by Justin Cait | AHL On The Beat
They aren’t always pretty, but each goal counts just the same on the scoresheet.
At least that was the case on Oct. 6 when Bridgeport Sound Tigers 20-year-old forward Kieffer Bellows felt his first professional goal go off of his skate and in, less than two periods into his pro debut against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
“It was definitely very satisfying. A lot of excitement there,” Bellows said. “You’re always excited to play professional hockey one day. You dream of it when you’re younger and to get your first goal in your first game is a nice monkey off the back.”
While it was Bellows’ first professional goal, it’s not out of the ordinary to see his arms in the air as the red light flashes above the net.
Before arriving in Bridgeport, the New York Islanders’ 2016 first-round pick (19th overall) took a relatively non-traditional path by playing amateur hockey in both the NCAA and the Western Hockey League. In college, Bellows laced up his skates under current New York Rangers head coach David Quinn at Boston University, but left after his freshman year to play more games and a longer schedule. He headed west and joined the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, where he mustered 41 goals and 33 assists in 56 games played.
Despite his success in major juniors — not to mention a record-setting nine goals at the 2018 World Junior Championship where he represented Team USA — the adjustment to professional hockey is one that is difficult for any rookie to prepare for until you are immersed within it.
“Just going through both leagues, and now adjusting to the ‘A’, I would say the mental speed of the game, the hockey IQ, and just how fast the guys think the game is really where the transition happens,” Bellows said.
But now seven games into his professional career, Bellows is already making that transition appear seamless.
“I’ve been happy with the steps he’s taking, that’s for sure,” Bridgeport head coach Brent Thompson said. “I think he’s in a good place right now and he if continues to focus on those little details within the game, you’re going to see a really good hockey player in the NHL some day.”
Outwardly, those “little details” Thompson speaks of will ultimately come to fruition on the ice, but the process of working out, eating healthy and treating the body right begins away from the rink.
Now in his third year and not so far removed from his own rookie season, Islanders 2014 first-round pick Michael Dal Colle can attest to how crucial the off-ice diligence is in attempts to making the transition a successful one.
“I think, honestly, it’s just about the day-in, day-out habits off the ice as well,” Dal Colle said. “Just getting in the gym, taking care of your body — and it’s not like juniors anymore. You take some more bumps playing against a lot bigger and stronger guys. So in terms of taking care of your body and eating healthy, the off-ice stuff is huge.”
Luckily for Bellows, he is not alone throughout the process. While there are other rookies on the team for him to share the new experiences with, there also happens to be a collection of seasoned veterans on the Sound Tigers that have been through it all before too.
Headlined by the AHL’s active leading scorer, Chris Bourque, Bridgeport boasts one of the most experienced groups in the league. In addition, guys like Steve Bernier, Mike Sislo, Stephen Gionta, Seth Helgeson and Ben Holmstrom are just a few of the players that carry their NHL pedigree into the Sound Tigers room.
And by regularly playing alongside Tanner Fritz — another young forward who spent a large chunk of the 2017-18 campaign on Long Island — it can only benefit Bellows’ maturation moving forward. He’s also spent a lot of time alongside Bernier in practice and games during the early goings of 2018-19.
“Just going through what he’ll be going through this year, (the veterans have) been through it before… they’ve seen it all,” Thompson added. “I mean, (Bernier and Gionta) have been in the Stanley Cup Final, so to have that kind of experience on your wings, to be able to talk to the kid on the bench, it’s a great advantage that we have and Kieffer is soaking it up.”
It’s not the first time Bellows is used to having NHL experience around him either. While it was his mom that took him to the early-morning practices as a kid, Kieffer’s father Brian Bellows, a Stanley Cup champion and member of the NHL’s 1,000-point club, was the one who put him on skates to begin with.
However, Kieffer is more than ready to forge his own way at the professional level.
“I see a little bit of myself in my dad’s game and people have told me that before,” Bellows said. “But right now I’m trying to create my own path, and be my own player and make it to the NHL through my skill set.”
With three points through his first seven games in the AHL, Bellows has already proven that he can keep up with the professional pace of play.
Although noted as a dependable 200-foot player by both coaches and teammates alike, at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, his combination of size in front of the net, durability in the corners and capacity to get quick, yet effective shots off in tight areas, makes for a prototypical offensive power forward.
But Bellows knows that the early success is just one step in a long road ahead.
“I just try to go to work every single day and work hard in the weight room, work hard on the ice, and do the little things, so when I get my opportunity I’m ready for it.”