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Thunderbirds D-Man Cade McNelly looks to take big step this coming season

Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Cade McNelly is looking to build off last year. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

When Cade McNelly showed up at Seattle Thunderbirds training camp in the fall of 2016, not much was known about him. The undrafted defenseman was a camp invite and 15 at the time. He stood out visually as he was a tall and lanky player with long blond hair escaping out of the back of his helmet. As the prospect scrimmages began however, he stood out for other reasons. He hit. He hit everybody and everything.

That continued when the veteran players joined camp and McNelly showed no fear playing against a group of older players that were about to win the WHL Championship.

“To get noticed I had to do something different than everybody else, I couldn’t just blend in with the rest of the crowd,” McNelly says of that training camp. “I had to do something to stand out and make the coaching staff and the GM notice me. I didn’t really think too much, just went in there and thought everybody was the same, no matter if they were 20, 19, or 15. I didn’t really care.”

He did get the attention of the coaching staff and GM.

After returning to Fort Saskatchewan to play his Midget season, McNelly was back in training camp the next year. He was back to hitting.

The Thunderbirds liked what they saw in him, signed him late in August 2017 and he would play 15 games as a 16-year-old rookie in Seattle. That year he dealt with some injuries but McNelly would become a regular for the Thunderbirds this past season, playing in 46 games and making an impact.

McNelly was as physical last year as he was in those first training camp sessions. He backed up his teammates, got into some scraps, and in some trouble with the league. But, quietly, he turned into a solid defenseman, one that the team is counting on in 2019-2020.

“I thought that the development in Cade’s game was astronomical,” Seattle general manager Bil La Forge says. “He went from a guy who was in and out of the lineup to a guy that we missed when he wasn’t in the lineup. That’s a credit to (assistant coach Kyle Hagel) and Cade. He’s the last guy on the ice… he’s always working. He’s the polar opposite off the ice as he is on the ice. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid.”

After totaling the fourth most minutes in penalties (123) in the league and four suspensions, McNelly was anything but happy-go-lucky during games last year.

He can be an intimidating force and is a player who thrives on emotion while standing up for his teammates. That emotion got him in trouble last year as three of his four suspensions were for after the whistle incidents.

The suspensions cost him 12 games and is something that he’s looking to reverse in the coming year.

“I have to do that for sure,” McNelly says. “Bil has talked to me about it. There are certain points in the game where I have to pick my spots better. I have to control myself, take deep breaths and stay calm during certain situations.”

It’s a fine needle to thread for a player.

The Thunderbirds want him to play under control, but don’t want him to lose his edge.

“It’s learning experience, and he’s going to mature a little every year,” La Forge says. “He has to find the ability to play on the line rather than over the line. There’s a time and place for the things that he likes to do. Everybody in the league knows who he is now.”

Not everybody knew who he was after being passed over in the 2016 Bantam Draft.

It was a disappointing day for McNelly, who wanted to play in the WHL. After the draft, he heard from Seattle who asked him to come to its training camp. He had a shot.

“It was extra motivating,” McNelly says about not being drafted. “I think I knew that I could (play). I knew that I had a lot of potential even though I was young and needed to develop my skill. I knew that I could keep getting better and eventually be good enough to play against those players.”

He put the work in last season and  the 6-foot-3, 193 pound D-Man improved his skating, his awareness on the ice, and his stick handling. Those areas are skills he continues to work on this summer heading into the upcoming season. As a stay-at-home blue liner he was steady last year, scoring one goal while recording one assist. His confidence grew during the year, and he began to shoot the puck more over the second part of the season. He probably won’t ever be a big scoring defenseman but being able to chip in offensively, combined with good play in his own end, will help the Thunderbirds tremendously next year.

McNelly grew up a fan of the Calgary Flames and their star Jerome Iginla. He also had an affinity for defenseman Chris Pronger, a player who was an intimidating presence in his own right.

Hockey runs through his family. His younger brother, Ashton, was drafted by the Swift Current Broncos in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. McNelly’s uncle, Brent Bilodeau, played for the Thunderbirds from 1989 to 1992 and was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 1991 NHL Draft.

Bilodeau spent two years as an assistant with the Tri-City Americans and still resides in Kennewick.

“We talk a lot,” McNelly says of his uncle. “Whenever we play in Tri, he comes to watch. He’s been a good influence on me in my time here. He gives me pointers on my game.”

When the Thunderbirds moved defenseman Jake Lee to Kelowna as part of a blockbuster trade in May, La Forge stated that they felt comfortable enough in the team’s defensive group to make the deal.

“We really like the development and the potential of those guys,” La Forge added. “I think Cade is right in that group. Just the way he developed last year, if he can continue that development this year, he’s going to be a heck of a player.”

This coming season is McNelly’s NHL Draft year. La Forge believes that with the way he developed it wouldn’t come as a shock to see McNelly garner some interest from pro scouts.

Playing with discipline will be a part of that but with the work ethic that McNelly has, it stands to reason he’ll have no problem continuing the trajectory he started on last year.

“I want to get better every day,” McNelly says. “Just be a good leader on the team, earn my ice time and get some points. Those are my main goals for this year.”