Like many young hockey players, Conner Roulette’s 2020-21 hockey season was drastically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The inability to play a full season due to various pandemic restrictions was even more frustrating for Roulette, a member of Misipawistik Cree Nation in Manitoba, as it was also his pro draft year.
Though he was unable to properly showcase his skills over several months before the National Hockey League’s entry draft this summer, where he is expected to be chosen, Roulette will still have some fond memories of the season.
The highlight will undoubtedly be helping Canada capture the gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation world men’s under-18 hockey tournament.
Canada defeated Russia 5-3 in the gold-medal match, which was held May 6. A pair of cities in Texas - Frisco and Plano - co-hosted the global event, which featured 10 teams.
Roulette, a left winger who toils for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL), contributed five points, including a pair of goals, in seven matches at the world tournament.
The Canadians won all seven of the matches outscoring their opponents 51-12.
“We had a group of a lot of confident guys,” said Roulette, who turned 18 on May 13.
Roulette, who is expected to be an early-round pick at the NHL draft scheduled for July 23-24, considered it an honour to participate in the prestigious tournament.
“I was really fortunate to play there,” he said. “Even if we didn’t win there were so many world-class players there and it was a great experience.”
Roulette also praised the professionalism of Hockey Canada officials, as well as its coaching and management teams.
He said he didn’t have any safety concerns participating in a world tourney during a pandemic.
“I knew Hockey Canada would do a good job (with safety protocols) and not have anything get in the way of our tournament,” Roulette said.
Besides returning with some shiny hardware from the Texas event, Roulette also gained some new friends. The Canadian roster featured eight other WHL players, including some Roulette frequently squares off against in league action.
One individual in particular that Roulette formed a new bond with was Olen Zellweger, a defenceman with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips.
Like the Thunderbirds, the Silvertips are based in the state of Washington, making Seattle and Everett fierce rivals.
“We take a lot of pride in not liking the opposition,” Roulette said. “So there was a lot of chirping going on.”
Though Roulette and Zellweger came together to help the Canadians win a world title, Roulette said things won’t change when they square off against each other next time on the ice.
“But if I saw him off the ice, I’ll be his friend,” Roulette said.
As for the rest of his hockey season, Roulette had plenty of ups and downs.
For starters, the pandemic significantly pushed back the start of the WHL campaign. Instead of a 68-game regular season beginning last September, the league cut back to a 24-game season, which didn’t begin until February.
And because of border regulations, the Thunderbirds were only allowed to play the four other American teams in the WHL during their season. The league also did not stage any playoffs.
“It’s pretty frustrating but at the same time it’s all out of our control,” Roulette said of his draft season drastically impacted by the pandemic. “Everyone else in the world is dealing with it. And you have to deal with it and what you’re given.”
This past fall, while he was waiting to see when the WHL would commence its season, Roulette did manage to play some games in his home province.
Though they were still under WHL contracts, Manitoba-based players in the league were given permission to suit up for clubs in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL).
The MJHL is a junior A circuit considered one step below the WHL.
Roulette, who lives in Winnipeg, hooked up with the Selkirk Steelers, a team based about a 30-minute drive from his home.
“I took it upon myself and decided to try and play some games there,” he said.
Though he had never played in the MJHL before, Roulette knew his league playing rights had been previously protected by the Swan Valley Stampeders.
But once he determined he was no longer Stampeders’ property and was in essence considered a free agent by MJHL clubs, he could attempt to earn a roster spot wherever he pleased.
“I knew a lot of the guys with the Selkirk team,” he said of his decision to join the Steelers.
His time, however, with the Steelers was short-lived. Roulette played a Saturday night contest with the squad last October.
After practising with the Steelers for a week, he then played two more October contests.
But the MJHL season was then ground to a halt when new pandemic measures were set.
Earlier on in his teens Roulette was a member of Team Manitoba at two National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.
He helped Manitoba win the bronze medal at the 2018 tournament in Membertou, N.S. And then the following year he was part of the Manitoba squad that captured the gold medal at the tourney staged in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital.