There is a long line of WHL youngsters who have had success in the league as 16-year-olds. In many cases, the transition from midget hockey to junior came easily for these talented prospects.
Take, for example, Jimmy Bubnick, who collected nine goals and 27 points in 64 games last season with the Kamloops Blazers.
The now 17-year-old native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has embraced the opportunity to play an increasingly important role in the fortunes of the current edition of the Blazers.
“Well, yeah, the expectations are obviously a bit like night and day this year compared to last,” Bubnick told Hockey’s Future at the Interior Savings Centre in Kamloops. “I feel a lot better this year.
“Last year was pretty rough on a lot of counts, but I feel a lot stronger on the ice, on my feet so far this year. I feel like I’m really ready to win the battles in the corners and take the puck to the net. I’m known more for scoring and my two-way game, but I should be better this year at making sure I do all the little things right.”
Last season was certainly not a lost cause for Bubnick, who was able to parlay his rookie season play into invitations to participate in a pair of Hockey Canada events. Over the holiday season, Bubnick skated for Team West at the annual U17 World Championship held in London, Ontario. And during the past off-season, he accompanied a strong Canadian contingent to Europe where the crew won gold at the U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament title.
“It was a great experience to play with the best guys in Canada,” Bubnick said when asked about the experience in Prague, Czech Republic. “Just the opportunity to represent the country like that was an opportunity of a lifetime for me so far.
“I was all over the place there because we had a whole bunch of different line combos. It really did just change from game to game. I enjoyed every minute of it and to bring back a gold medal makes it even more special.”
Bubnick, who was the Blazers’ first round pick and fifth overall at the 2006 WHL Bantam Draft, has certainly felt the impact personally. It’s a boost in confidence, courtesy of the recent international success with his peers at the elite level. He’s also noticed the treatment from his teammates in Kamloops has changed slightly since returning to the Blazers dressing room with a gold medal.
“Confidence is everything, for sure,” Bubnick said. “Coming back from a tournament like that, certainly I had a lot of confidence and especially when we won gold. The guys here, they kind of look up to you a bit when you have that kind of opportunity and that medal. You know, if you keep working hard, it should rub off on all the guys on the team.”
In an interview with WHL.ca, Bubnick agreed the Hockey Canada experience has been a beneficial proposition, in terms of his ongoing development and pursuit of a career in professional hockey.
“It was a great experience and I have so many good memories to take home. Being a part of Hockey Canada’s program was so good, and playing with the talent on that team really kick-started my confidence. Going overseas was a fun experience as well, and I hope to have other opportunities again, and continue using that experience to help me this season.”
Last season was, to say the least, tumultuous in Kamloops. The Blazers were sold to a group that includes NHL veterans Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Mark Recchi and Daryl Sydor, who are all former Blazers. An interim coaching staff was brought in about a third of the way through the season and the disarray had a cumulative effect on the team’s play. As far as the current crew in Kamloops goes, a few members of the team endured a season-ending slate of 18 losses in the last 19 games. That dubious final month of the season included a four-game sweep of the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Tri City Americans.
During the off-season, a new hockey management regime arrived in Kamloops, including general manager Craig Bonner. Bonner has memorable ties to Kamloops, in form of a Memorial Cup championship as the team’s captain during his playing days. In July, Bonner hired head coach Barry Smith, who worked with the Vancouver Canucks last season. Former NHLers Scott Ferguson, Geoff Smith and Steve Passmore were also added to the coaching staff. The group is deep in WHL experience
“I think the main thing that comes along with a new coaching staff is stability,” Bubnick said, whose older brothers Jon and Michael boast WHL experience as players. “Any time you’re coming into a second season like I am, you want stability. And you want to win hockey games. I think all the guys here are focused now on this season and I just think we’re going to be very good here.”
Through 13 games this season, Bubnick leads the Blazers in scoring with nine goals and five assists. He expects to be a top producer and is aware the NHL scouts are watching. However, in typically focused fashion, he deflects the notion that the 2009 Entry Draft is weighing heavily on his mind.
“Obviously I can’t dwell upon that,” Bubnick said. “I just have to do what I can here to control the things that I can control. Off the ice, whatever happens, happens.”