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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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When the Humboldt Broncos bus crashed on April 6, 2018, Saskatoon native Connor Zary was preparing to head to a rink for a scrimmage with friends. When they heard the news, no one was in the mood to play. ​

"I knew a few of those guys on the bus," said Zary, a centre with the Kamloops Blazers. "I played with a couple of them. I played against a couple of them. It’s difficult to see how in a blink of an eye everything is taken ... You keep those guys in the back of your mind every time you play or get that opportunity they didn't have to continue."

Zary was also inspired by a speech given by mental health advocate Bob Wilkie, a survivor of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos bus crash, who visited Kamloops this season to speak with athletes and coaches. 

"He's talking about how life is too short, and you got to put a smile on your face every day and have fun with it and enjoy it and that struck a chord with me," Zary said. "Those guys [Humboldt Broncos] were having fun and they were going to a playoff game and what's better than that? You're with your family on the bus and life is taken from you like that and that struck a chord with me. That allows me to have energy every day and have a smile on my face and enjoy things and always try to be happy. Sometimes you might get frustrated or have a bad day, but it's about the ability to stay happy and try to make sure you're enjoying it."

That mindset allowed Zary to successfully navigate a stressful draft season. In October, he was rated a 'B' prospect by National Hockey League Central Scouting, meaning they projected him to be picked in the second or third round. He was soon upgraded to 'A' status and finished the year ranked No. 15 among North American skaters. TSN director of scouting Craig Button has him at No. 11 in his latest prospect rankings, the top Western Hockey League player on the list. 

Zary spoke to TSN via Zoom this week and explained why he enjoys reading criticism and hearing from doubters. The 18-year-old also revealed the advice he received from Blazers co-owner Shane Doan this year and the trick he picked up from watching Sidney Crosby play. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.  ​

You produced 86 points in 57 games finishing fifth in WHL scoring, what are you most proud of about what you accomplished this season?

"My ability to adapt to all different situations. I started strong despite the pressure of the draft year. And then you have to go to all these different events and still perform, and after you perform it's right back to your team and you have to get right back into the mental space to perform again. You're on a hot streak and then you have to go to the Canada-Russia series, and you have to perform there, so it's not a break or anything. You have to do even better there. And then I got the opportunity to go to World Junior camp and there was lots to learn there and then right back. There was a flight, I think I got back at 1 a.m., and I played in Saskatoon the next day. So it's about being prepared and keeping that mental focus and that is what I was proud of this year."

 

 How do you work on the mental side of the game? 

"It's been a lot of work, especially from my 16-year-old year in the WHL to now. I've been using sports psychologists. I've had three coaches in three years in junior, so I've been learning things from each guy, and this year having [head coach] Shaun Clouston was a big help. He brought in Bob Wilkie which really helped us prepare mentally and [learn] how to be good role models and how to be better players and leaders. I work with [Blazers mental performance consultant] Isabelle Hamptonstone and she's taught me to stay in the zone and always bring your 'A' game and not let the little things eat away with you."

Our Craig Button has you at No. 11 on his latest prospects list, how do you feel about where you stand heading into the draft? 

"​At the start of the year I was [ranked] lower and had to work my way up. That's something I take pride in is getting up those draft rankings and proving to a lot of people that I'm a top player. So, getting my name up there is good and being that high is where I want to be. There's still 10 guys in front of me and I still have to work harder to prove I can be just as good as those guys, so that's just another challenge."

 ​How do you deal with critics and doubters? How do you deal with the outside noise? 

"When you go from your 17-year-old year, where you're just playing hockey, to your 18-year-old year, when you have some sort of interview or something every week, you hear a bit of the noise ... If I had my phone and I saw a tweet, 'I think Connor could go fifth overall,' or I saw a tweet that said,​ 'I think Zary sucks, he should be a third-round player,' I'd rather read 'I think Zary sucks,' because for me it's a screw-you mentality. It's like, I'm going to show you why I deserve to be a top guy. So, if I do hear the outside noise, I'd like to hear that. I like to feel the doubters and I like criticism. I think it kind of fuels me to want to be better." 

Most scouting reports describe you as a well-rounded player, but do you feel like you have a signature trait or skill? 

"I'd probably say my top attribute or asset would be my hockey IQ and the way I think the game – always being able to be in the right areas and always trying to find guys around me and make guys around me better. I can adapt to who I'm playing with [even] if it’s a different linemate with a completely different style of play than I'm used to playing."

You had a standout performance at January's CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Hamilton with three assists. With so many scouts looking on, what did you do well that night? 

"It was a big opportunity and I wanted to show [well] against all the top players in Canada. For me, that was huge. I knew I could be a top guy there and I wanted to prove it and perform my best. There was some added pressure ... but once I stepped on the ice for the game, I was enjoying it like any other game. I was not worried about scouts being there. I was just having fun with it. I was determined to play my best."

You like to show some emotion after scoring, what's your approach to celebrations? 

"It depends on the situation. If it's a game against Kelowna, our rivals, then the celebration is a little bigger ... when it's a tight game or against a rival then I think my emotion gets the best of me after I score. I just have fun out there and it’s part of the game. Celebrating is fun, you just scored a goal and what's better than that?"

You had a big celebration back in December when you scored the opening goal in the Teddy Bear Toss game. Is it true you had a wager with your dad heading into that game? 

"He didn't think I could get it. Last year, we had the same bet and he told me he'd give me some money if I scored it ... I came out strong in that game and we had an early five-on-three and I took a bad-angle shot that I love taking, trying to find that little hole when the goalie can't squeeze up against [the post]. I'm always looking for that and it was there, and I took it. It worked out." 

When you look for that bad-angle shot do you need to see some space to go for it, or is it more instinctual? 

"I always look to see those three inches and if you hit it then you know the puck is going to go in or take a weird bounce off the back of the goalie. It is a smart play. [Sidney] Crosby always seems to be able to score goals from the goal line and banking it in or finding a hole and that's something I picked up being a fan of the game. Growing up, Sidney Crosby is the best guy and you want to be like him, and he's always been my favourite player, so seeing him do that over the years, I started shooting from weird angles and seeing if I can throw one in. I probably scored five or six goals like that this year." 

Who is your NHL role model or comparable? 

"There's two guys I look at. One, Ryan O’Reilly in St. Louis, who has a well-rounded game and can play in every situation. He plays that responsible 200-foot game, but he's also highly skilled and can play on the power play and put the puck in the net. And another guy, kind of similar, would be Bo Horvat. He's another guy with a well-rounded game and plays that mature game. You want him on when you have to win a game and you're up by one and it's the last couple seconds and the puck is in your zone and also when you're on the power play and when you need to get a goal. Definitely, that's the type of player I am." 

Kamloops has a pretty star-studded ownership group, do you ever hear from guys like Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan and Mark Recchi? 

"I got a couple phone calls from Shane Doan ... when I talked to him the second time it was later in the year and he said, 'You already built up so much draft stock and you've already had so much good going on and happening that no matter what you'll have an opportunity to go high in the draft,' and he said, 'Just enjoy every single day. If you have a bad practice, so what? Just enjoy it. If you go out with your buddies later, don't worry if you had a bad practice just put a smile on your face. If you had a bad game, whatever, just regroup.' And those are the things that stuck with me. You just got to enjoy it. You only go through the draft process once, so he said, 'Put a smile on your face and enjoy it.'"