Sophomore defenceman Cale Fleury had himself a breakout season in 2015-16 as he posted eight goals and 25 points to lead all Kootenay Ice blueliners in scoring.
Outside of his offensive prowess, Fleury was rock steady on the second pairing for head coach Luke Pierce and with his NHL draft season right around the corner, expectations continue to grow for the 17-year-old native of Calgary and younger brother of Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Haydn Fleury.
“There’s no question, there’s going to be huge expectations on Cale,” Pierce said. “Not just from himself with it being his draft year, but from our standpoint of essentially being a core leader of our backend and of our team in general.
“You still have to remind yourself that he’s really only 18 and give him the support that he needs.”
Eligible for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the former fourth-round pick (78th) of the Ice at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft had big expectations to fulfill as he entered the Western Hockey League following in the footsteps of his successful older brother.
To this point, he has excelled, but the true test will come in 2016-17 as he looks to impress pro scouts and find a permanent spot on the radars of NHL clubs.
“It’s definitely there [in your mind],” Fleury said of his NHL draft year, following exit meetings with team management and coaches. “All the stuff you’ve got to do in the summertime to get ready, it’s always in the back of your head, even if you’re playing. But you try not to let it affect the way you play too much. You just use it as motivation.”
Fleury’s motivation was apparent in 2015-16 and his excellence on the ice was recognized by fans as he was named Kootenay Ice Fan Club Player of the Year. Outside of his reliability on the ice, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound rearguard proved an ace in the classroom as he was named Rocky Mountain Diesel Scholastic Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
“I thought one of the older guys might get [the Fan Club award], obviously [goaltender Wyatt] Hoflin is pretty popular with the fans,” Fleury said. “I thought he’d be the first person to get it, so I was kind of surprised when I got it.”
Fleury might have been surprised but plenty of others weren’t as the sophomore blueliner posted career highs in goals, assists and points, exceeding his rookie totals (1-12-13) from 2014-15.
“You either have to temper expectations and try to control that intensity or with other guys, you try to push harder,” Pierce said. “Cale falls into the former category. You have to try to hold him a little bit — not back, because we want him to play with the intensity that he brings — but help him manage the mental part of his game.
“If he has a bad week, a bad night, a bad whatever, you just make sure he realizes it’s a long process and help him get through that so he doesn’t fall into a major roller coaster of ups and downs.”
With his older brother’s Red Deer Rebels having advanced to the second round of the WHL post-season and already booked to host the MasterCard Memorial Cup, the younger Fleury, as he always does, is looking forward to learning something from his older brother, Haydn.
“[I want to learn] what it takes to get to that level,” Fleury said of the opportunity to eventually watch his brother’s Rebels take on major junior hockey’s best at the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup, set to be hosted in Red Deer this May. “I’ll be watching some of the more highly-skilled players there and see what kind of things they do, try to pick up on the little things they do that might help my game.”
Fleury’s hope is to not only pick up on a few little things to improve his own game, but to watch for what makes Canada’s top major junior teams successful and how his young Kootenay Ice club can put those practices into play as they look to make a return to the post-season in 2016-17.
After 17 consecutive campaigns in which the Kootenay Ice qualified for the WHL playoffs, a 12-53-6-1 mark brought that streak to an end at the conclusion of the 2015-16 regular season.
Having tasted WHL playoff hockey in his rookie season, one year without is more than enough for the heavy-hitting, smooth-skating Fleury.
“We had a stretch there early in the season where we lost a lot of one-goal games,” Fleury said, reflecting on the year past. “We could have turned our season around early. Losing those games doesn’t help. We need to learn how to win those ones next year.
“I want to get back to playoffs next year. I think we can do it. Everybody has played enough games that they know what to do. We just have to work hard during the off-season to get there.”
Having taken on a bigger role in his second WHL campaign, Fleury isn’t satisfied. He’s already looking forward to a productive off-season in the hopes of getting stronger and faster so he can handle even more big minutes come the fall.
For Central Division rivals, a bigger, faster and stronger Cale Fleury is a frightening thought. For Kootenay Ice fans, a bigger, faster and stronger Cale Fleury is something to be excited for.