By Kevin Mitchell, Vernon Morning Star
Cole Sanford has played alongside and had small talk with Connor McDavid. Tonight, he meets Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers.
Sanford, one of eight unsigned forwards on a tryout with the Oiler prospects, scored once and drew one assist as the Edmonton Rookies stopped the University of Alberta Golden Bears 6-3 before 14,434 fans Wednesday night at Rexall Place.
He found out moments after the 25th annual exhibition that he was not being sent back to the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, where he rang up 50 goals and 95 points last season.
“Guys were going for meetings (after the game) and I asked someone what was going on and they said if you didn’t get called to a meeting, you were staying with the team,” said Sanford, 20. “I was pretty happy to hear that.”
Sanford played for the Revelstoke Grizzlies as a 16-year-old rookie in the 2011/12 season. He recorded 53 points in 41 regular season games and scored four times in three playoff games. He joined the Medicine Hat Tigers the following year.
The NHL Oilers will gather for a meeting at 5 p.m. at the swanky Westin Hotel, where Sanford has been staying since the Canucks Young Stars Tournament in Penticton ended Monday.
“Maybe tomorrow when I’m on the ice with some of the veterans will be the moment when it sinks in,” said Sanford, enjoying a day off Thursday.
Sanford played on a line with McDavid and Kontinental League veteran Anton Slepyshev against Vernon’s James Dobrowolski and the two-time defending CIS champion Bears. Sanford drew an assist on Slepyshev’s goal which completed the offence with 5:02 remaining.
The highest point producer among the tryout forwards, Sanford beat U of A goalie Luke Siemens on a two-on-one rush with McDavid, who finished with three assists. Sanford’s snipe made it 5-3 and came 12 seconds after Jamie Crooks converted for the Bears.
“He (McDavid) saw me,” said Sanford, who wore No. 59. “I knew it was coming. You don’t have to say a lot about McDavid. His skating and skillwork are unreal. Him and (Leon) Draisaitl, sometimes you don’t even know they’re passing. Slepyshev is a good player, skilled and a heavy shot. We had a good night.”
Draisaitl, a first-round pick a year ago, earned first star with 1+3, while former Penticton Vee d-man Joey Laleggia also scored for the Oiler Rookies.
The exhibition is usually played at the university rink (Clare Drake Arena), but was moved due to the hype around McDavid. It was the largest crowd to ever watch a CIS team play.
“It was cool. I looked up at the crowd during the national anthem (Sanford’s line started) and even the top bowl was full.”
In Penticton, Sanford pocketed a few assists and played in all three games as the Oilers went 2-1, falling 5-4 in overtime to the Winnipeg Jets Monday.
Sanford played hard away from the puck, battling in the corners and in the crease, one time finding himself being clutched by 6-foot-7 monster Hunter Smith (Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals) Saturday night in front of the Flames’ net.
He also created some nifty plays with his sick dangling and great wheels before 4,888 fans in the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Sanford patrolled right wing with centre Kyle Platzer (Owen Sound Attack) and Connor Rankin (Calgary Hitmen) in three games at the Young Stars tournament. Rankin rang up 32 goals and 79 points with the Hitmen last year, while Platzer counted 34 snipes and 81 points with Owen Sound.
“It’s been good,” said Sanford, moments after Saturday’s tilt. “Every game, every shift you play, you get more used to playing out there. Just trying to get better every shift and every game and obviously, I felt a little more comfortable the second game and tried to make some plays and play smart out there.”
On skating with Rankin, Sanford said: “We just played to our strengths. Rankin’s a real good player. If we can build some chemistry in a short period of time, it helps. I think we’re all smart players and we’re here for a reason so we should be able to find and use each other.”
The Oilers erased a 2-0 deficit to ice the Flames 6-3, getting a penalty shot goal from Draisaitl and two empty-netters, one by Rankin, who wasn’t about to razz Sanford about the Hitmen knocking the Tigers out of the playoffs last spring.
“I like to be nice,” said Rankin, a North Vancouver native. “They had a really strong team last year and it was fun. We always had good games with them. It’s hard to rub something like that in someone’s face when it was such a good series all year round.”
Rankin said facing Sanford so many times in the WHL helped the pair find some solid chemistry.
Both Sanford and Rankin were impressed with the way McDavid carried himself in Penticton
Said Sanford: “He’s a real humble guy. If you saw him away from the rink, you might not even realize he’s a hockey player. I think it’s good to be like that, the way he handles everything. We all say, ‘It’s pretty tough to be him’ but he does a great job.”
Rankin gave props to McDavid for dealing with rock-star like attention.
“On the ice, everyone knows how good he is. Off the ice, the way he handles all the media and hype and all the nicknames he’s been given. If that was me, I’d crash under the pressure, but the way he handles it is second to none. I guess he’s handled it all his life and it’s amazing to see.”
Sanford said the pre-tourney testing done in Edmonton featured some grueling, new “stuff I’ve never really done.” He did well in things like VO2 max, one of the best indicators of aerobic fitness.
With files from Alex Cooper, Revelstoke Review