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Thunderbirds rookie Conner Roulette excels with and without skates on

Seattle rookie Conner Roulette is also an accomplished ball hockey player (Brian Liesse)

Summer is a great time of the year to travel. Travelling overseas is particularly optimal in the summer as good weather usually awaits you. Seattle Thunderbirds rookie Conner Roulette is traveling overseas to Prague this summer but it’s not sunny weather he’s after, he’s chasing gold. He’s going to pack his sticks, gloves, and helmet but he’s leaving his skates behind.

Seattle’s second-round pick in the 2018 Bantam Draft has been selected to represent Canada at this summer’s U16 Ball Hockey World Cup.

“It’s an honor to play ball hockey” Roulette says about the tournament, which runs from June 22nd through July 1st. “Everybody wants to play street hockey, but we get to take it to that next level. To represent all the ball hockey players in Canada, it feels pretty good. We’re just going to go out there, play our best and see if we can bring back the gold.”

Growing up in Winnipeg, Roulette and his friends would play street hockey in the summer as most kids do. It was mostly for fun but as he grew older, it became competitive and he would eventually join leagues in Winnipeg. Success there has led him to playing on the Canada West team at the World Cup.

Ball hockey is played on a regulation sized hockey rink, sans the ice. Instead of a puck, a hard plastic ball – about the size of a baseball – is used. The players use regular hockey sticks, shin pads, gloves, and helmets.

While there is no checking allowed, games can get intense.

“You get slashed, when you block a shot, it leaves marks,” Roulette says. “It’s hard playing. It’s something you think is fun, but once you get in a game it’s like a regular hockey game. There’s no hitting but when you’re in the corners it gets pretty physical. A lot of cross checks to the upper body, there’s a lot of stick checking, you have to go through that.”

Roulette isn’t the only WHL player involved in ball hockey.

Joining him on the Canadian team are two future division rivals. Dawson Pasternak, who recently signed with the Portland Winterhawks is on the team, as is Everett Silvertips prospect Nate Goodbrandson.

Ball hockey is a popular sport in Canada and its not surprising to see high-level ice hockey players running around a rink. Former Vancouver Canucks star Alex Burrows was known for his ball hockey prowess while he was playing pro hockey as well.

The running helps players by getting them cardio workouts in the off season but the skills are transferable and can help on the ice.

“Playing with the ball helps your stick handling,” Roulette says. “Knowing the different speeds and how the ball is spinning and getting used to it. Getting a pass and the ball’s bouncing, how are you going to react? It helps with your reaction and thinking when you get the puck and it’s bouncing.”

Roulette is a skilled offensive player and coming off a monster season playing for the Winnipeg Thrashers, where he potted 41 goals and recorded 88 points in just 43 games. He also was selected to play for Team Manitoba in the Canadian Winter Games and added four more scores and eight points in six games.

Those are the kind of offensive numbers that have the Thunderbirds excited.

“We didn’t get the finish we wanted,” Roulette says of his season. “Individually, I thought I played pretty good but all the teammates I had made it better. I couldn’t have done it without some of the guys on the team, a team full of characters. Going to the rink every night with those guys, it was what I was happy with the most this season.”

He also got into one game with the Thunderbirds while the team was on its swing through the Eastern Division in January.

The game was in Brandon, against the Wheat Kings, which meant that it was close to home and allowed him to make his WHL debut in front of family and friends. That night he played with confidence and looked at home in the WHL. On one play, he took the puck off the half boards with a strong move to the slot where he forced Brandon goalie Jiri Patera to make a good save.

He got the call to inform him he would be playing about a week before the game and got the nerves going. They were nerves that didn’t show up in his play that night.

“The guys were really nice and made me feel at home,” he says of the experience. “I got to stay with (Nolan) Volcan and he’s a great team guy and got me used to it. First shift, I had a bunch of family in the crowd and when I got on the ice and heard the cheering, it gave me a boost of confidence to just go out there, play my game and try not to mess up.”

Seattle lost that night but Roulette played well, recorded two shots on goal and earned some praise from head coach Matt O’Dette.

“He was great,” O’Dette said about Roulette after the game. “Obviously a pretty exciting future for that kid and he definitely didn’t look out of place, in fact, he stood out in a good way. It’s a nice night in front of a lot of family.”

When Roulette returns from Prague, he plans on hitting the gym and working out to prepare for his upcoming rookie campaign in Seattle.

He’ll be working out in Winnipeg with a familiar face.

“Hopefully getting in some training this summer with Keegan Kolesar,” Roulette says. “He knows what it takes and is a strong guy, he can help me.”

Roulette knows Kolesar thanks to his brother Shane playing with the former Thunderbirds star on the Winnipeg Thrashers.

“I was always that little fan that would give them high fives when they were coming off the ice,” Roulette says. “(Kolesar) would sit with me on the bus at times and talk about hockey. He’s always been kind of like an older brother when Shane was there. I was part of the team, those guys made sure of it, and would treat me really well. To this day we still talk.”

Roulette is part of what appears to be a strong rookie class coming in for the Thunderbirds. Along with last year’s top pick Kai Uchacz and fellow second-rounder Lucas Ciona, there is a high level of anticipation.

The three players, along with all of Seattle’s prospects, recently worked out at the team’s development camp in Edmonton. It was a chance for skills development as well as team bonding – which even included some ball hockey.

Seattle’s young group will convene again in August to prepare for the season.

“They’re really good guys,” Roulette says of his fellow incoming rookies. “It feels good, you have something to look forward to. We’re pushing for something and to be with these guys and the new team, I can’t wait to play with them and see what we can do in the future.”