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Rookie forward proving he's a player who is a hot prospect, not just a player with a cool name
His name is Colt Conrad and, yes, we can all agree: it’s the coolest handle in hockey today. Picture the guy in the long duster coat, a Stetson, and sliver of straw angling from one side of the mouth. All that’s missing is the Marlboro and horse.
Kidding aside, what Colt Conrad — the Newfoundland Growlers’ first-year forward from Manitoba — symbolizes is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ vision of a fully furnished minor league system, and one that’s helping polish some hidden gems.
Like college free agents Conrad, one of the ECHL’s top rookie scorers, averaging well over a point-per-game this year, and Joe Duszak, the Hobey Baker finalist last year at little Mercyhurst College who is on recall to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Or Mac Hollowell, who was signed by the Leafs following his overage year in the Ontario Hockey League, and who is also currently with the Marlies.
“I think,” Growlers coach John Snowden said, “the Leafs have done a really good job of finding talent. They put players in a place like this, where they get quality ice time against men, and coached the right way when it comes to playing the game. Through it all, the kids continue to grow.
“We’ve got some guys the Leafs did a great job of finding, putting them here and trusting our staff and our process to make sure that we develop them the right way to be quality players at this level, and then be effective in the American league and hopefully one day NHL players.”
Now, the NHL is a long ways away, but 22-year-old Conrad, from the tiny farming hamlet of Saint Alphonse, between Brandon and Winnipeg, would appear to be a lot closer today than he did four years ago, when he started his freshman season at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
“You never know how a guy is going to react when he makes the jump to pro hockey, but (Conrad is) a buzzer, a little waterbug who can get around the ice. You give him the puck with space, and he’ll make plays.”
Growlers head John Snowden
He led the WMU Broncos in scoring as a senior, and one year was named to Canada’s squad for the Christmastime Spengler Cup tournament in Switzerland.
But for whatever reason, be it skating or maybe a concern over his size, or lack thereof, Conrad was passed over time and again in the NHL draft.
Funny, all he did in Kalamazoo throughout his NCAA career was produce.
Like he’s doing now in St. John’s, with a pair of goals and 15 assists through 13 games (he’s missed five games because of injury) entering last night’s encounter with the Railers in Worcester, Mass.
“You never know how a guy is going to react when he makes the jump to pro hockey,” Snowden said, “but he’s a buzzer, a little waterbug who can get around the ice. You give him the puck with space, and he’ll make plays.
“He’s slippery, so he can get himself out of trouble. He finds a way. He has that unique ability, kind of like (Zach) O’Brien, to create offence out of nothing. They’re very similar players,” said the coach, comparing Conrad to last year’s playoff MVP.
“He does all the little things that you want. He’s another player that you want to get more ice time, and develop his game away from the puck and continue to grow.”
Conrad was the recipient of similar coaching at Western Michigan from Andy Murray, he of the 20 years of experience as an NHL head or assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues.
Murray also coached Canada to three gold medals at the world championships, which would explain where the Spengler Cup opportunity came about.
Conrad was actually drafted into the Western Hockey League, by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2012, the same year his Growlers’ teammate, Giorgio Estephan, went fourth overall to the Hurricanes.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Andy Murray, I would have taken the major junior route,” he said. “Coach Murray opened my eyes to college, and I stayed on that path.
“I don’t regret it one bit.”
Conrad got his first taste of pro hockey last season with seven regular-season AHL games with the Marlies and another Calder Cup playoff start.
The hope, of course, was to play in the American league this season, but he’s not brooding about playing his first full season of pro hockey in the ECHL.
Or that fellow Growlers forwards O’Brien, Estephan, Matt Bradley, Scott Pooley and Aaron Luchuk have all gotten a look from the Marlies this season.
Instead, it’s just another page in the unique story of Colt Conrad.
“The Leafs put me down here to develop my game, and I’m fine with that,” he said. “I’m trying to be the best player I can be down here, and I’m not going to be disappointed in myself.”
Safe bet nobody else is, either.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org