CAMROSE — Dallas Bergstrom couldn’t really get comfortable in the opening week of the Alberta Junior Hockey League season.
A pre-season charleyhorse sidelined the 16-year-old rookie defenceman from Bashaw, so he was forced to watch from the press box as his Camrose Kodiaks swept the Canmore Eagles at home on back-to-back nights — 5-1 on Friday and 3-0 on Saturday.
Injured or not, Bergstrom didn’t want to get too comfortable in his spiffy new hockey home, the Edgeworth Centre. He’s among eight defencemen still in the mix with the Kodiaks.
“A little bit nervous, to be honest, because you never know,” Bergstrom said after Saturday’s game. “You can always get sent back down to midget AAA.”
“Whenever you get comfortable here, it’s not a good thing. You can never be comfortable. You’ve always got to be making sure that that guy right behind you doesn’t catch you.”
“But it feels great to be here. It feels great just to get to know all the boys and work your hardest to get back in the lineup so you can prove yourself.”
Bergstrom, who played three pre-season games with Camrose, has already proved he has plenty of promise.
“We’re excited to have Dallas — he’s a smart, smart young man,” said Kodiaks coach and general manager Boris Rybalka.
“We see a lot of upside with him. He sees the ice well. He’s physical, skates well and handles the puck well. We think he’s got the whole package to be able to play this game for a long time.”
Bergstrom’s smarts translate from the classroom to the ice. He was an honours Grade 10 student last year in Bashaw, despite travelling from home almost daily for practices and games with the Leduc Oil Kings minor midget AAA team.
“He’s a smart kid who’s mature,” Rybalka said. “He’s an 85 per cent student. He just turned 16 on Aug. 27, so he’s mature for a 16-year-old. We’re happy to have him. It’s nice to see a player who can play who’s right in our backyard.”
“He’s very efficient. He’s solid. He doesn’t panic. Yeah, we know the strength might be a little issue and maybe sometimes the nerves will be, but overall, he’ll be fine.”
The five-foot-10, 175-pound Bergstrom rejoined the Kodiaks’ camp Sept. 1, the morning after he played in an intrasquad game with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.
On the final weekend of the AJHL pre-season, he skated with the Kodiaks for a home-and-home series against the Bonnyville Pontiacs.
“We went to Bonnyville (for the second game) and I got hit by a guy that was just a little bit bigger than me,” Bergstrom said Saturday, exactly one week later. “I’ve got a charleyhorse and a deep bone bruise, but I’ve got to battle through it.
The doctor said, ‘Don’t even lace it up until there is zero pain,’ so I went to the massage (therapist) ans she said the same thing.”
“They’re the worst injuries. Everyone thinks they’re just a soft injury, but there’s nothing you can do. You can’t move your leg.”
Off the ice for a full week, Bergstrom hoped to return to practice early this week.
“If all goes well, he’ll open up his junior career next Friday or Saturday,” said Rybalka, whose Kodiaks visit the Brooks Bandits on Friday and the Calgary Canucks on Saturday. “We’re very cautious with our guys, especially young guys. We want to make sure that he’s healthy.”
Bergstrom has settled in off the ice. He’s attending high school in Camrose and his billets are his aunt and uncle.
The Kodiaks say they’re in no hurry to make more cuts on defence.
“We still have eight (defencemen) and we might carry eight,” Rybalka said. “We want to play everybody here for a while. We like our young kids, so we’re going to play them. The vets know and the older guys know, it’s not just, ‘Well, just because I’m 17 or 18, I’ll be here.’ No, we’re keeping the best players. And right now, we think Dallas is one of those guys.”
“We want to get him into that (first) regular season game and get him back into practices. He’s now a week behind, but we’ll catch him up. But right now, we like what we see. And if he does his job, he’ll be a Kodiak for the year.”
Camrose has a strong tradition of icing competitive teams and graduating players to U.S. college and pro hockey. It’s a path that might be in Bergstrom’s future, though major junior remains another possible option.
“The ironic thing with Dallas is, with his marks, he’s already had three (NCAA) scouts talk to us about him,” Rybalka said.
“Ohio State, Alaska and Merrimack all love him …and he’s just played the exhibition (season).”
“So I think that really opened his eyes up and his folks’ eyes up, going, ‘You know what — maybe I
do have another route.’ The college route, with those marks, is a huge fit for him.”
“We’ve had a lot of guys, obviously, make it who’ve gone the college route — from the (Joe) Colbornes, the (Mason) Raymonds, the (Allen) Yorks and the (Mike) Connollys. He even said, ‘We’ve got a pretty good Wall of Fame up here.’ There’s been some pretty good hockey players walk through these doors.”
Camrose’s defence includes 18-year-old Sam Jardine, a Lacombe product whom the Chicago Blackhawks selected in the sixth round of the NHL entry draft last June.
Along with Bergstrom, the Kodiaks are carrying one other 16-year-old in St. Albert forward Nelson Gadoury of Calahoo.
“We’ve always had a 16-year-old in our organization, except last year when we hosted (the RBC Cup national championship),” Rybalka said. “We like finding those good 16-year-olds and developing them, and if they move on to the Western league, so be it. Or if they stay and get a scholarship …”