Not every player finds a smooth flight to the Western Hockey League and for Connor Barley, that was definitely the case this past week.
Recalled by the Kootenay Ice, the 17-year-old Barley arrived in Cranbrook Tuesday but not until he experienced a trying adventure on his 1,550-km trek across the Canadian prairies.
Hailing from St. Andrews, Man., and toiling with the Selkirk Steelers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL), Barley had a fair bit of ground to cover after his services were requested by Ice general manager Jeff Chynoweth. With a bitter winter storm rolling across western Canada, turbulence was to be expected and it almost grounded Barley from making his WHL debut.
“My first flight was very good — arrived on time, landed on time,” Barley said Wednesday night.
If only it was all that easy.
After arriving in Calgary, the 6-foot, 174-pound energy winger from small-town Manitoba suddenly found himself stranded in the big city at the Calgary International Airport.
“Flight after flight was cancelled and delayed,” Barley said. “I ended up being at the airport for 4.5 hours before my flight took off, but once I landed it was good.”
There should be an asterisk beside “good” as the former seventh-round WHL bantam draft pick (2013, 141st overall) arrived in Cranbrook but his hockey gear didn’t.
Though the hockey gods haven’t shown much mercy towards the Kootenay Ice in recent weeks — six skaters are out due to a rash of injuries — there was benevolence Tuesday as Barley’s gear eventually arrived and he was able to practice with his new mates ahead of his WHL debut.
With the damaged goods piling up in Cranbrook, Barley was the next benefactor — the second Ice affiliate to make his WHL debut this week — after 15-year-old Eli Lieffers took the dive into his major junior baptism over the weekend.
“At first, I was very nervous but as the game went on I started to relax and get into my game,” Barley said. “That’s all I had to do — just play my game.”
The speedy winger cycled through the lineup Wednesday, with Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce cobbling together a makeshift group featuring 10 forwards, one of which was regular defenceman Bryan Allbee.
While his ice time may have been limited due to circumstance in a 5-2 loss to the Red Deer Rebels, Barley was definitely noticeable on the ice — and not just because of his Troy Polamalu-esque flow.
In the third period, Barley took a feed from Austin Wellsby after getting into a quality scoring position, but couldn’t quite find the back of the net behind Rebels goaltender Trevor Martin.
“The speed’s there, he can skate with everybody,” Pierce said. “He will get more comfortable as the week goes on.”
Barley is no stranger to the offensive side of the game as he’s tallied seven goals and 10 points through 20 games with the Junior ‘A’ Steelers this season after putting up 19 goals and 38 points in 43 games with the Winnipeg ‘AAA’ Thrashers last season.
After a tenuous solo travel experience from Manitoba to Cranbrook, Barley will be on the bus with the rest of the boys as the Kootenay Ice travel to Lethbridge to face the Hurricanes Thursday night.
With one game of WHL experience under his belt, Barley is looking forward to helping his team get back into the win column.
“Back at home, the game is a little slower,” Barley said. “Once you get out here, the play is always moving. Guys are always skating. It’s hard to keep up.
“I’m just trying to play my game. That’s the reason why I’m here. My skating, my shot — I just have to use it to my advantage and not try to play outside my range of skill. Just keep it simple and try to help the team as best I can.”