The kid can play -- Zary, 16, has been a bright spot for the Kamloops Blazers

Connor Zary took about one month to prove he belongs in the Western Hockey League.

The 16-year-old forward from Saskatoon has three goals and four points in his last eight games and scored on a nifty deke in a shootout to help lift his Kamloops Blazers to their third victory of the season -- a 3-2 win over the Chiefs in Spokane last Friday.

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"It becomes an issue when you keep a kid and he doesn't have success," Blazers' assistant coach Mike Needham said. "Connor is having those early successes and he's getting more confident."

Determining whether a 16-year-old player is ready for the WHL is an inexact science, but Blazers' brass felt there was enough evidence to take a shot on Zary.

"You're not really sure, to be quite honest, until you see the kid in game situations," Needham said.

"Connor has been put into situations and flourished."

Zary never seemed to lack confidence.

At the Blazers' prospects camp in June, he dazzled under pressure in a shootout competition, rattling off about six straight goals with teammates and coaches watching.

Needham took notice of how comfortable Zary looked playing with veterans during the Blue-White intrasquad game at McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre on Aug. 30.

"For me, I felt like in the rookie camp [on Aug. 25 and Aug. 26 at McArthur] I started slow and, as it got harder, I started to get better," said Zary, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-shot centre. "Once I got to exhibition, I felt like I was really fitting in and thought I had a good chance here."

Kyrell Sopotyk, who turns 16 on Nov. 10, did well enough to stick around for four pre-season games, but the 5-foot-9, 166-pound forward from Aberdeen, Sask., was reassigned to the midget Prince Albert Mintos on Sept. 11.

"He's physically a little bit bigger than Kyrell is," Needham said of Zary. "You feel he can physically handle the pounding you're going to get at 16. Not all of them can handle it."

Zary has centred the third line in recent games and seems to be developing chemistry with a resurgent Jermaine Loewen, the 19-year-old forward who has two goals and five points in four games since returning from a head injury.

The only 16-year-old player on the team (Zary is lacking a Blazers' study buddy for Grade 11 curriculum at Valleyview secondary) is seeing power-play time and the occasional shift on the penalty kill.

"He's a 200-foot player already," Needham said. "His coaching as a young kid was obviously very good. He just needs to add layers to his game.

"He's a stronger kid than he gives himself credit for. Take pucks to the net and make plays. I'd like to see that a little bit more on a consistent basis from him."

Background information on his family was shared with a smile.

Zary's father, Scott, is a police officer.

He gets credit for some of Connor's finesse, which was on full display when No. 18 raced the length of the ice, fooled three defenders and went to the backhand to score in a 4-1 win over hometown Prince George on Oct. 14.

"Back when I was younger, he built me a sport court in the back yard," Zary said. "He'd make me an outdoor rink every winter. He helped me a lot with my skills and, just watching Hockey Night in Canada with him, I picked up things that the guys do in the big show."

Mom, Kathleen, is the Saskatoon Zoo Society's program co-ordinator. The Kamloops forward's only sibling, 18-year-old Treyton, is a first-year business student at the University of Saskatchewan.

"My brother, he's probably got all the smarts in the family," Zary said with a laugh.

It doesn't take a business degree to know a franchise-worst 0-9 start wasn't great for the Blazers' coffers, but three wins in four games and blossoming players such as Zary to market are solid advertising pieces.

Kamloops will play host to the Everett Silvertips on Friday, with game time set for 7 p.m. at Sandman Centre. The Tri-City Americans will be in town on Saturday. Game time is 7 p.m.

"It was kind of crazy losing nine in a row, but it really helped having older guys still staying positive, knowing once we get that first win we'll start going," Zary said.

"I'm always willing to do whatever the coach needs me to do, no matter what. We knew we had a lot more in us."

© Kamloops This Week



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