Mount Royal Cougars forward Connor Rankin has had an eventful career in the world of hockey.
From playing in the WHL for the Tri-City Americans and Calgary Hitmen to having a tryout with the Edmonton Oilers. Rankin is now at Mount Royal University, where he is working towards both a degree and a continued career in pro hockey.
Born in Vancouver, B.C., Connor Rankin began his days playing hockey in Tucson, Ariz. after moving there as a four-year-old. He even played against Toronto Maple Leafs rookie sensation and Ariz. native Auston Matthews.
“I got to play against him for a long time which is kind of interesting seeing him now in the NHL lighting it up,” Rankin says.
At age 10, Rankin returned to Vancouver where he continued to play minor hockey. In 2009, he was drafted seventh overall by the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League bantam draft, being selected before heading to school that morning.
“Tri-City traded up for the pick to get me which I thought was pretty interesting and kind of out of the blue.” Rankin added that “I headed to school right after and I was in class with Griffin Reinhart [now with Edmonton Oilers] and Morgan Rielly [now with Toronto Maple Leafs], who were drafted second and third I believe that year, so all the hype was about them so it was kind ‘oh whatever’ about me.”
Rankin played in Tri-City for four seasons, calling his start in the Western Hockey League “nerve-wracking,” being a 15-year-old playing against 20-year-olds.
Rankin found playing hockey in Kennewick, Wash. a different experience.
“Not many people are into hockey, they’re more into high school football, or baseball or whatever it may be. So it was definitely a different atmosphere for that, and everyone just loved watching fights on the ice.”
Midway through his fourth season, Tri-City was beginning to rebuild and traded Rankin to the Calgary Hitmen. The move excited Rankin, who was eager to return to his native Canada.
“I was extremely excited to play for probably one of the best and most represented teams in the [Western Hockey League], and to come to Calgary, a big city, a Canadian city, a lot of hockey fans here it’s pretty exciting to play in the Saddledome.”
Paired on a line with NHL draftees Jake Virtanen and Adam Tambellini, Rankin had a career year in his final Western Hockey League season, posting 32 goals and 79 points in his only full year with the Hitmen.
Following that final Western Hockey League season, Rankin received interest from a few NHL teams, including the Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks. However, the Edmonton Oilers pushed harder to acquire him, and signed him to a minor-league deal.
“I decided to go to Edmonton, and try to at least make their farm team in the American Hockey League in Bakersfield, and when I signed that paper, it was kind of surreal, you know it’s not an NHL contract, but it’s the next thing.”
Rankin participated in the annual Young Stars Classic, a rookie tournament held by the Oilers, Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets held in Penticton, B.C. It was an incredible moment for Rankin to play in the event.
“When you get off the bus, there are fans trying to get [Connor] McDavid’s autograph, again it’s something I never experienced before,” Rankin explains.
Rankin performed well in the tournament and scored two goals in three games played. “I thought I had a pretty good tournament, and it’s something when you throw on an NHL jersey. It’s pretty spectacular.”
After participating in the Oilers main camp, Rankin was sent down to the team's American Hockey League affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors.
It was another training camp for Rankin. Following the camp he was sent down even further in the Oilers system, this time going to Virginia to play in the East Coast Hockey League for the Norfolk Admirals. Rankin was disappointed when he didn’t make the team in Bakersfield.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, so it was a bit disappointing, and it was something I learned from for sure, and hope to get back to one day.”
Rankin started his career with the Admirals scoring two goals, before he hit a slump that he was never able to get out of.
In his final season with the Hitmen, long before Rankin signed his contract with Edmonton, he had committed to go to Mount Royal University.
The agreement made between the university and Rankin allowed him to pursue a pro opportunity if it were to come to him, with the option of leaving professional hockey to come to university at the halfway point of the season.
Cougars head coach Bert Gilling explained the outlines of the deal.
“He originally committed in the winter semester close to the spring, and then knowing full well that we had the agreement that he could be signing a professional contract as well, because he had a really good 20-year-old year in the Western Hockey League. And so then as luck would have it, he did receive an offer with Bakersfield in the American League in the Edmonton organization. And he accepted that, and then we just stayed in touch.”
By late 2015, Rankin was beginning to think about leaving Norfolk.
“That was right around October 1st or 2nd, and when he got sent down to the East Coast Hockey League he reached out to us and said, ‘if I end up staying in the East Coast Hockey League, would you consider bringing me in at Christmas time?’ And we said absolutely. As it went on in November, and early December, he made the decision to void his contract and get started with school,” Gillings says.
Rankin found the process to be difficult.
“It was tough, it was a long process. Again, it was something that was always in the back of my mind when I first signed with Edmonton, was at that halfway point, do I want to stick with pro hockey or go to university hockey, because that was kind of the deadline,” he said, adding, “I thought going back to university hockey was the best thing for me, again to grow as a person and as a player.”
Rankin flew back to Calgary from Norfolk on his birthday, and began playing with the team when the season resumed after Christmas in early 2016.
When looking at why playing U Sports hockey would be better for him, Rankin found that playing less games and having a longer off season would allow him to spend more time practicing and training to improve his abilities.
“You get less practice time in the East Coast, you get less time to recover, you get less time to spend in the weight room, so I think that all those add up quite a bit. At the same time, mentally, spending a lot of time on the bus, spending a lot of times at hockey games, where in my case I wasn’t playing a whole lot, so it was tough to develop during the game.”
Coach Gilling made it clear that even though the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League are described as development leagues for young prospects, that isn’t the case.
“When you go into professional hockey, it's not a development league. It's professional. So, the idea being that you're at your peak. They don't spend tons of money in strength and conditioning programs, academic programs. When you're a professional hockey player, you're expected to perform. If you don't you're gone. The East Coast League and American League, they're not necessarily development leagues.”
Rankin’s playing career at Mount Royal has started great. In his first full season this year, he scored 35 points in 26 games, being named a second team All Canadian. This recognizes him as one of the top players in all of Canadian University hockey.
Many players like Rankin are now realizing that U Sports hockey is becoming a quality league, and a great place to play with tough competition.
When comparing U Sports to the East Coast Hockey League, Rankin noted, “I find Canada West hockey just as competitive as the East Coast teams.”
With a closer locker room, less time spent travelling and the ability to get an education, Rankin has enjoyed his time with the Cougars. Having that education has given Rankin a focus to work towards a life after hockey.
“Whether I play hockey for a few more years, or hockey ends in a couple years, who knows. It’s definitely nice to know that once my hockey career ends, all this schoolwork leads to a better job and a better career.”
Rankin’s friend Adrian Cole, a former member of the national whitewater slalom kayaking team, agrees with Rankin, even finding it similar to his situation as a fellow athlete.
“I think it's just a lot of those guys are just realizing that they need to be focused on their education, because there is life after hockey, so I think they're just trying to make the best decision possible for their future,” says Cole. “I was an athlete as well for quite along time, and it was the same decision for me, I had to go to school at the same time to set myself up for my future.”
Rankin and many others in the Cougars program believe that university hockey will become a more popular choice for other players coming out of junior, because you don’t need to go pro right away and can complete a degree first.
Rankin’s Cougars line mate Jamal Watson said, “The fact is, it’s only a matter of time before someone signs an NHL contract. We’re just taking it one step at a time as a program, it’s still growing and getting bigger. An example is the Crowchild Classic. It’s just things like that are gonna help grow the game for [Canadian Interuniversity Sport].”
Rankin believes other players will start to view university hockey as a viable way to continue a career in hockey.
“Hopefully more people coming out of junior start realizing that, because once you’re kind of stuck in the East Coast lifestyle, you’re stuck ... It’s definitely something those junior kids should really think about, because like I said, it’s a league that’s growing.”
- By Jackson Reed