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‘Driven, motivated’ Zellweger looking for more hardware with Canada at world juniors

Olen Zellweger was firing puck after puck into the shooting cage one day following practice.

Olen Zellweger was firing puck after puck into the shooting cage one day following practice.

Lost in the off-ice training – picking corners and snapping rubber off iron – time must have got away from the defenceman and a couple of his teammates.

Because when they returned to their dressing room in the darkened arena, the door was locked.

Everyone else had left.

“We couldn’t get our phones or keys to go home,” Zellweger recalled with grin.

So, what did they do during the roughly 30 minutes it took for a member of the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips front office to circle back and liberate their personal belongings?

Went back to shooting, of course.

“That was a funny story,” added the soft-spoken 19-year-old poised to play a big role for Canada at a second consecutive world junior hockey championship

It’s was also an example of a drive, a relentlessness, a nothing-else-matters approach that’s helped propel the undersized Zellweger forward in the game he desperately loves.

Standing five foot 10 and weighing 182 pounds, the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., product has battled against critics and doubters his whole life – including getting passed over by Hockey Canada for an under-17 summer camp.

“I was pretty small, pretty slight,” he said. “That definitely fuelled me.”

Canadian head coach Dennis Williams, who holds the same role in Everett along with serving as Silvertips general manager, has watched Zellweger’s desire to push and push first-hand over the last four WHL seasons, two of which were hampered by COVID-19.

“Such a driven, motivated player,” Williams said. “Everybody talks about that with these types of athletes – elite guys – but he’s at a whole different level. He’s destined. He wants to be an NHL player. And he said that from Day 1. He’s a guy, and I can’t make this up, we’ve got to go get off the ice.

“Literally the last guy out.”

Another example of that uncompromised determination came during 2020-21 WHL season, when the Silvertips were staying in college dorms as a pandemic precaution.

The facility in Everett, a city just north of Seattle, was mostly empty except for the players, but Zellweger still made his presence felt.

Selected 34th overall by the Anaheim Ducks at the 2021 NHL draft, he brought along a stickhandling pad to stay sharp and pass the time – much to the chagrin of the few remaining residence assistants in the building.

“We got a call about the noise,” Williams said with a laugh.

“Wasn’t the quietest,” Zellweger, who shoots left and will practise stickhandling off the ice two or three hours at a time, added of his setup. “But that’s what I need to do to get better and take the next step.”

After scoring once in Canada’s two games at last year’s world juniors that were eventually shuttered because of COVID-19 outbreaks, he led the reimaged August tournament in scoring among defencemen with two goals and 11 points to help his country win its 19th gold medal.

“Cerebral player,” said James Boyd, a member of Canada’s management group and GM of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. “He really picks his spots. It never seems like he’s out of position or forcing the issue, but he makes an impact offensively every game.

“Always thinking one step ahead.”

Canadian forward Logan Stankoven said Zellweger’s instincts and unbridled passion for the game help set him apart as the group prepares for its opener Dec. 26 in Halifax.

“Those are the guys you want on your team,” he said. “Those are guys that lead you to championships.”

Williams, meanwhile, had high praise for Zellweger’s skating, which he compared to Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar – the reigning Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

“Just an innate ability,” Williams said of a player with 28 points in 23 WHL games this season. “Sometimes he leads our forecheck. His edges, his pivoting, his ability to walk a line and give that fake and pull back … I don’t know how you teach that.”

Zellweger, who uses his stick, speed and hockey sense to make up for any size mismatches when defending, tries to model a two-way game after Nashville Predators blue-liner and 2020 Norris winner Roman Josi.

“Good engine,” he said. “He’s offensive, he’s defensive. That’s what I want to strive to be.”

Williams called Zellweger one of the “poster players” in Everett because of both his journey and work ethic.

“Everyone thinks he just showed up and was a top-2 defenceman,” said the coach. “He was No. 6 when he first came in. He was undersized, had to learn how to use his body against six-foot-three 19-year-olds.

“He’s just been determined.”

That work continues as Zellweger focuses on securing a second world junior gold medal.

“Always last out of the rink,” he said. “Always been that way.”

Especially when the dressing room door is locked.