What a difference a week makes.
Had Canada’s National Junior Team Sport Chek Selection Camp started Dec. 4 instead of Dec. 11, it’s safe to say Blake Speers would be spending the holidays playing for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds instead of competing at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Since the end of October, Speers had been sporting a cast on his right arm, the memento of a broken wrist suffered in a game with the Greyhounds. The cast came off only four days before camp commenced.
“I got the go-ahead from the doctor to take contact, so in that sense there was no danger for me,” says Speers. “It was a mental thing in getting the confidence back, gripping the stick and being able to go into battles and not worry about it.”
A third-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2015, Speers started the season in the National Hockey League. He played three games with the Devils before the team returned him to Sault Ste. Marie. In his first game with the Greyhounds, on Oct. 27, Speers crashed hard into the boards. He used his hands to try to slow his momentum.
“I figured it wasn’t that bad, that I’d just tape [my wrist] up and I played out the rest of the game with some pain,” he says. “Then I woke up pretty early the next morning and it was blown up like a balloon. I couldn’t really move it.” X-rays revealed a broken scaphoid bone.
The initial prognosis was he’d be out three months. Speers’ World Juniors prospects seemed over. “That was pretty hard on my psyche,” he says. But after meeting with the Devils’ doctor a few days later, Speers was reassured that a mid-December return was tight but doable. From then on his efforts were about ensuring he would at least be in shape to make Canada’s National Junior Team. He rode a stationary bike and continued to skate. Questions about the motion and stability of his wrist would be answered later.
Luckily what he had done on the ice to that point hadn’t gone unnoticed. Members of the management team for Team Canada had seen and heard about him with the Devils.
“He’d made strides toward trending the right way in that style of play we’re looking for in a national player,” says Joel Bouchard, part of the Program of Excellence management group. “A guy that creates a real pace and tempo in the game, that competes, that has that attention to detail and the hockey sense. He’s got all that.”
A victim of the numbers game, Speers hadn’t scored an invitation to the junior team’s summer camp. Despite that, and a lack of playing time since, he still felt good about his chances of getting a call to selection camp.
“Anytime you get into a couple of games in the NHL that probably boosts your stock a little bit,” he says. “I was hopeful that my small body of work to start the season was enough to at least get my foot in the door.”
“What impressed me the most was his determination when he first got here,” says Bouchard. “There was no holding back. He was really dialed in, and in his eyes you could tell that he was not coming for a cup of tea or looking for an excuse to not be on this team. That’s a credit to him.”
That’s not to say it was like no time had been lost. The first few shots Speers took were in his own words “awful.”
“It was embarrassing,” says Speers. “I couldn’t even lift the puck. That was kind of the worst thing for me was wondering I’ve got four days here to compete for a spot on the hardest team in the world to make and I can’t even lift the puck off the ice.” The team’s trainers and doctors worked with him on regaining his range of motion and continuing to build his strength. “It’s got to the point where I’m pretty close to being back to where I was before.”
The management staff agreed. Injuries are a part of the game, says Bouchard, and if Speers was cleared to play, the team wanted a look.
“We wanted to know how effective he would be on the ice. To be honest, we didn’t know,” says Bouchard. “But it didn’t take our group and the coaching staff long to realize that he’s a player that could help us.”
Forty-seven days elapsed between games for Speers. In his first selection camp game, he had an assist against the U Sports All-Stars. He notched two more in three pre-tournament games. If there was any doubt about whether he would be ready come Boxing Day, there shouldn’t be now.
“I think my first game was the only way to really test [my wrist],” says Speers. “I hadn’t taken a hit on it yet. One of my first shifts I got hit pretty hard and that’s when I knew, OK, I’m ready to go.”