Ferner said. “He’s not an overly big guy in terms of stature, but he’s not afraid to go in and get the puck and finish his checks. He’s a pretty talented player who makes others around him better.
“To be able to play pro hockey, Cole has to play 200 feet. He has to be a good player in all three zones. Offensively he’s got the talent and also defensively. With him it’s just a matter of time getting a little bigger and a little stronger. He may not grow anymore, but he’s certainly smart enough.
“Like a lot of players at this level, he’s got to understand how to get better away from the puck. Again, he’s a very smart player, very attentive, and a big part of our group this year and going forward.”
It’s not a secret that hockey at elite levels is a 12-month-a-year proposition. Ully has kept busy in Calgary during the off-season, training at Crash Conditioning under the watchful eyes of Doug Crashley. It’s a high-energy environment where Ully pushes himself among many of his friends from in and around the Calgary area.
“I workout with guys like Morgan Klimchuk (CGY) and Josh Morrissey (WPG),” Ully said. “They’re great players and they’ll probably play in the NHL pretty quick here. I’ve trained with Jared Hauf (Seattle) and Jesse Lees, who’s here in Kelowna.”
For Cole Ully, he knows that in the hockey community, he’s certainly among friends and family. It’s safe to say he’s determined enough, and prepared for the challenges associated with making a career in hockey. Only time well spent will tell.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51