Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - In the world of Connor Rankin, hockey and education are intertwined.
A former WHL standout with the Tri-City Americans and Calgary Hitmen, the 22-year-old from North Vancouver is in his first full season at Mount Royal, where he is the leading scorer in Canada West and has helped the Cougars become mainstays in the U SPORTS Top 10 rankings.
Meanwhile, he's working towards a Business Administration degree with a major in Accounting, while holding down a part-time analytics job with the NHL's Calgary Flames.
"Literally he is a student of the game," says Cougars men's hockey coach Bert Gilling.
"One of the decision makers for him to eventually come to Mount Royal University and play university hockey was he didn't see (age) 21 as being the end-all and be-all of his hockey career, and I think that's why he's thriving now in all areas," Gilling continues.
"He came to us for the right reasons. He wanted to continue to develop and he felt he had more room to grow as a player and as a young man. He was really enthused to get going on school, getting a university degree is something that's important to him."
The six-foot forward enters the last weekend of January ranked first or tied for top spot in nearly every major Canada West statistical category, including goals (14), assists (15), points (29), power-play goals (7), and game-winning goals (3).
"He's very dynamic offensively ... his gift is being able to score goals, and he can score goals a lot of different ways, which is how I personally define a goal-scorer," Gilling says. "He's a threat every time he touches the puck."
Rankin enrolled at Mount Royal last winter, joining the Cougars midway through the schedule and recording seven points in 11 games. He had started the season in the ECHL, playing 13 games with the Norfolk Admirals before deciding on another route to his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL.
"Now that I've played a full year and experienced (Canada West), I think it's the best thing for my career," says Rankin, who logged 339 games in the WHL between 2010 and 2015, scoring 121 times and racking up 268 points.
"The hockey is second to none when you think about players trying to make their way to the NHL. A lot of us are 20 to 25 years old, but still have a lot of desire and the strength and skill to still play some good hockey."
During the off-season, Rankin was offered a full-time position with the Flames. While it was too much to accommodate into his already busy schedule, Rankin didn't want to miss out on the opportunity. He suggested sharing work with Cougars captain Matt Brown, and the Flames agreed.
Duties include watching game film and providing descriptions of the play. Observing the highest level of hockey from an analytical perspective has proven invaluable experience for Rankin and Brown, who is scoring at a higher rate than any of his previous four seasons with the Cougars.
"That's translating to our game," Rankin says. "Just watching hockey, subconsciously we're picking things up. So it's the kind of a job where we probably benefit from it too."
Rankin's cerebral nature is reflected in his educational pursuits. The accounting student makes no secret of his fondness for numbers.
"I just enjoy it because, unlike everything else, it comes to down to one number and it's either right or it's wrong."
That's not quite the case with the U SPORTS top 10 rankings, which are subjective. But most would agree the voters have got it right by including MRU in the rankings every week but the first this season – a tremendous accomplishment for a program in only its fifth year of Canadian university competition.
"We're exceeding expectations of people outside of Cougar hockey ... but as a team, our expectation is to win a national championship," says Rankin. "So whether people find that crazy or whatever, that's our goal and we want to be that team that takes that home this year."
It certainly isn't at all far-fetched to think the Cougars could capture a title while their lineup includes Rankin, who is among a wave of major junior hockey grads making an impact in U SPORTS.
For the fall semester of the 2016-17 academic year, a record 355 WHL Scholarships were awarded to players, with 202 of those recipients furthering their education while playing Canadian university hockey, including 142 in Canada West and 17 at Mount Royal.
"We need to celebrate the young people like Connor Rankin in our sport," Gilling says. "That's what this is all about, and that's why I love coaching and being associated with university hockey. He's a great example of what the great thing about this level is. It's not about money; it's about development, it's about growing.
"Connor loves being a student. He loves walking to campus and he loves putting on the university jersey and playing university hockey. He loves what it entails," continues Gilling. "I don't think he's had a bad day yet, and in time he's a guy who's going to get his university degree and you just know he's going to be successful in life no matter what he does.
"He's going to be able to go play pro hockey for a while, there's no question about that, but you know that Connor Rankin is going to be a success in life no matter what he does. To me that's what it's all about."
To learn more about the WHL Scholarship Program, click here.