By Percy Hebert – Quesnel Cariboo Observer
Alex Roach of Quesnel has caught the eye of National Hockey League scouts.
They placed Roach 142nd in their final rankings of North American skaters for the 2011 NHL entry draft scheduled for June 24-25 in Nashville, Tenn.
Roach, now back in Quesnel after his rookie season with the Western Hockey League Calgary Hitmen , is characteristically humble about the attention he has garnered from NHL scouts.
“I always knew they [scouts] were there,” Roach said.
“I didn’t think they were watching me.”
In fact, Roach, 18, was surprised he was on the NHL’s central scouting list, especially considering he had a rough start to his rookie season with the Hitmen.
“Being ranked 142 surprised me, because I wasn’t on the list midway through the season,” he said.
Although the Hitmen showed interest in Roach by drafting him, he was still just one of 80 Hitmen hopefuls at main training camp and couldn’t rest on his laurels.
“I still had to earn my stripes,” Roach said.
Earning his stripes to crack the lineup was not a simple matter.
“I was excited but I didn’t know what to expect,” he said looking back to when he arrived at the Hitmen training camp.
Roach realized quickly he was up against good competition.
“They skate a lot faster and are stronger,” Roach said of WHL hockey players.
“They pass the puck harder and more often.”
Arriving in camp a little overweight didn’t help matters, Roach admitted.
“My feet were slow and I felt sluggish,” he explained.
At the same time, Roach was dealing with the everday stresses away from the rink, such as getting used to living away from home with a billet family, living in a large city and attending a new high school, St. Anne’s Academic Centre.
“It was a big change for me,” Roach said.
Although he did make the team, Roach did not make the linup card for the first handful of games.
“It was tough sitting out games,” he admitted.
But all of that changed early last October when the Hitmen made their first road trip south of the border.
Roach was inserted into the lineup Oct. 15, when the Hitmen travelled to Portland to face the Winterhawks.
Hitmen coach Mike Williamson pencilled Roach in as a forward, just to give him a sense of the pace and feel of the game and he took full advantage of the situation.
There were no goals, assists or penalties for Roach, but at the same time he didn’t make any mistakes as the Hitmen handed the Winterhawks a 5-1 loss.
“I had a good game,” Roach said with a smile as he recalls his first regular season game as a Calgary Hitmen.
“It helped my confidence.”
From then on, Roach found his name on the lineup card every night after that, save for a few games when he was sidelined by an injury.
By the holiday break, he had an agent, Carlos Sosa, who recognized Roach, a student at Correlieu senior secondary school, “had all the tools.”
By then, Roach had improved his foot speed and was making better decisions with the puck on the offensive and defensive side of the puck.
All of that gave Roach a confidence boost that served as motivation to continue to improve.
The rate at which he improved was hastened when the team decided to trade their older players at the trade deadline, which afforded the younger skaters much more ice time.
At the end of the season, Roach was logging about 20 minutes per game, a tip of the hat to the rookie.
Roach finished the season with 16 points, four goals and 12 assists in 61 games.
At 6-4, 225 lbs, Roach was not shy about making his presence known and collected 77 penalty minutes.
Just a few months later, Roach was ranked 142nd on the NHL’s central scouting draft list.
The young Hitmen team finished the season with 45 points, last among all WHL teams.
Despite the last place finish, Roach is happy with his decision to play with the Hitmen in the WHL.
“It’s [WHL] more competitive than the BCHL,” Roach, who did play four games with the Quesnel Millionaires during the 2009-2010 season, said.
One of the players that impressed Roach the most was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a forward with the Red Deer Rebels.
“He’s impossible to hit,” Roach said with a shrug of the shoulders signalling respect for Nugent-Hopkins.
In fact, Nugent-Hopkins is ranked number one in the 2011 NHL entry draft.
“He’s shifty and smart with and without the puck,” Roach said with an appreciative shake of the head.
In addition to the hockey, Roach also has his eye on life outside of hockey and admitted the WHL scholarship made his decision much easier.
The WHL provides players with one year of post-secondary tuition for every year they play in the WHL.
Of course, playing in the Calgary Saddledome, the former home of the NHL Flames, in front of about 10,000 fans every game also makes playing hockey a lot of fun, Roach said.
“We have great fans,” he said.
Roach will not be going to the NHL entry draft, but rather he is staying in Quesnel to work on his physical fitness and his foot speed with Mills assistant coach Brian Kozak.
When asked if he hopes to be drafted by a specific team, Roach doesn’t hesitate in his reply.
“The team doesn’t matter, I just want to play hockey.”