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Yellowknifer drafted by WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders

A Yellowknife hockey player’s dream of playing in the National Hockey League has suddenly become more attainable.  

Connor Fleming, 15, was selected in the 10th round of the Western Hockey League‘s (WHL) 2016 Bantam Draft by the Prince Albert Raiders with the 211th overall pick.

Growing up playing competitive hockey in Yellowknife wasn’t always easy for Fleming. He says travel was often an issue given the territory’s remoteness.

“Each year it seems we travel further and further and it costs more,” he said. “You want the best competition (you can get) so you have to travel further as you get older.”

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Photo courtesy of Yvonne Fleming
Photo courtesy of Yvonne Fleming

Fleming says one advantage of playing in the NWT was being able to represent the territory at the 2016 Arctic Winter Games.

He told 100.1 The Moose that representing the territory was a big honour for him and that he wanted to make everyone proud of him back home.

In the end, his team did just that – capturing a silver medal.

Read: AWG 2016: Team NWT wins women’s hockey gold in Iqaluit

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Fleming
Photo courtesy of Yvonne Fleming

Curt Brownlee, a scout with the Raiders, said he noticed Fleming “right away” at a mid-season tournament in British Columbia.

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He said that Fleming’s skating made him stand apart.

Raiders director of player personnel – Ron Gunville – said that Brownlee had “fallen in love” with Fleming’s compete and effort level. That was enough for the team to take a chance on him.

While Fleming was drafted by the Raiders and will be attending the team’s rookie camp in August, he won’t be playing for them come September.

Under Canadian Hockey League rules, players must be at least 16 years of age before they can have a regular spot in the lineup.

15-year-olds cannot have a permanent role in the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League (OHL) or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) unless they are granted exceptional player status, which has only ever been granted to five players.

None of the five players granted exceptional player status played in the WHL, due to the fact that the Western Hockey League drafts differently than the OHL and QMJHL.

In both Ontario and Quebec, 16-year-olds are drafted by the teams and can immediately make the jump to the league once drafted. In the west, players are drafted at 15 and have a development year.

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Even though he was taken in the 10th round, there’s no reason for Flemming (or anyone else taken that late) to be worried about not being “good enough” to make it to the NHL.

There are countless examples of players being selected late in their Major Junior draft that have not only gone on to play in the NHL, but have enjoyed successful careers as well.

Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals was taken in the ninth round by Saskatoon in 2004, Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning was selected in the 11th round by Spokane in 2005 and Connor’s favourite player – Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens – was picked in the ninth round by Vancouver in 2007.

Fleming recently tried out for the Cariboo Cougars major midget team in Prince George, BC. He was offered a roster spot for next season.

The Cougars will be the host of the 2017 Telus Cup, the Hockey Canada national midget championship.

When asked about the possibility of Connor moving away from home at the age of 15, his mother Yvonne said she’s very proud, but scared at the same time.

“Connor’s worked really hard in pursuing his hockey,” she said. “He shows a lot of commitment and a lot of pride from being from the NWT.

“As a parent no one wants to see their kid leave home especially at the age of 15, but Connor’s been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime and one that I’m sure a lot of kids would like to have.

“I guess for me I’m very happy about the opportunity Connor has in front of him but at the same time very humble.

“There’s a lot of coaches that have helped Connor and a lot of people here and without those people in your corner … there’s a long road ahead and we have those people to help.”

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