Connor Roulette will have had almost 10 months to prepare for his draft year when the WHL finally opens its regular season on Jan. 8.
But waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic at home in Winnipeg was never about just putting in time. For the driven 17-year-old, it was a chance to refine the skill set he wanted to showcase for NHL scouts.
And so, he got bigger, beefing up to 175 pounds from 158, without losing a step.
He also figures his shot, the one that helped him score 19 goals and put up 39 points in 54 games for the Seattle Thunderbirds as a 16-year-old, has become heavier with a quicker release.
His pandemic layoff, such as it is, has been consumed with the start of Grade 12 classes at Maple Collegiate and when he’s not at school, he’s putting in one or two workouts daily at the Rink Training Centre.
"I feel like I’ve been dealing with it pretty well, to be honest... with the amount of time I had to get better and build that bigger path to the next level," said Roulette after a 60-minute gym workout Thursday morning, which was to be followed by an one-hour on-ice session in the late afternoon in a practice pod with fellow WHLers such as Seth Jarvis, Tristen Robins and Carson Lambos.
"In the past few months I’ve put on a lot more muscle and weight and I feel like I’m more confident. The nice thing with all these great players and skating with guys like Jarvis and Robins, it’s kind of showed me the way they play and the way they are."
Having role models is central to what drives Roulette, who has Cree and Ojibwe heritage. When he was younger, he forged a friendship with former Brandon Wheat Kings power forward Micheal Ferland, who is also Indigenous.
"Now that I’m older and in the WHL, he’ll sometimes check in on me," said Roulette of Ferland, who will begin his seventh season in the NHL this winter. "We check in on each other."
One key piece of advice he got from Ferland was not to rush the choice of an agent, so he took extra time before selecting prominent hockey man Scott Bonner of Edmonton.
Any hockey heroes?
"As a kid I had my idols," said Connor. "I was a really big fan of (Sidney) Crosby growing up — just how he is off the ice and on the ice like you see in those commercials and videos. That’s just him in front of the camera but obviously behind the camera he’s just a really good guy, a great leader...
"To be a captain in the NHL at that young of an age, you know, he’s just a great hockey player and off the ice he represents himself well. I always kind of figure that being like Crosby and to be able to represent myself well is something that I take big ownership in."
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Roulette has become a role model himself, a responsibility he happily accepts.
Last Christmas, Connor came home and joined his brother Shane and dad Preston as guests at the Sandy Bay School Christmas dinner. Shane, 22, was a forward at the NCAA Division III Northland College in Ashland, Wis.
"We had dinner and took pictures and (they) had photos of themselves to autograph," recalled Preston. "Just to give the youth an opportunity to talk to them and show them that with a little bit of hard work and dedication and focusing on your school and hockey, you can be in the same seat as Connor and his brother."
As his notoriety has increased, more young people are reaching out to Connor.
Last year, he partnered with T-birds goaltender Roddy Ross, who hails from the Canoe Creek Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, to lend encouragement to young people after games — home and away. Ross, three years older, was an important support during his rookie season.
"Obviously being my age and doing what I do, it’s kind of important and something that I take upon myself," said Connor. "For kids younger than me and even older than me that kind of reach out to me and talk to me... It’s something that I love to do and for other people to see and look up to me — it makes me happy and it kind of makes me feel more confident."
Connor’s uncle Ryan Cook, a learning support teacher at Maples who also runs the school’s hockey program, has been a central figure in his development. Cook is well aware of the impact his nephew can have.
"In the WHL, you go to a rink and you’re gonna see a lot of Indigenous fans there and it doesn’t take very long for Indigenous fans to attach themselves to the Indigenous players and cheer for those guys," said Cook. "So I think just having a buddy (like Ross) who would go up into the concourse and, you know, hang out with different people and sign autographs, I think it makes it easier to go up there and talk to the kids."
Cook said the demands on his nephew’s time shouldn’t be a problem.
"If somebody who’s in my position, if I start asking him to take part in this or take part in that and talk to these kids and talk to this kid — I think that’s when it would be too much," said Cook.
"If there are younger kids watching him and there are younger kids looking up to him, I don’t know if that is too much. I think he embraces that. He’s always been really good with kids."
Public service is likely to be a part of Connor’s future.
"I think he knows there are people that aren’t as fortunate as him or maybe don’t have the opportunities that he has," said Cook. "And he loves being able to go. I totally see him being the hockey camp type where in the off-season he’s going to be running camps and going out to communities. I think it’s only a matter of time before he starts doing that full time in the summers."
The more immediate job is preparing for the season, which will get underway Jan. 8.
Roulette will leave for Kent, Wash., on Dec. 26 where he will join his teammates for a short training camp and embark on a season in which he hopes to fufill the pedigree of a first-round NHL draft pick. In fact, he could be the top Manitoba-born prospect for 2021 not named Lambos.
"He’s always been ready for it and he’s always been prepared for it and he’s always been kind of mature that way when it comes to knowing what it takes to play hockey for a living," said Cook. "He’s going to do whatever it takes.
"Once you get to know Connor you start to see that there’s no room for being second best with him. He wants to be the best, all the time."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.