ST. CATHARINES, Ont. — At the hotel for the 2015 Top Prospects Game, Nick Merkley went on a scouting mission. He wasn’t looking to gain insights into Thursday night’s opposition – Team Cherry in this case – or for anything that would give him an on ice advantage playing in the showcase featuring the best young NHL draft prospects in the Canadian Hockey League.
What he was desperate to find was something far sweeter: An ice cream sandwich.
This season those cold treats have become an integral part of his pre-game ritual prior to home games with his Kelowna Rockets. Merkley said he once forgot to eat one and had a rough game, so he wanted to make sure he had one at the ready for the big game.
These are the capricious thoughts of teenage hockey stars.
“It’s probably not the best thing to have,” said Merkley with a smile, noting the Oreo are his favourite among ice cream sandwiches. “It’s working so far.”
There’s no question – ice cream or not – that Merkley is having a breakout year. He’s among the top three scorers in the Western Hockey League with 14 goals and 50 assists in 45 games. The Rockets are the top team in the WHL (34-8-3-0) with a roster full of big names and veteran talent.
Only recently, the Rockets made a pair of blockbuster deals to bring in star defenceman Josh Morrissey, who won gold with Team Canada, and standout forward Leon Draisaitl, who had been with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
Even with the all the star power, Merkley has carved out his own niche as an offensive threat.
A natural centre, he can also be his toughest critic, especially in a pressure-filled draft year.
“You’re always nitpicking your own game,” said Merkley, who is ranked 13th among North American skaters. “There are always small things you want to do better. I think so far it’s been it’s been good and hopefully it’ll carry over into the second half.”
By hockey standards, at 5-foot-10 and 191-pounds, the 17-year-old is still thought to be on the smaller side. In the summer he was able to work out in a group that also included Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle and Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green. Watching the kind of effort NHLers put into getting ready for the season left an impression on a junior star eager to one day join their ranks.
“To be able to see how they train off the ice is huge,” he said.
Despite the fact he plays with an edge, his size is still a knock he’s become accustomed to addressing. He sees his size as an advantage considering he’s a quick, shifty forward. Any detractors only serve to fuel his motivation.
“Being a smaller guy means you have to play with the biggest heart out there,” said Merkley. “You have to compete the hardest. It doesn’t matter how big you are, if you’re the hardest working and you use that to your advantage.
“You want to prove everyone wrong.”
It’s all a part of Merkley’s competitive nature that was fostered as a kid growing up in the Calgary suburb of Lake Bonavista. It was there on a lake close to the family home that he and his older brother Jay, a forward with the Swift Current Broncos, would spend hours playing shinny and honing their hockey skills.
"He was always a high energy kid," said Jay Merkley. "He was always the guy in the other team's face. Very skilled as well, but he really knew how to hit."
No matter what the game or challenge, Nick would have to beat the more mild-mannered Jay.
“He’s pretty mellow,” said the younger Merkley. “I get a little more heated after a loss.”
Since Jay, 19, was two years older, the pair never played any of their organized hockey together. The closest they’ve come is in the WHL, when the pair have faced off against each other. That has added another level to their sibling rivalry.
When Swift Current travelled to Kelowna for a game in early October, the brothers decided on a little wager. The loser would buy dinner. The Rockets won the game 4-0, and Nick made sure the debt was paid.
And, in true younger brother fashion, Nick said he ordered the most expensive item on the menu.
“I had to rub it in a little,” said Nick with a laugh.
"I owed him dinner," said Jay, sounding slightly peeved. "Let's just leave it at that."
All joking aside, Nick credits Jay with helping him navigate the junior hockey landscape. Despite the miles of separation and difficult team schedules, the brothers communicate often via text message or Skype. Jay talks glowingly about his brother's skills and what he's been able to accomplish this season with the Rockets heading towards the June draft.
"Impressed is a bit of an understatement," said Jay Merkley. "Watching him play hockey, it's something special. I always love watching his highlights and the things he can do with the puck - his vision, his play-making ability. In my opinion he's pretty much got it all. I think most teams would be crazy not to take him (at the draft)."
Having someone readily available to call and talk to about the daily rigors has been invaluable, even if it’s something as small as offering a word or two of encouragement.
The biggest piece of advice Jay has given his baby brother?
“It’s a roller coaster so you can’t get too high or too low throughout the year,” said Nick Merkley. “You have to truck through it. It’s a grind, but you have to have fun with it.”