Inside the Geekie brothers' journey from Strathclair to the NHL Draft

Conor Geekie during practice ahead the 2022 CHL/NHL Top Prospects game in Kitchener, Ont. (Geoff Robins/CP)

Morgan Geekie can still pinpoint the moment he realized his younger brother Conor might be something special on the ice.

It was nearly a decade ago, long before Morgan was making his name with the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, long before Conor was making his own with the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice. The pair were back in their hometown of Strathclair, Manitoba, out on the ice at the local arena with their middle brother, Noah. Morgan was 15 at the time, in the early days of his run with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans. Taking a spin around the rink, he got himself ready to begin showing up his younger siblings. And then he spotted nine-year-old Conor across the sheet.

“You know, I can do skills stuff for sure, I would consider myself pretty skilled,” Morgan prefaces. “And I look down at the other end of the ice, when me and my brothers are just skating, and Conor’s over there, six years younger than I am, doing things that I can barely do now.

“You could tell the skill was there.”

From the beginning, the youngest Geekie brother has always been nice with the puck on his stick. And all those hours passed in Strathclair Arena with his brothers played a key part.

“It was just being at the rink,” Morgan says of how he and his brothers became enamoured with the game. “Just us three, any hour of the day, after school. My dad had keys to the rink. And it was always me versus those two, because it was always the oldest versus the two youngest. Constant bickering, going back and forth, goals that shouldn't count, things like that.

“I think that's definitely where the competitiveness and everything started. Those nights at the rink, just the three of us, just having fun playing hockey. That's where the love of the game, for us, definitely started.”

If you set off walking from one end of Main Street in Strathclair, kicking off the journey at the Strathclair Community School, you’d be at the other end of town in about 13 minutes. It’s the kind of town that breeds athletes out of necessity. The kind of community where every kid signs up to play every sport — not necessarily because they’re keen on building themselves up into well-rounded athletes, but because if they don’t, the teams won't have enough players to play.

For the Geekies, that meant growing up spending just as much time playing baseball in the summers as they did hockey in the winters. Not to mention volleyball, badminton, and any other sport that prompted banners to be hung in that school on Main Street — most of which are dotted with the name ‘Geekie.’

Looking back, the impact that busy schedule had on how the siblings developed as athletes wasn’t slight.

“I think playing different sports was huge,” Conor says. “I'm a big believer in trying to get as many sports in as you can, while obviously still focusing on your main one.” For the trio’s youngest, it was baseball, especially — where Conor played shortstop, centre field, pitcher and catcher, and could toss a ball around 87 m.p.h. on a good day — that gave him plenty of lessons he carried over to the ice.

“I think it made me who I am — you go through a lot of ups and downs in baseball," he says. "Baseball especially, it’s a mental thing. Sometimes you might not be able to hit a ball for 10 games. Or in hockey you might not score for a month. I think there’s a lot of similarities, and you learn a lot of different things from different sports.”

Trace it back to the beginning, and that affinity for finding the link between sports came from their dad, Craig Geekie — a former WHL player himself, who went on to play some pro hockey for a time, before coaching his sons during their early years in the game.

“He's probably one of the most knowledgeable people I know, and I'm not just saying that cause it's my dad,” says Morgan. “He's the one that shaped us into who we are. He was really big on having us go out and play every sport we could. You know, everything kind of carries over and they're all connected at the end of the day. We took our baseball skills and definitely applied them in hockey, in volleyball, basketball.

“For him, it was less about physical training and lifting weights and all that stuff, and [more] just being athletic, learning to move in different ways, and thinking more methodically and more aggressively, things like that. The big thing for him was just having fun and not relying on hockey as our one out.”

Craig’s strategy panned out, with his oldest two boys going on to find success in two different sports — Morgan jumping from the WHL to the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, and then to Seattle; Noah enjoying success on the ice in his teens and then heading off to Emporia State University to play baseball.

So dedicated was Conor to his own young baseball career, he was out on the diamond when Morgan’s name was called in the No. 67 spot during the 2017 NHL Draft. Now, a half-decade later, Conor’s on the cusp of hearing his own called at the 2022 iteration, likely in the top 15.

For those who saw Conor's first foray into high-level hockey, that top-shelf billing on draft day would be no surprise. Winnipeg Ice head coach James Patrick saw shades of that potential the very first time Conor suited up for his team.

“He burnt one of the opposing team's defencemen on a one-on-one rush. It really just opened your eyes up when you saw the puck-handling, the confidence,” Patrick says, thinking back to Conor's first WHL game. “I remember it being a somewhat of a physical game, and him not being intimidated. He made a couple of real good plays that, as a coach, I was pretty excited about it, and it seemed like no big deal to Conor. … He's a pretty confident kid.”

That’s par for the course when it comes to his little brother, says Morgan with a chuckle.

“He hasn't changed much, as much as it's weird to say. He's kind of the same player and same guy that he's been his whole life. He's electric. He's very out there, he's not afraid to tell his opinion and, you know, he tells it like it is. I think you see that in the way he plays.

“Even growing up, you know, he wanted to be the guy. He wanted to make a difference every time he stepped on the ice. And I think that speaks to the level he's playing at right now. He wants to make a difference every time he has the puck, he doesn't want to just sit back and let everyone else do it.”

Even with that eager approach, even with the skill he displayed early on in his tenure with the Ice, success at the WHL level didn’t necessarily come right away for Conor. It took some growth, some adjustment.

“Conor was from a small town, he was a rink rat, who came from a real athletic family. But, like a lot of these kids, on his bantam teams, he was a kid who would play 30 minutes a game, double- and triple-shift, and never come off the ice,” says Patrick. “So I think where his game has grown is his responsibility off of faceoff wins and faceoff losses — adding a little more structure to his game is probably the biggest thing I've tried to install.

“Structure, shortening up his shifts, having a little more pace to his game, stopping on pucks — those are areas we've tried to harp on a lot with him, and I think we've seen a lot of growth in his game in those areas alone.”

(Courtesy Winnipeg Ice)

There was plenty of growth required off the ice over these past couple years, too, with the start of Conor's junior career coinciding with the pandemic bringing the entire sports world to a grinding halt.

In 2019-20, Conor split time between triple-A and his first go-round in the WHL, only to see the latter's season halted, and eventually cancelled. In 2020-21, he got his first full season in Winnipeg, but ‘full’ ended up amounting to just 24 games, as concerns around the pandemic forced another shortened season.

Bizarre and tumultuous as those early years of his junior hockey career were, the shortened campaign gave Conor a different opportunity, just as unforeseen — some time back home in Strathclair, back on the ice, with his family.

“I got an opportunity to train a lot with my brothers, get a lot stronger,” Conor says. “With the ODR, skating with my dad, doing practices, little things like that. … Obviously, I still wanted to play a full Western League season, but, you know, having that ability to kind of find everything else, and get a little stronger, was pretty nice.”

“It's definitely something that obviously none of us expected, to be training together for four months at home,” Morgan adds. “I put a gym in at home at my parents house when I signed, that was kind of the one thing I wanted to do. … With COVID, I ended up going back — I was living with my parents, my wife was there, we had a full house. Me and my other brother Noah and Conor, we were all in the gym.”

And once they'd been granted that unexpected reunion, those old competitive fires started burning between the brothers.

“The main thing was just how we were pushing each other. There was really no slack to be given anywhere, you know?” Morgan says. “The biggest culprit for that was my middle brother — he's in the gym all the time working out, and definitely never gave us any leeway when we were in there. And then on the ice, it was nice to skate with [Conor]. It was just me and him.

“You kind of appreciate the skills that you [each] have that you don't get to see every day, especially with the lives that we live. It was super cool to share that experience with him.”

For Conor, the lessons learned that summer went past what happened on the ice.

“He trains like a pro, does everything like a pro. But for me it's just, you know, how humble he is,” Conor says of what struck him most during those months with his older brother. “Obviously he's helped me with my shot and all that good stuff, but I think, most importantly, [it’s] just how humble he is and the character he has.”

That time building himself up back home paid off. When Conor returned to Winnipeg for the 2021-22 campaign, he did so with a new swagger, with some honed skills, some muscle added to his six-foot-three frame. By the time his first real, full WHL season had wrapped up, he’d broken out with a sterling 24 goals and 70 points through 63 games.

“A lot of just off-season training, getting stronger,” he says of what allowed him to make that jump. “You know, I always had the height, but I was pretty clumsy at times growing up. ... I think I got a lot of confidence through the off-season, felt a lot more in control of what I was doing.”

His coach agrees.

“Last year, he played against third- and fourth-line players. This year, he's played against top lines the whole year — he's played against the 19- and 20-year-olds,” says Patrick. “I mean, he's just a bigger, stronger, more mature player. That's the biggest difference. … There isn't one thing. I just think his overall game has grown. He's gotten a little bit faster, he's gotten a little bit stronger, and he's been able to use his size more to his advantage.”

Off the ice, Patrick noticed a shift too. He saw the same laid-back kid he’d seen the two years prior, that same wide grin always spread across Conor's face. But behind it, a different focus.

“He definitely made some strides — he put on some size, he put on some explosiveness in his legs. … I think [it's] the natural evolution of a kid who, as he's getting older, is realizing how important off-ice training and fitness is.”

Now, 18 years old and with a solid breakout campaign under his belt, Conor’s built a skill-set to be reckoned with, Patrick says.

“He's got a real good shot. He's got a heavy shot, his wrist shot, which he uses a lot — he can pull it in and get it off. He's a good skater when he gets going. If he can wind up a bit with his momentum, he's like a big train coming at you. He can hold off guys when he's below the goal lines. He is pretty good at protecting pucks and then coming out and making plays.

“Every game he plays, something happens. Even when there's games where I didn't like his game, he was still able to create a couple scoring chances or make some plays at the end of the night.”

Asked who Conor reminds him of, after his own two-decade, 1,280-game career as an NHL defender, Patrick aims high.

“Some people think he's a bit like Joe Thornton,” the coach says. “When Joe Thornton was 28 he was MVP of the league. He was a guy who got 70, 80 assists every year. I do think Conor can make plays and has a big body, but I don't want to compare him to Joe Thornton, because Joe Thornton is a Hall of Famer, and that's unfair. But I'm saying he has a bit of that big-lanky-body-who-can-pass-the-puck. That's as far as I'll go.”

Come July 7, Conor will take his first steps towards living up to that cautious comparison. At some point that night, he’ll hear his name called from the podium at Montreal’s Bell Centre. He’ll make that walk to the stage, the path upon which big-league dreams start to become reality. Most educated guesses have him being tabbed in the middle of the first round. He swears he hasn’t spent much time mulling the possibilities.

“I haven't really thought about it too hard. Obviously, you know, it crosses my mind once in a while,” he says. “But, I think for me, it's just kind of having fun going into the day, right? It's going to be pretty special. It's a one-of-a-kind of thing. It’s going to be pretty cool just to see my family being there, texting my buddies from home. I'm just going to try and keep it normal going through the day, try and keep the nerves down, and just have a lot of fun.”

While he’s got a leg up on his fellow draftees in the form of a brother already plying his trade in the NHL, the Geekie siblings' conversations rarely drift towards hockey, their relationship more a getaway from the grind of the game than anything else.

Even so, the youngest Geekie did get one bit of advice from the family’s big-league veteran.

“He just said, ‘Embrace it,’” Conor says. “You know, you can't really be too nervous and you can't get upset when you think you should go there, you think you should go here. It's just one of those things where you just got to go in having fun. I think that's what Morgan did really well. And I'm following in his footsteps.”

“I'm so excited for him — probably more excited than he is,” Morgan adds, through a laugh. “Whenever he hears his name called, whether it's, you know, early in the first or late in the eighth, it doesn't really matter. Everyone ends up in the same place. We're just excited that he's going to get a good opportunity with a good organization.

“And at the end of the day, this is where the work starts.”

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