His face is marred with smeared eye-black, diluted down to a charcoal grey from the sweat of the battle he just emerged from. His red t-shirt, soaked a darker shade of crimson around the neckline, has the ‘T’ logo of the Truro Bearcats on the front. On the back, a simple question: “Why not us?”
Riley Baggs greets a pair of young teenage fans, likely schoolmates of his at Cobequid Educational Centre, with his thick Newfoundland accent.
“How are you?”
The girls hand him some items to sign before giggling and asking for a hug.
With the eye-black likely masking a blushed shade of red similar to the neckline of his t-shirt, Baggs warned the girls about the sweat before obliging with an awkward grin and a pair of hugs.
The kid is adjusting to life in the league and the fanfare that comes along with it. Thursday night, despite being held off the scoresheet in a lopsided 7-0 win, Baggs showed signs of progressing on the promise he displayed last season – the promise he showed in the major midget ranks that made him a first-round draft pick of the Truro Bearcats.
Late in the first period, with the score tied and his team on a five-on-three powerplay, Baggs got the tap on the shoulder and jumped over the boards for an attacking zone faceoff. With powerplay mainstay Jordan McNaughton taking a breather, it was Baggs who the coaches sent over to take his place on the right side.
It’s these situations where the 17-year-old has been gaining confidence, he said afterwards.
“We’ve got some of the best defencemen in the league, so to get ice time in those situations is huge for my confidence,” Baggs said. “Hopefully coach can start trusting me more and I’ll get to step in more like that.”
From the coach’s standpoint, the added ice time is an investment in the future. With four defencemen aging out after these playoffs, the load will be on the three remaining blueliners to carry on.
“It’s been a major learning season for him,” said Bearcats coach and general manager Shawn Evans. “Whether Riley has noticed it or not, he’s played against all the top players in the league in all situations.”
The lessons aren’t just about hockey either, Evans was quick to point out. The native of Conception Bay South was tasked with leaving his family for the first time, attending a new school and balancing a 48-game schedule against his new commitments.
“It’s not just about hockey,” Evans said. “It’s about being away from home, about school, it’s about growing up as a young man. It’s about all these things that factor in before 7 p.m. on a Saturday night.”
There have also been adjustments on the ice, adapting to the “Bearcat style of play.”
Coming out of midget with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, Baggs was a player with size and offensive tendencies. This year has been about developing the defensive side of his game to round out his skillset.
There have been growing pains, no doubt, but Baggs has shown promise in the second half. He closed out the month of February with his first two junior goals in back-to-back games, and has two assists in four playoff games to date.
Through it all, Bearcats coaches Evans and Troy Fougere have worked with the young defenceman to keep him level.
“His high-risk plays do land him in trouble sometimes, but then he comes back and makes a play with the puck that nobody else could make,” Evans said.
Moving forward, Baggs is confident he can contribute in the longterm.
“(The frustration) was a lot to do with adjusting to the size and the speed of the league,” Baggs said. “But I think I’ve got it figured out now and I think there’s better things to come from now on in.”
With the Bearcats on the brink of eliminating the Weeks Crushers in the first round of the playoffs, Baggs is hoping to get his first playoff series win soon.
“Coach really beats it into our heads to take it one game at a time, to never get ahead of yourself in a seven-game series,” Baggs said. “But I feel like it could be over soon, hopefully.”
Truro will look to end it tonight in New Glasgow in Game 5. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. at the Pictou County Wellness Centre.