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SPOTLIGHT: The wild rookie ride of Jake Neighbours

 

The Edmonton Oil Kings 2018-19 campaign gave fans their first substantial chance to get a glimpse into what kind of player their first round, fourth overall selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft really was.

They soon realized there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Jake Neighbours.

The 5-foot-11.5, 196 pound Airdrie, AB native had an impressive 16-year-old campaign with the Oil Kings after getting his first taste of major junior the year prior, dressing in 11 games over the course of the 2017-18 regular season. Neighbours says that sneak-peek into the WHL as an underager helped prepare him for what was to come.

“Obviously, the confidence is there a little bit more,” Neighbours said. “After playing a handful of games in the League as a 15-year-old the year before, you kind of get a taste for it.

“It was all still pretty new to me at the beginning of this year, but I think one of the biggest things it did was it allowed me to come into my 16-year-old season a lot more mature, stronger and bigger.”

Big and strong are two physical attributes you can’t help but notice at first glance of the left shooting left winger, but the maturity displays itself almost just as quickly. Hockey Canada was among those to take notice, as Neighbours was invited to participate in the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge in November as a member of Team Canada White.

“It was surreal,” said Neighbours of learning he was one of 66 players named to one of three Canadian squads. “I talked about it with my parents and my advisor beforehand that it could be a possibility for me, then for it to become a reality and to see my name on that roster was pretty unbelievable.

“You dream of playing for Team Canada your whole life.”

Not only did he earn a spot on the team but he was chosen to lead it, being named the team’s captain ahead of the onset of the tournament.

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“It was just an honour,” he reflected. “I played with a lot of great leaders on that team and I bet almost everyone there had worn a letter at some point or another during their career. To be chosen to lead that group of guys and to represent Hockey Canada while wearing the ‘C’ is something I’ll never forget.”

The tournament also represented a unique opportunity for the Alberta product to experience the Maritimes for the first time, with the games being played in Quispamsis and Saint John, New Brunswick. It marked the first time the World U-17 Challenge was hosted east of Quebec since Cape Breton, Nova Scotia hosted in 2014.

“It’s a pretty unique place; it’s pretty much a whole different type of Canada over there,” Neighbours said of the communities of 18,000 and 67,000, respectively. “We didn’t get to do a ton of sightseeing with our schedule being pretty busy, but we did stuff like team walks close to the hotel and going out to eat at restaurants.

“Hearing some of the slang that the locals out there use, that was pretty cool,” he laughed. “It was a great overall experience.”

However, there eventually came a downside. Canada White was an impressive 3-0 (won-loss) through preliminary play, but were stunned by a 4-3 shootout loss to Finland in quarter-final action.

Their run for gold had promptly and hastily ended.

“We had a great round-robin and had some great moments as a team in the preliminary round, but losing in the quarter-finals – that was tough,” said Neighbours. “We fully believed that we could have won the entire tournament, so yeah, that was a tough one to take.

“But I also think it’s something that will motivate me in the future. I won’t forget how disappointing that feeling was, so it just reminds you how important every game can be.”

It was easy to see Neighbours took that heartache and channeled it into an even fiercer work ethic when he returned to the Oil Kings.

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Neighbours finished out the unofficial first half of the season by tallying eight goals and 19 points through his first 34 games, constantly among the League’s rookie scoring leaders. During the last game of the calendar year, on December 30 versus the Red Deer Rebels, he registered his eighth goal of the season but also his second fight – and it would end up costing him more than just a five-minute major.

Neighbours was sidelined for 12 games after enduring an upper body injury. Watching his teammates from the sidelines or the press box while he waited for his body to heal proved every bit as challenging – if not more so – than the loss at U-17’s. Despite the Oil Kings going an impressive 8-3-0-1 in his 12-game absence, he still felt a great deal of frustration at not being able to contribute on-ice to the team’s success.

Finally, he was cleared to return on February 2 versus the Saskatoon Blades, but the return was anything but what he was expecting or had hoped for. Near the midway point of the third period, Neighbours was given a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct, followed by a four-game suspension.

“At the start of the season things were going well, then I got injured, then suspended, and it was kind of difficult to get back into the rhythm of things.”

Whether it was the extended time away from the game, or some line-juggling by head coach Brad Lauer – or maybe a little of both – Neighbours started to feel like he was back in the groove when he found himself playing with linemates David Kope and overager Andrew Fyten.

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The connection between the three was undeniable, playing responsibly and effectively at both ends of the ice. Neighbours’ positive impact was felt by way of his physical presence, but also his point-scoring prowess throughout the Oil Kings lengthy playoff run which saw him finish tied for third in post-season team scoring.

“The whole year I had the mindset that I wanted to contribute more offensively,” said Neighbours. “I started figuring things out when I was put on the line with [David] Kope and [Andrew] Fyten. The team had the 11-game win streak going into the playoffs and were playing some really good hockey.

“I just felt like I knew what my job and my role was, and if I stuck to that, that the numbers would come,” he added. “Like I said, Fyten and Kope were so easy to play with. We were a force every time we were on the ice so I have to give them a lot of credit.”

His linemates weren’t the only ones he greatly enjoyed playing alongside. Ask any number of Oil Kings players and they’ll remember their 2018-19 squad for the relationships that were made, and the closeness the group enjoyed.

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“We had such a great group of guys this past season,” Neighbours said. “You couldn’t wait to get to the rink and you enjoyed being with the guys all the time. Time flies when you’re having fun, and we sure were.

“I wish it could have lasted a little bit longer, but I can’t complain. We accomplished a lot and it was a great year.”

His focus will change as the 2019-20 season draws near. This year isn’t about getting his feet wet and learning the ropes quite the same way as the past two seasons were. Sure, development is about constantly learning, but Neighbours will be under the microscope as the former first rounder enters his first year of NHL Draft eligibility.

“I talked to [Robertson] and [Kope] who went through their first year of eligibility this year. I asked them what they went through in their meetings and what was on their questionnaires, things like that and what to expect. Those guys helped give me a head start on knowing what I might expect this coming season.”

To ensure he’s as physically prepared as possible, he’s enlisted the guidance and training of Doug Crash with Crash Conditioning in Calgary, near his hometown.

“I’m working out there five times a week, but I’m not changing too much of my previous training regimen,” he said. “If there’s one thing about my training that we’ve changed it’s that we’ve emphasized a little more on rest and recovery.

“One of the goals for this season is the possibility of playing in some other tournaments; potentially the [Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL] Top Prospects Game and hopefully another long playoff run. It’s obviously gonna be a pretty busy year and we’re focusing on me getting bigger, stronger, quicker and faster, but we’re also concentrating a lot on rest and the overall health of my body.”

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The NHL Draft will certainly be a focal point for Neighbours, but as always, he’ll ensure all other important facets of his day-to-day life are being taken care of – with school at the top of the list.

He completed his Grade 11 year at Salisbury Composite High School where he enrolled in four academic courses and maintained an honors standing in addition to his first full-time WHL season. At the end of the regular season he was named the Oil Kings Scholastic Player of the Year, and the pressure will only amplify as he becomes Draft eligible and prepares for high school graduation.

But when it comes to the pressure, Neighbours says bring it on.

“Personally, I love pressure. I love having pressure on me all the time, I think it makes me better.

“I’m honestly just really excited, and I can’t wait for it all to start.”

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