Regina, Sask. – There was a time in his career when Connor Hobbs wasn’t sure he wanted to play hockey anymore.
He had lost the passion for the game he once loved and he was on the verge of walking away from it all.
“Sometimes things just don’t work,” said the 20-year-old Hobbs, referring to his time prior to joining the Regina Pats.
There was Medicine Hat – the second WHL stop for the former Saskatoon Blazers defenceman. Selected in the fourth round (67th) of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft by the Prince Albert Raiders, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound blueliner never played a game in Prince Albert. In January 2013, Hobbs was shipped to Medicine Hat as part of a blockbuster trade that saw Dylan Busenius and Jayden Hart moved to the Raiders in exchange.
Upon joining the Tigers, Hobbs played a grand total of 22 games split between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons before coming to the aforementioned crossroads – he simply wasn’t enjoying hockey. He loved the city, he loved playing in The Arena but something just wasn’t clicking for him. The fit wasn’t right. He let the team know where he was at, how he felt and what he needed if he was going to continue pursuing his Western Hockey League career. Then John Paddock came calling.
“[The Regina Pats] showed me it’s not the same all the way through in hockey,” Hobbs said. “There are different ways of doing things on every team. There are great people – people that want to help you, not only as a hockey player but as a person.
“With the coaching staff we have, they care about us. Not to say other teams don’t care about their players. But in my experience, I can confidently say our coaching staff, right from John [Paddock] all the way to Brad Herauf and Robbie Muntain… They want us to be great people. They want us to become men and they help teach us a lot about life as well as about hockey. It’s pretty special.”
On Jan. 5, 2015, Hobbs was part of yet another blockbuster deal – this time between the Tigers and Regina Pats. Bundled with a second-round pick in 2016 and a third-round pick in 2015, Hobbs was Regina bound in exchange for veteran defenceman Kyle Burroughs and forward Dryden Hunt, who eventually went on to be the WHL’s leading scorer – as a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors – in 2015-16.
Since coming to the Queen City, Hobbs has not only rediscovered his love for the game he grew up playing, he’s flourished into one of the best defencemen in the WHL today. After being selected by the Washington Capitals in the fifth round (143rd) of the 2015 NHL Draft, Hobbs put forth a strong effort in the following season, registering 41 points (19G-22A) in 58 games as Paddock laid the foundation for the dominant Pats squad fans have witnessed this season. Having been named the Eastern Conference Defenceman of the Year for 2016-17, Hobbs recorded career highs in goals (31), assists (54) and points (85) through 67 games, elevating his play to another level once again.
“I just played him,” Paddock said of working with Hobbs upon his arrival in Regina. “Play him, treat him like we treat the rest of the players – like they’re men. That’s what we do.
“At times, he can be a bit of a wild stallion on the ice. I think that’s our biggest point of teaching for him – less is more, for just about everybody. A defenceman’s first job is to stop the other team from scoring. Then what you do after that becomes a bonus – moving the puck, scoring goals. We’ve tried to round out his game and help him become a complete player.”
Hobbs’ two-way ability has noticeably trended in the right direction and that has heavily impacted the Pats’ fortunes in 2016-17. After helping his team claim the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as WHL Regular Season Champions, Hobbs’ immediate focus is on aiding Regina in winning its first WHL Championship since 1980, a task that won’t come easy with the high-flying Seattle Thunderbirds owning a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 of the 2017 WHL Championship Series presented by Rogers.
But once this dream season comes to a close – be that this week in the Land of Living Skies or two weeks from now at the Mastercard Memorial Cup in Windsor, Ont. – the smooth-skating defenceman will be tasked with the next challenge in his hockey career as he prepares to make the jump from major junior to the professional ranks within the Capitals’ organization.
Paddock has been on both sides of the junior-to-pro transition, having coached in the WHL, American Hockey League and National Hockey League. There may not be a person more qualified than Paddock when it comes to assessing the strengths of a player and the challenges they will face upon making the leap from the WHL to the AHL or NHL.
“In the American League, less is more – moving the puck, defend, compete,” Paddock said. “I remember something Kenny Holland [general manager of the Detroit Red Wings] said one time – if a player turns pro and can go play in the American League and be a regular player, he has a good chance to play in the NHL. This is the biggest step. From junior to the American League is the biggest step. From the American League to the NHL is a big deal, but it isn’t the biggest step.
“[In the AHL], you’re playing against guys where that’s how they make their living. You’re just starting out and as much as we try to emphasize in junior that you have to play every game, there’s been mismatches for us, especially this year and so you have to understand every game is played for keeps.”
Having stacked up 147 points (53G-94A) over 180 career WHL regular season games along with another 35 points (12G-23A) in 42 WHL post-season contests, Hobbs has proven his ability to dictate the outcome of a game at this level. His heavy shot is feared by goaltenders and his compete level is loved by coaches and teammates. Paddock has no doubt Hobbs’ opportunity in the NHL will come, so long as he continues to put in time and refine his game.
No matter what the future holds or where hockey takes Connor Hobbs from this point, he remains grateful for his time spent in the WHL, even through all the speed bumps along the way.
“It’s not always smooth sailing,” Hobbs said. “My time in the Western League has shown me how to handle things, how to treat other people and how to come to the rink every day with my work boots on. John talks about that quite a bit. It’s hard to listen – you’ve got to work to listen. It’s important for us. The relationship I have with my teammates and how close we are – it’s really helped me become a better person and a better player. I have the Western League to thank for that.”
Game 6 of the 2017 WHL Championship is scheduled for tonight (6 p.m. MT – WHL on Shaw, Access 7, This TV) at the Brandt Centre in Regina. If necessary, Game 7 of the 2017 WHL Championship will be played Monday (7 p.m. MT – WHL on Shaw, Access 7, This TV) from the Brandt Centre in Regina.