Cristall 'rolling' toward NHL draft alongside buddy Bedard
Andrew Cristall is rolling towards the National Hockey League draft, literally. The Kelowna Rockets winger is playing in a spring roller hockey league in North Vancouver on a team that also features Regina Pats phenom Connor Bedard, the projected first overall pick later this month in Nashville, and Kent Johnson, who went fifth overall to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2021.
"It's a cool way for us to go out there and have some fun," Cristall said. "Connor and Kent have both been playing for a while, so they're pretty elite on the blades. We play on Wednesday nights. It's a school night for kids, but somehow the small arena gets packed with kids yelling and people coming to watch."
Their team is called 'Great Guys.'
"We're a pretty close group," Cristall explains with a smile. "Everybody is a great guy so we pride ourselves on that."
They claimed a top division North Shore Inline Hockey League championship two years ago.
"A tough exit in the playoffs last year, but we had some guys missing so hopefully we get another win this year," Cristall said.
It's about having fun, but it's also a chance to get better at their day jobs.
"The 'skating' is kind of a little bit different," the 18-year-old from Burnaby, B.C. acknowledged. "But then it's just 4-on-4 hockey and it's pretty similar in terms of the ability to make plays. You see things on the roller rink that you definitely see on the ice. It helps your creativity and helps you go out there and use your brain and make some plays."
Cristall is already a pretty creative player. That's why he was able to produce 95 points in 54 games despite standing just 5-foot-10. Only Bedard (2.51) and Kamloops Blazers captain Logan Stankoven (2.02) produced more points per game than Cristall (1.76) in the WHL.
During a conversation with TSN, Cristall recapped his remarkable season and also shared more details on his roller hockey career and friendship with Bedard. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TSN: The "Great Guys" are at the bottom of the six-team division. How is that even possible?
Cristall: "It was definitely a tough start. We're not really the biggest roller hockey team. There's a lot of teams who have systems. We might not be the most defensive team. We like to go for some offence and that could hinder our success a little bit. But we're in the win column now. We got a big OT win and hopefully that turns things around."
TSN: Johnson pulled off the lacrosse goal in overtime. He can't help himself, eh?
Cristall: "It seems he just does it everywhere. That was a pretty nice one."
TSN: No surprise that Bedard leads the team in scoring with 21 points in four games. How does his roller game compare to his on-ice game?
Cristall: "He's exceptional on the ice and he's definitely exceptional on the roller rink too. His shot is still the same. [With] a lighter puck his shot is probably a little bit harder. He's unbelievable on his edges and on his wheels. He's unbelievable out there."
TSN: I saw one highlight where he slashed the stick out of the hands of an opponent. It's a non-contact league, but how fired-up is Bedard during games?
Cristall: "It gets pretty intense out there. I mean, we're all pretty high-level players and always want to win. In the second half, when the games are tight, it gets pretty intense and we're all competing. So, he's still got that same fire out there and it's awesome to see."
TSN: What's your first memory of Bedard?
Cristall: "We played growing up as kids. We were [at a tournament] in Nashville or Chicago and we went to go get ice cream and I don't think he got any. The whole team was eating ice cream and he was kind of just there."
TSN: So, he was worried about his nutrition even as a kid?
Cristall: "Maybe a little bit. (Smiles) I don't know. He might've just not liked ice cream at that point. I'm not sure. You can't touch his stick before the game. That was another [superstition]. He's an awesome guy and we have lots of memories together."
TSN: When did you know he would be special?
Cristall: "Ever since we started playing together, he's always been a class above. His shot was crazy good at age seven, eight and then it got pretty scary when he turned 12, 13. So, ever since we started playing together you could just see the talent. He puts in the work and he's gotten better every single year. It was evident from an early age that he would be something special."
TSN: What was it like to play against him in the WHL this season?
Cristall: "Awesome. We both had it marked in our calendars and were both excited for it. It was sold out for him in Kelowna. We put a good fight up. They won in overtime. He got an apple in overtime. We almost shut him out. It was a pretty cool experience. I got to see him before and after the game. It was awesome to be able to play against each other at the next level rather than Peewee, Atom and Bantam. It was pretty cool."
TSN: You had two goals and two assists in that showdown on Nov. 29 and were named first star. Bedard had just the one assist but, as you noted, it was in overtime. Who has bragging rights?
Cristall: "He might have a little more of the bragging rights. We had a couple bets going. I wanted to outscore him and he wanted to outscore me, but the win is kind of what mattered in the end so he definitely has the bragging rights. Hopefully I'll get him some time in the future, eventually."
TSN: Any notable shifts or cool moments you shared?
Cristall: "Seeing him in warm-ups and talking to him a little bit was pretty cool. Whenever we skated by each other's bench we would smile at each other. If someone made a nice play we'd give a head nod. There were cool moments like that."
TSN: Bedard is projected to be picked first overall. When do you think you will be picked?
Cristall: "I'm not too sure, really. It's pretty up in the air. I'm trying to focus on getting better in the summer and putting in the work and, no matter where I go, it's what you do after the draft and how you keep developing as a player. We'll see what happens."
TSN: How do you feel about your season?
Cristall: "I thought it was pretty good. I felt pretty confident in my year. I was able to put up some good numbers and I felt really good. I had a lot of good linemates and players to play with so that definitely helped a lot. I thought it was, overall, a really good year and I had a really good time in Kelowna."
TSN: You scored one goal in four playoff games. What did you take from the series against the Seattle Thunderbirds?
Cristall: "It was a tough series. They were a really great opponent and really great hockey team. I'm taking everything I can take out of it. Watching the video, they got some high-level 'D' and high-level forwards and to play at the next level you got to have quicker pace and make quicker decisions."
TSN: You ended up No. 15 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters. What was your reaction to that?
Cristall: "I don't think too much of it, to be honest. There's a lot of rankings and mock drafts and things like that. For me, it's the GMs and the scouts that are picking the teams. I look at the mock drafts and, if it's good or bad, I don't really put too much thought into it. I keep doing my thing and keep improving as a player."
TSN: Where do you feel you have to improve?
Cristall: "Keep building on my strength and gaining some weight and then also my straight-line skating. I'm trying to get that extra speed, that extra break-away speed. I'm a bit of a smaller guy so to be able to break through that defender and get another step would be helpful. Those are the main areas."
TSN: How are you working on the skating?
Cristall: "I'm working with a power skating coach out here in Vancouver, Barb Aidelbaum, and she's been awesome. She's getting me the help I need, including work with the physio and showing me video on how I can improve. We've already started working and I'm pretty confident heading into next year."
TSN: How can you overcome the size concerns?
Cristall: "I'm definitely not the biggest guy, but I think I use my shiftiness pretty well and try to be really deceptive with the puck and maybe try to head fake and throw many fakes in there to try and gain that extra space. I use my brain to allow me to create some more space and time to get the puck and move the puck."
TSN: Who is your NHL role model?
Cristall: "I've definitely been watching Mitch Marner a lot. He's a smaller player kind of like myself. He's always thinking two steps ahead of the defender and he never really seems to get knocked off the puck. He can make some pretty special plays by finding seam passes or creating a lane to shoot for himself. I see some similarities and try to compare myself to him."
TSN: What's the toughest question you get in interviews with NHL teams?
Cristall: "There was one where they asked me what animal I'd be on the ice and maybe that was a tricky one. Nothing too crazy yet, but that one stood out."
TSN: How did you answer?
Cristall: "I said a hyena because I describe my game as sneaky and I attack when someone's not looking or someone's head is down."