Utica Comets forward Carter Bancks (#34) signs autographs for young fans earlier this season. The Kimberley native was named Utica Comets Man of the Year in late March and is enjoying a career season in the American Hockey League.

Utica Comets forward Carter Bancks (#34) signs autographs for young fans earlier this season. The Kimberley native was named Utica Comets Man of the Year in late March and is enjoying a career season in the American Hockey League.

Kimberley native Carter Bancks enjoying career season with Utica Comets

Kimberley native Carter Bancks has been making his impact, both on and off the ice, with the AHL's Utica Comets this season

For a small-town East Kootenay kid, Carter Bancks is leaving a pretty big impression on the state of New York.

In his second campaign with the Utica Comets, the 2015-16 American Hockey League season has been a memorable one for the 26-year-old Kimberley native.

Bancks has not only stacked up career numbers on the ice with the Utica Comets — the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks — he’s also put forth a tremendous effort in the community, earning him recognition as the Utica Comets Man of the Year.

“Carter has been a tremendous leader for the Comets both on the ice and in the community,” said Mark Caswell, Jr., director of communications for the Utica Comets. “He has taken the initiate to start-up mentorship program focused on at-risk kids, as well as has taken the time to grow youth hockey with in the area. I cannot speak highly enough about how great of a person Carter is. His worth ethic and genuine care to help those around him are can’t-miss traits about an incredible athlete.”

Bancks, a left winger, is in the midst of his sixth full season of professional hockey and after four years in the Calgary Flames’ farm system with the Abbotsford Heat, he seems to have found a friendly home in the Mohawk Valley where Utica is situated approximately 90 km east of Syracuse.

“It’s obviously a huge compliment, I’ve always taken pride in trying to give back to the communities that support our team,” Bancks said Thursday morning over the phone from the Pearson International Airport during a layover while flying from Utica to St. John’s via Toronto. “Down here in Utica, it’s a really special culture. We’re sold out every night. Our fan support is insane. Win or lose, they’re cheering us on. It’s been a really cool experience.

“Any chance I get to go back and give back to the kids or help out with people that are in need at Christmas or whatever it may be, I try to take advantage of that and give back to them. Our whole team does a really good job. I won the award, but there are probably 10 other guys that could’ve because we’re all very willing to be in the community and give back to the community that has treated us so well.”

Bancks was named Utica Comets Man of the Year on March 31 and as a result is nominated for the AHL Man of the Year. He is one of 30 finalists for the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, which honours the overall AHL Man of the Year. The winner is set to be announced at a later date.

While the 5-foot-11, 181-pound forward is making his impact felt away from the rink, that hasn’t taken away from the role he has played on the ice for a young Utica Comets squad.

A year after making a trip to the Calder Cup final, falling just short of an AHL championship, the veteran Bancks has taken on a larger role, producing career numbers across the board.

“My first four years in Abbotsford in the Calgary system were good, I learned a lot of things about the game,” Bancks said. “When I came here, last year we had a really good team and ended up losing in the Calder Cup finals. It was a special team. We were a pretty old group and kind of had all the pieces. My role was a little bit different, penalty kill and being a good defensive forward.

“This year, we’re a little bit younger and I got a little bit more opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough to take advantage of it. I’m having a good year individually and our team’s doing pretty well.”

Individually, Bancks has racked up 14 goals, 23 assists and 37 points through 73 games, far surpassing previous career highs — six goals with the Comets (2014-15) and, 14 assists and 19 points with the Heat (2010-11).

“You’ve got to become confident in yourself again,” Bancks said of his approach to the added responsibility and opportunity with a younger Comets club this season. “For a while there, I didn’t play a ton with the puck, I was more of a defensive forward and played hard against the other teams’ top lines. We had some injuries and some call-ups this year, which gave me the chance to step into a more offensive role while still playing against the other team’s top lines and being hard to play against.

“I’ve started to find my game again and I’ve been scoring quite a bit lately while playing with some really good linemates, really good players. It’s been really exciting — a lot of things have been going well and I’m having a blast playing right now.”

More than half of Bancks’ offensive production has come since the start of February, having tallied eight goals, 12 assists and 20 points over the past 30 games as the Comets push towards the post-season.

The Comets clinched a post-season berth this past week, sitting third in the AHL’s North Division with a record of 36-24-8-4, trailing the first-place Toronto Marlies (51-15-5-1) and second-place Albany Devils (43-19-8-2)

“A couple weeks ago we were stretched a little thin with a couple call-ups in Vancouver [with the Canucks] and we got hit with an injury bug with four or five, maybe even six forwards out of our lineup,” Bancks said. “We were just clawing and fighting, trying to manage points and everyone bought in. We had some guys from the East Coast League (ECHL) come up, step up and play huge. Our goalies have been outstanding through that stretch and now we’re starting to get some bodies back in the lineup. Everyone is getting healthy, so I think we’re peaking at a good time here. We’ve been playing some really good hockey the last two weeks. Obviously you want to be playing well heading into playoffs.”

Bancks and the Comets have three contests remaining in the regular season, playing out a home-and-home series with the Syracuse Crunch (32-27-10-4) Friday and Saturday, before hosting the Binghamton Senators (29-37-6-1) to close the campaign Sunday, April 17.

While it isn’t necessarily the primary focus at this time of year, Bancks is at the end of a two-year American League contract with the Comets and facing free agency at the conclusion of the season.

“I’d love to come back [to Utica],” Bancks said. “I’ve had a blast here. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in a long time. Our coaching staff has been great and we have a really special locker room, a lot of great guys.

“Guys talk about how easy it is to come into our locker room and how welcome they are. That’s a testament to the character and the guys we have in the room. I’d definitely like to come back if the opportunity presents itself, but at the same time, you’ve just got to wait and see what happens.”

In the meantime, Bancks and the Comets will play out the final three games of the regular season before facing either the Marlies or the Devils in the first round of the AHL playoffs.

The Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for the AHL’s Man of the Year is named after the former Hershey Bears all-star forward who died in 1997 after a 16-month battle with leukemia.

Bancks was previously named the Abbotsford Heat’s Community Player of the Year at the conclusion of the 2011-12 AHL season.

Prior to turning pro, Bancks enjoyed a lengthy and successful junior career, skating in 61 games across two seasons (2004-05 to 2005-06) with the Kimberley Dynamiters of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, tallying 25 goals, 54 assists and 79 points. From there, he moved on to a four-year Western Hockey League career with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, skating in 262 games and registering 178 points, while serving as captain of the club in his 20-year-old campaign.

Over 354 career AHL regular season games, Bancks has posted 35 goals and 103 points, adding one assist in 35 AHL post-season outings.