As an intermission guest on a Western Hockey League radio broadcast a few years ago, I was caught off guard during a live interview by a question I didn’t see coming.
The query went something to the effect of, “Who’s the favourite player you’ve interviewed for a feature, the player you most enjoyed writing about?”
I had no other choice but to buy myself some time.
“Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of preparation,” I deadpanned.
Fortunately, that assertion, which was 100-percent truthful, served its purpose.
The next words I uttered were, “Cole Ully”.
Around mid-season during the 2013-14 WHL campaign, I approached the Kamloops Blazers to arrange an opportunity to speak with Ully. I wanted to feature the then 18-year-old forward as part of my WHL coverage for the website, Hockey’s Future. A link to that article, published on Jan. 8, 2014, is located at the bottom of this feature.
Ully’s hockey road map to that point, in fact his off-ice story as well, appealed to me for a number of reasons. One of which was particularly personal.
As a 16-year-old rookie in his first WHL season, Ully returned to Calgary from Kamloops for the break in the schedule around Christmas time. While at home, his father Mark and mother Cindy shared with the family that Mark had been diagnosed with cancer – a form of Hodgkins lymphoma that reared its ugly head in the hockey community when Mario Lemieux was diagnosed.
Back in 2014, Mark explained, “Cole didn’t really say anything when we told him. He just kind of stared straight ahead for awhile, then he went upstairs. When he came back down, he just looked at me and said, “you’re going to be okay”. I think he just had to go and Google it all and figure it out on his own.”
Cole returned to Kamloops and played out the remainder of the season and playoffs while his father underwent treatment.
To me, this is poignant because night after night, junior hockey fans cough up their after-tax dollars to attend games. For junior hockey operators, this is a crucial consumer decision.
But, we never really know what’s going on in the lives of the players, do we? Most of us might only see the number on the jersey, then cheer or vent whenever we see fit.
In many WHL buildings, the fans are there for the right reasons – to be supportive of their hometown lads and enjoy the entertainment. Of course, there are others, bent on sullying the experience by ripping players, coaches and referees. Such antics illustrate a stark reality – part of the hockey culture across Canada.
Alas, just like the players, we all have to take the bad with the good.
And, for the record, Mark Ully is a cancer survivor, alive and well these days and according to Cole, he’s semi-retired and enjoying life.
Always A Blazer
Ully’s first two years with the Blazers were exciting for the youngster on the ice as the team was competitive and he meshed well with the core group of veteran players. Kamloops had some playoff success and for Ully, his body of work to that point earned him selection by the Dallas Stars in the fifth round, 131st overall, at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
However, the older players had either aged out or moved on from Kamloops and the organization then endured a couple of tough seasons. The Blazers won a paltry 14 games in 2013-14 and missed the playoffs. In 2014-15, the team doubled its production, but the 28-win campaign wasn’t quite enough as Kamloops missed out on a post-season wild-card berth by two points.
Ully, along with the likes of Matt Needham and Chase Souto among others, was tasked with assuming a number of different roles during those two down years. He rose to the occasion as the team’s scoring leader each season. Ully, who continues to ply his trade in the ECHL, provided an emphatic assessment of those two years during our interview.
Fast forward to 2020, a calendar year many of us would like to soon forget, and Ully continues to persist.
DUBNetwork spoke with the 25-year-old forward this week and reflected on his WHL career with the Blazers, his experience in the Dallas Stars organization and life in general as a professional hockey player. In Part 1, we’ll focus on his experiences in Kamloops.
Glen Erickson, DUBNetwork: What were some of the things you really enjoyed about playing in Kamloops?
Cole Ully: “Looking back, the billets I had, the teammates I had, essentially, it’s the people in the organization. I mean, we went through some tough times as everyone knows.
“I know in my last year, I kind of figured I might be traded. But, I’m kind of glad I didn’t get moved. To play my entire junior career for the same team, that’s something that I’m very proud of. Not every player can say that.”
GE: Looking back at the rosters those first two years in Kamloops, you played behind some veteran guys, some real productive forwards.
CU: “When I was 16, I wasn’t really getting big minutes, but I was learning a lot. It’s such a big adjustment going from any midget program to the WHL. A lot of 16-year-olds, they think they’re ready, but they’re not. There might be the odd exception.
“I think that one year for me, sitting out some games, fighting for ice time, really helped me to learn.
“The next year, my goal was just to be in the lineup every night, putting up some good numbers and playing with some good players. During my 17-year-old year, I was playing with (Brendan) Ranford and (J.C.) Lipon, then we traded for Joel Edmundson and kind of made a push in the playoffs.
“I maybe wasn’t a real core guy then, but I know I was part of helping us win games. That was a really fun year.”
GE: That post-season was exciting, you played 15 playoff games. And you took out Kelowna, swept them in that series. The Rockets had 52 wins, just nudged the Blazers for first place in the division. That’s such a great rivalry.
CU: “Yeah, exactly. We took the first two games in Kelowna, pretty handily, and I think we ended up winning the next two at home, both in overtime.
“It was really fun. Then the Portland series, we lost. That was the year after we were down 3-0 to them and took them to seven games. The Winterhawks were always a really, really good test for us.”
GE: When I looked at the rosters again, Matt Needham, Chase Souto, and all those young guys. When the veteran guys kind of moved on, the Blazers had a couple of tough years. A few of you went through that together.
CU: “Matt and I were 16 and Chase was 17 and we really connected well. Chase really helped us during my third year. It was pretty much us three who had been there for those two playoff years.
“Then basically it was put into our hands with a young group. We had a tough year, but when I look back, it might have been that season where I formed some of my favourite relationships.”
GE: What were some of the neat parts, interesting parts, the challenges with transitioning as a young player in a supportive role to becoming a pretty important part of the leadership group?
CU: “It was sure different. Now you’re an 18-year-old with a couple of years under your belt. You go from learning as a young guy to, alright, now it’s on you. It can be kind of a shock.
“You know, especially for Needham – goes from being a 17-year-old player to becoming the team captain. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, but I think he handled it really well.”
GE: You led the team in scoring those last couple of years, 72 points in 69 games, then 94 points in 69 games again. Obviously, you were able to play with some guys that were proficient offensively. But, just how tough is it to be productive when the team isn’t as deep as your opponents?
CU: “Well, when I was younger, I was like, oh man, I’m playing on this team that’s winning. But if I was on a bad team, I’d be playing much more and probably on the power play.
“Then, I kind of realized in those years when I was in those situations, when your team is not of the same calibre, it impacts your time with the puck, how you challenge for the puck, everything is reduced.
“Producing on a team that is kind of struggling can seem like okay, you guys are losing so you’re just trying to get points. But it’s definitely a lot harder to create chances when your team is struggling.”
GE: You played for three coaches while with the Blazers, those first couple of years it was Guy Charron.
CU: “Guy, could be hard on guys and he could get emotional at times. For me as a younger guy, all I wanted to do was play. But sometimes he’d have to sit me. It wasn’t too often, but it was hard on me.
“Then the next year, I know he was comfortable giving me more responsibility. And I think that really helped in my career. That was my draft year and he put me in some good situations with good players.”
GE: So, then it was Dave Hunchak. It’s not all on the coach, but that was the start of the team having kind of a tough time.
CU: “I think he left around January, maybe? He was our assistant coach before, the year we were great, then he gets handed the reins when almost all our older guys had left. I think he put a lot of pressure on himself to win, but we really didn’t have the pieces to do it.”
GE: How about Don Hay? That was your 94-point season.
CU: “Yeah, by then I was already established in the league. He liked me and I actually really liked playing for Don. I think he did a good job getting the best out of guys.
“I had a good relationship with him. I mean, I wouldn’t have gotten that many points if he hadn’t put me in so many situations. It came down to him putting the puck in my hands, really.
“But I’m not sure he was really as focused on that season, maybe more the next one. I understand that. Sure, it kind of sucked because I knew I was moving on, but I also watched how he worked to brings guys along, like Jermaine Loewen.”
GE: Well, three coaches. But, there was another guy there throughout your entire career. Any thoughts on Toledo (trainer Colin Robinson)?
CU: Oh yeah. He was definitely the glue that held things together there. Especially in the room, he’s always there. He’s very light-hearted. I think it helps a lot, especially when you’re young and feeling pretty stressed.
“He always took the time to talk and acknowledge all the guys. I know that everyone who’s played there, he worked really hard for everyone.”
GE: I’m impressed by your durability over those four years – that was a 72-game season when you were playing. Does a guy like Toledo play a role in that?
CU: “He helps a lot. I think a lot of it comes down to preparation, who your trainer is what kind of workouts help to take preventative steps to try to get ahead of the grind and stuff like that.
“I mean, I’ve seen guys hurt where it’s honestly just bad luck, there’s nothing you can do. I was fortunate to avoid stuff like that.
“But definitely, athletic trainers, those guys are there to help us with that preventative stuff. After every practice, those workouts, building good movement and good habits for the body which can help prevent injuries.”
Next: Part Two – Cole Ully’s professional career
Article published January 8, 2014: Competitive Ully shaped by life experiences