PENTICTON – Connor and Kellen Jones didn’t have to score any eye-popping goals to impress their coach in the NHL Young Stars Classic.
Todd Nelson of the American Hockey League Oklahoma City Barons knows exactly what he gets sending the twins over the boards.
“If every player had the work ethic that they had, it would be a really fun game to watch because there would be high intensity and a lot of pressure,” said Nelson, following a 4-3 Edmonton Oilers’ win over the Calgary Flames in the Battle of Alberta last Saturday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
“I thought they played exceptionally well,” added Nelson. “One thing that always pops out is just their work ethic and their tenacious play. They were the go-to-guys at the end to preserve the win.”
Nelson said the twins play a smart game at both ends and are relentless in hunting the puck. They make it hard for other teams and he likes how they close time and space really quick and never give up. He also loves their play on special teams, especially the penalty kill.
“They’re good, solid people and it’s hard not to love these guys because they work so extremely hard,” he said.
The Barons’ head coach added that while the products from Montrose, B.C., are probably not as skilled or possess the finish other players in the tournament do, “their work ethic is unmatched.”
“It’s incredible to watch them play a game for 60 minutes,” said Nelson. “They definitely don’t look out of place. If anything, they stand out as two players that can really help any team in this tournament.”
Connor, who with his brother helped the Vernon Vipers win back-to-back Royal Bank Cups, said it’s been amazing to play in the tournament. Having spent the last four years with the NCAA Quinnipiac Bobcats, they weren’t able to experience the pro event.
“That was unreal just to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be at the top level in the world,” said Connor, who amassed 49 goals and 129 points in 153 games with Quinnipiac. “Being here right now with some of the top players in the game, we are just trying to learn everything we can, relish it really.
“We want to play at the highest level possible,” said Connor, who used to love watching superstar Pavel Bure play. “It’s our job now. What a feeling. It’s a dream come true.”
Connor said four years of college hockey allowed them to get bigger and stronger. He realizes now the game means employment. Putting on the Oilers jersey was a rush.
“It was a pretty special feeling,” said Connor, who signed with Edmonton as a free agent after his college career ended. “I know it’s only rookie camp, but it’s an NHL team jersey. It’s just been a great experience.”
For Kellen, drafted by the Oilers in 2010, in the seventh round, 202nd overall, the feeling is mutual.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time to come here,” he said. “We’re not allowed to come to rookie camp in university. Really excited to be here with so many great players. We’ve been working hard and that’s what we do.”
Kellen rang up 53 goals and 127 points with the Bobcats and had one assist in five games with Oklahoma City late last season.
Asked what he liked best about the Young Stars tournament, Kellen joked: “I like wearing a visor instead of a full face shield.”
Both former Beaver Valley Nitehawks enjoyed being back in Penticton.
“It’s funny, coming back to Penticton, it’s kind of where it all began,” said Kellen, who along with his brother, joined the Vipers as 16-year-olds and helped Vernon stun the Vees in the playoffs at old Memorial Arena. “The first two games have been great for us.”
Added Connor: “It’s kind of cool that it’s where it started and now we are back here at this tournament,” said Connor. “It’s a special place for us and a lot of good memories for sure.”
Connor also got in five games with the Barons last year, picking up one minor penalty.
“It was great,” said Connor. “Coach Nelson and the staff there were awesome. We didn’t play much in the playoffs, but we got to practise and learn so it has really helped us out here with the systems that we did there. We’re looking forward to getting back there and having a good year.”
Kellen says time at Quinnipiac (near Hartford, Conn.) included amping up the Bobcats’ resume.
“We tried to create a winning culture in the Vipers’ locker room, and with a great group of guys, we developed and maintained a similar culture in college. We had winning seasons and lost the national championship game last year (to Yale Bulldogs). The program has really taken off and we like to think we helped out. It was a great place to be and were very lucky.”