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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flying under the radar no longer

Late-blooming forward Pearson beginning to make an impression

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CALGARY -- Tanner Pearson agrees with the labels late bloomer, sleeper, dark horse and unknown quantity.

The 19-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., was ignored in the NHL draft in June. He received no invitations in the summer to an NHL rookie camp.

The Barrie Colts took Pearson in the second-last round (267th overall) of the Ontario Hockey League draft when he was 16.

Pearson never played on a Canadian under-18 team or for Ontario in the world under-17 challenge. He wasn't invited to the Canadian junior hockey team's summer camp in August.

So the left-winger has basically made the Canadian junior team as a walk-on.

"If someone would have told me at the beginning of the year I would play for Canada at the world juniors I would have shook my head and laughed," Pearson said Thursday after Canada's first practice as a team.

"If you want to call me a late bloomer, go for it. The truth is, I kind of was a late bloomer. It probably wasn't until the past year and a half where I started to click and play what I knew I could play."

The 22 players named to the team the previous day skated at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park before heading to Banff, Alta. They'll train and participate in team-building activities in the mountain park town for the next few days.

Canada returns to Calgary on Monday for an exhibition game versus Finland at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

They head to Red Deer, Alta., on Dec. 22 for an exhibition game against Switzerland. Canada's final warm-up game Dec. 23 is in Edmonton's Rexall Place versus Sweden.

Canada opens the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship Dec. 26 in Edmonton against Finland.

Head coach Don Hay warned it was too soon to read anything into his line combinations in his team's first practice Thursday.

Forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (foot) and Quinton Howden (concussion symptoms) didn't participate, although Huberdeau did skate on his own afterwards.

Hay says Huberdeau won't likely be ready to play in Monday's exhibition game.

"I think that might be a little early," Hay said. "Obviously we're shooting for the 22nd or the 23rd.

"I think we'll try to give him a little more each day until he's ready to participate in a full practice."

There is no timetable for Howden. Hay says the Moose Jaw Warrior forward underwent baseline testing "and did really well on it." Howden was checked backwards into the boards by Canadian teammate Brett Connolly during an intra-squad game at selection camp.

While most players on Canada's team were heralded as can't-miss prospects from an early age, Pearson has flown under the radar until now.

Pearson played Junior B hockey for the Waterloo Siskins at age 16 and 17. He credits the team manager Peter Brill, also a scout for the Barrie Colts, for getting him noticed by the OHL club.

Pearson had 15 goals and 27 assists in 66 games as an 18-year-old OHL rookie last season.

He was inspired to train hard this summer after watching Colts teammate Mark Scheifele get drafted seventh overall by the Winnipeg Jets.

Scheifele was also named to the Canadian team Wednesday. He and Pearson are linemates in Barrie and were paired up in Thursday's practice with Devante Smith-Pelly on the right wing.

While Scheifele was away playing seven NHL games with the Jets, Pearson shone for the Colts. He had 10 goals and 19 assists in 11 games before the big centre returned to Barrie.

Pearson continued to hold the attention of Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast with a two-point-per-game clip for the Colts.

"He put a lot hard work into this year and really did do a lot of things this summer to help work on his game and help him this year," Scheifele said. "Maybe last year he just didn't get the opportunity like this year. He's been given the opportunity and running with it."

Pearson was invited to play in the OHL's two games against Russia in November and scored a goal in each game.

That was the first time Hay clapped eyes on the six-foot, 198-pound winger.

"I thought he was really strong on the puck and strong down low," Hay said. "He's got the capability to take the puck to the net and draws a lot of attention when he has the puck."

"He's got a quick release and he's a big body guy. We've tried to look at teams that we're going to be playing against and we need that type of player."

The OHL's leading scorer with 26 goals and 40 assists in 30 games is flying under the radar no longer.

He was among the 40 players named Thursday to the 2012 Home Hardware Top Prospects Game in Kelowna, B.C., on Feb. 1. The game showcases draft-eligible players for NHL scouts.

If recognition is coming later for him than it did for the rest of his Canadian teammates, Pearson doesn't seem to mind.

"I kind of take it in stride," he said. "I didn't want my hockey career to end, so I just kept on trying to improve each year and it's worked out for me."

Also Thursday, RBC announced it is donating two plane tickets to each player on the Canadian team to fly people who helped them in their career to the world junior championship. Pearson said he will give his tickets to parents Tim and Kim.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2011 C8

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