Going from the British Columbia Hockey League to the Western Hockey League is a jump.
But going from the BCHL to the National Hockey League in under two years’ time?
That’s what Matt Ellison of the Norfolk Admirals did, making the leap from the BCHL to the AHL with a one-year layover in WHL Red Deer along the way. On Feb. 1, Ellison made his National Hockey League debut with the Chicago Blackhawks and even registered an assist.
Just about unheard of today, the normal path for a Western Canadian going the junior route being Junior B, the WHL and then, should such an opportunity arise, the pro game. Those doing so log at least three, if not four years in the WHL.
It’s an unusual path, of course. Ellison played in the BCHL waiting for a Division I opportunity. Instead, he made the jump to the WHL nearly out of his teens, just enough time for him to prepare for a pro career.
Trent Yawney‘s Admirals rank among the AHL’s lowest-scoring teams, his systems-oriented approach and reliance on the goaltending trio of Steve Passmore, Michael Leighton and Craig Anderson being priority one.
This season has been a struggle for Norfolk, who must grind out their wins.
The quantum leap from BCHL to an offensively challenged Norfolk club hasn’t deterred Ellison, who has put up solid rookie numbers with 11 goals and 14 assists in 49 games prior to his first NHL recall this past weekend.
A slew of summer changes left the Admirals very much a changed team, a very young one at that. Ellison was part of the new vanguard, one of eight rookies in the Admirals’ mix this year.
Ellison, who just turned 20 in December, came to Norfolk bearing very formidable WHL numbers. He piled up 40 goals and 56 assists with Red Deer last season, his first and only one in the WHL
The WHL named the left wing its rookie of the year last season. For good measure, the Canadian Hockey League bestowed the same honor as well.
The past two seasons have afforded Ellison with opportunities to play for Red Deer head coach Brent Sutter and Yawney, considered to be two of the best of the coaching business. Both put together solid NHL careers and have years of accumulated experience in and around the game.
For a player knocking at the NHL’s door, those two names can help accelerate the development process.
“They’ve both been there and know what it takes.”
Two of Ellison’s Red Deer teammates, Matt Keith and Carsen Germyn, accompanied him east to Norfolk to start their pro careers. The three now share a place in Norfolk, bringing a certain comfort level to Ellison’s first year of the AHL.
“It is weird,” Ellison said, to have two Red Deer faces along with him for the AHL ride.
However, with two familiar faces and a young team in general, the Admirals are a solid fit for Ellison.
“I like it. A great bunch of guys and a great coach.”
Of course, the AHL can be a brutal place for a young team, and the Admirals faced that early in the season. The Casey Hankinsons, Matt Hendersons and Mike Pelusos had moved on over the summer, taking with them the experience that can help a raw team make their way through the league intact until the youth can learn the AHL game.
“I started off a little slowly. It’s started to turn around, myself and the team. Every game I think I’ve gotten stronger and more aggressive and learned the game more.”
Ellison, who never topped 102 penalty minutes at the junior level, has beefed up the nasty side of his game. His 96 penalty minutes jump off the Norfolk statistical ledger. He is running the AHL gauntlet that many rookies face, opponents looking to test him and his willingness to endure the physical side of the AHL.
So far, he has not backed down.
“It’s not really a part of my game,” Ellison acknowledged, “but I’m not going to back down from anyone.”
“You can’t take any nights off. You just got to go out there and work hard.”