The term “honest player” has been bandied around for years in hockey circles.
In fact, the Washington Capitals bestow an honor each game called the “Honest Abe Award”, complete with a hat and fake beard consistent with a look that personifies Abraham Lincoln. It’s given to the player who puts forward an honest effort. The recipient is then charged with choosing the winner following the Caps ensuing game.
If there are honest players among the current Kamloops Blazers, Ryan Rehill (NJD) would seem to fit the bill.
Rehill, from Edmonton, doesn’t show up every day amid promises of flash, dash and dynamic production. Instead, he patrols the blueline with a watchful eye, a heavy stick and a readily available dose of nastiness when required.
“I didn’t get much ice time because we had a great team with a lot of veteran defensemen and guys with a lot of skill,” Rehill said when asked by Hockey’s Future about his rookie season in the WHL. “Most of that year I just tried to learn and be ready for the next season. I just spent most of the year learning about junior hockey.”
Indeed, during the 2012-13 season, the Blazers were a prolific offensive team that consisted of veterans focused on finishing their respective junior careers with a flourish. As a group, the skaters collectively possessed high-end skills and contributed to a 47-win regular season. Rehill appeared in 46 games, didn’t score a goal, added three assists, went +9 on the season and collected 104 penalty minutes. At the very least, a reputation was being built.
The Blazers advanced to the WHL’s Western Conference final that postseason, but dropped a seven-game series to the Portland Winterhawks. With the elimination came graduation, and the immediate future in Kamloops was left in the hands of the apprentices who had spent much of the successful campaign waiting in the wings.
During the 2013-14 season, the Blazers missed the playoffs, compiling a record of 14-53-2-3 as the youngsters cut their teeth as leaders. The core group, including Rehill, Cole Ully (DAL) and current team captain Matt Needham persevered, knowing full well their respective junior careers might in fact end without suiting up for another playoff game. Such is the circle of life in junior hockey, also known as “rebuilding”. Rehill scored four times and added 16 assists for 20 points, while compiling a respectable -4 rating. He took care of a few other matters on behalf of the Blazers, in the form of 182 penalty minutes.
“We knew last year would be a little different in some ways,” Rehill said. “My thought process then was to try to be my best for my team every night, because I wanted that effort to really help us win some games. I suppose it was frustrating it didn’t pan out that way. We didn’t win a lot of games.”
The tough times coincided with Rehill’s draft year and on a team that had little win-column success, NHL scouts were present at times but often not plentiful. The only way to establish himself and stay on the radar was by delivering a consistent, honest effort. And it didn’t hurt that the 6’3, 225-pounder was a willing pugilist.
“I think I built a reputation my first two years,” Rehill understated.
The reputation Rehill refers to relates primarily to fisticuffs. On a young Blazers team struggling for wins, and in some quarters, for respect, Rehill became a willing scrapper in an effort to ensure opponents didn’t insist on taking liberties with his teammates. The list of combatants is impressive, including the likes of Keegan Kanzig (CGY), Austin Carroll (CGY) and Mason Geertsen (COL). These are three of the biggest, toughest customers in the entire WHL. For certain, Rehill wasn’t chasing after any sweethearts.
“I fought quite a bit,” Rehill said. “But I’ve tried to get away from that this season and develop my game with the puck. It’s important to me to develop my skills. I want to improve my game without having to just be a fighter.
“But I also want to continue to be a physical presence and make sure that some of the younger guys can feel comfortable playing against other teams rougher and more physical guys.”
The WHL schedule has been built in recent years to promote divisional rivalries. A by-product of the set up means bumping into familiar foes.
“Well, there’s been a few,” Rehill said, when asked to reflect on some of his toughest bouts. “I remember one season, Austin Carroll in Victoria. We went three or four times; a couple of good battles. And then Keegan Kanzig, too. There have been a few other guys, but those two would probably be the two toughest guys I’ve come across so far in my career.”
The New Jersey Devils spent their fifth-round pick, 131st overall, on Rehill at the 2014 NHL Draft, providing the rugged defensemen with a measure of personal satisfaction after enduring a tough sophomore season.
“The draft was my goal and I couldn’t be happier that New Jersey chose me,” Rehill said. “I went to my first development camp and then to main camp to be around pro guys. There hasn’t been a lot of contact since then, but it was a great experience.”
“But I’m just trying to play my game and get back on the radar to continue to get noticed and hopefully get a contract this year or next.”
As a veteran in Kamloops, Rehill has seen his responsibilities broaden. Ice time this past season increased and there has been work on specialty teams. It’s all about personal growth and answering the call from the coaching staff.
“I kind of like that challenge,” Rehill said. “I suppose there’s maybe some give and take. I mean, you’re playing real tough minutes against other teams top guys, so you can end up with some minuses out there. But when I can help take care of those guys and keep them off the scoreboard, it’s a real good feeling.”
Rehill appeared in 68 games this past season, but the Blazers missed the final wildcard playoff spot by a couple of points. It’s the first time in franchise history the Blazers have missed the postseason in consecutive years.
Rehill collected seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points while compiling a -6 rating and 128 penalty minutes. Of note was a quirky stat among Blazers, a team that had managed only two overtime wins through the end of February. In both tilts, it was Rehill who tallied the overtime game winners.
“The puck just seemed to find me,” he laughed, “and I was able to put it on the net. I’ll take the lucky bounces. Those two goals were pretty fortunate for me.”
Rehill is a well-spoken 19-year-old with one more season of junior eligibility if he remains in the WHL as a 20-year-old. Like previous off-seasons, Rehill will be back home in Edmonton, where he played his minor hockey in the Maple Leaf Athletic Club program. Among those he crosses paths with in the WHL is former teammate Cole Linaker, who now toils with the Kelowna Rockets. For Rehill, he’ll simply keep busy preparing for the next step along his road map of hockey.
“I like to spend time with the people that I don’t really get to see too much during the season,” he said. “I play a lot of golf with my dad. There are lots of friends back in Edmonton.”
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