Haydn Fleury was left red-faced this week and it wasn’t sunburn.
The defenseman was serenaded at center ice Wednesday on his 19th birthday as the Carolina Hurricanes’ prospects and a smattering of Canes fans loudly sang “Happy Birthday” after practice at PNC Arena.
One might say he was blushing, but hockey players don’t blush, do they?
“That was the first time that ever happened, and my face was pretty red,” Fleury said. “I’m not used to being in front of that many people looking at me and singing. It’s cool to see.”
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It’s been quite a year for Fleury. The first-round pick of the Hurricanes and seventh overall selection in the 2014 NHL draft was the center attention during the prospects development camp last summer.
This year the attention has been on another defenseman, Noah Hanifin. He’s was the Canes’ first-round pick at the draft two weeks ago, going fifth overall.
Fleury is Hanifin’s roommate, which they say has made for some interesting conversations.
“It’s been good,” Fleury said. “I’d never met him before. We’ve talked about how we could play here together for a long time in the years to come. We talked about a lot of different things.”
Another thing may be the hockey decision Hanifin is facing: return to Boston College for his sophomore season or sign an entry-level contract with Carolina. Should Hanifin sign, he could wind up playing in the American Hockey League for the Charlotte Checkers. He’d prefer to play in the NHL.
Fleury didn’t have those options. Coming out of the Western Hockey League, he either had to play for the Canes last season or be returned to his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels.
Fleury performed well last year last year at prospects camp and then at a tournament in Traverse City, Mich.. Coming to Carolina’s preseason training camp, he was used in two early exhibition games, the second on the road against the St. Louis Blues.
“It was cool to play against some of the superstars of the league, including D-men like (Jay) Bouwmeester,” Fleury said. “It was a great experience, but I think it showed the deficiencies in my game and showed me how much better you have to be to play in the NHL.”
Fleury, a native of Carlyle, Saskatchewan, was on his way back to Red Deer soon after – along with some disappointment.
Fleury didn’t play well immediately after his return. He said he had a “few talks” with coach Brent Sutter, something of an attitude adjustment, before finding his stride on the ice.
But Fleury was one of the last cuts when Canada selected its team for this year’s World Junior Championship. That stung.
“But it also was kind of motivation to prove the (Canadian) coaches wrong, prove management of Hockey Canada wrong,” Fleury said. “I thought I did that the second half of the year and played my best hockey.”
Fleury’s offensive numbers dipped, from 46 points in 2013-14 to 28 last season. But he said there was more emphasis on shoring up his play in the defensive zone, in being stronger in the corners and in front of his own net.
When Red Deer’s season ended, Fleury went to Charlotte and appeared in one game for the Checkers.
“I think I’m a lot stronger and fitter and a lot more mature this year,” he said. “I think my game matured a lot over the last season. I learned to play the defensive side of the game way better than I have before. I think my game is more pro-ready than it was last year.”
Fleury’s size hasn’t changed from a year ago – he’s listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 207 pounds. But he said he has added muscle and said it was reflected in better physical testing at camp.
Canes coach Bill Peters noticed a difference, saying, “He’s much more comfortable and relaxed. He’s bigger, stronger. He’s been impressive.”
Fleury was assigned jersey No. 5 by the Hurricanes last year. Hanifin now has No. 5 and Fleury No. 4, his number with Red Deer.
But the only numbers game that will matter will be when Fleury, Hanifin and the Canes’ other young defensemen compete to make the NHL roster.
“Haydn is a great player and kind of plays a similar style to me,” Hanifin said. “I think that’s something this organization is really looking for, very mobile defensemen who can move the puck and jump into the play.
“I think both us of know what we want. You never know how long we could be linked together.”