Playing in just 10 games and watching the entire playoffs from the stands, Conner Bruggen-Cate didn’t play an overly significant role with the Kelowna Rockets in 2015-16.
Still, what the 16-year-old forward learned during limited exposure last season, laid the groundwork for what the Rockets hope will be a long and productive Western Hockey League career.
“For Conner to be around the team, in the playoffs, in the thick of things last season only bodes well down the line,” assistant coach Kris Mallette said of Bruggen-Cate. “He was able to get into 10 games during the year, too, so that nervousness is out of the way and he’s been able to start fresh.
“Being around, Conner was able to get up to speed earlier, and you can see his progression right now…he worked hard in the offseason, he’s had a good training camp and he looks very good out there.”
A sixth-round bantam draft pick of the Rockets in 2014, Bruggen-Cate was a conspicuous presence at this, his second training camp, leading all players in goal scoring during team scrimmages.
Thanks to last season’s experience, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Langley native came to camp better prepared and more confident with his surroundings.
“It was really good for my development, seeing how fast the game is and knowing what I needed to do,” said Bruggen-Cate, who turns 17 on Sept. 13. “Getting to know the boys and the team was important. It showed me how to prepare myself which I did this summer, and I feel more comfortable now.”
With a number of veteran forwards moving on—Rourke Chartier, Tyson Baillie and Justin Kirkland among them—the contribution of younger forwards like Bruggen-Cate will have an impact on the success the Rockets have this season.
And while the club will be mindful not to rush or heap too much responsibility on young shoulders, assistant GM Lorne Frey is excited to watch Bruggen-Cate’s continued development.
“We’re fortunate to have him, he’s worked hard, gotten better and came back this year in great shape,” Frey said. “He’s an all-around 200-foot player, a very good skater, he’s got a good shot and can score some goals.
“We’re expecting all our young guys to get better,” added Frey. “It always takes some time, you don’t want to rush, but in a couple of months, who knows, they may put themselves in a position to move up and do more for us.”
So now, with his initiation to the WHL more or less behind him, Bruggen-Cate is looking forward to being a key contributor for one of junior hockey’s most successful organizations.
“I’m excited,” Bruggen-Cate said. “It’s been a dream of mine to play junior and it’s even better being here in Kelowna. It’s a great organization and the team has had a lot of success.
“I’d like to be a part of the team, help the best I can and see if we can get a WHL championship.”
The Rockets launch their 2016-17 exhibition schedule on Saturday at home to the Victoria Royals. Face off at Prospera Place is 7 p.m. Kelowna, which will play five preseason games, will visit the Kamloops Blazers on Sunday…Kelowna opens the WHL regular season Friday, Sept. 23 in Kamloops…Seven members of the Rockets will head off to NHL rookie camps in the middle of the month. NHL draft picks Lucas Johansen (Washington), Dillon Dube (Calgary), Calvin Thurkauf (Columbus), Brayden Chizen (Minnesota) and Devante Stephens (Buffalo), will be joined by invitees Tomas Soustal (Edmonton) and Gordie Ballhorn (Dallas).