The Rangers picked Stefan Cherneski as their first pick in 1997. The Rangers didn’t have a franchise player on their hands, but a hard working kid who was destined for the NHL. Two years later, Cherneski’s career has been filled with triumph and tragedy and his hockey career lays in question.
Cherneski’s life started out a battle. The second child born to his family, Stefan was born 8 weeks premature and doctors were concerned for him. They wouldn’t allow him to go home for another 8 weeks as they placed his tiny body in an incubator to increase his chances for survival. Growing up Stefan became involved in local midget clubs but was never seen as a knock over prospect and thus he never heard his name called in the WHL draft. After signing with the Brandon Wheat Kings prior to the 95-96 season, Cherneski’s rookie year was not the most memorable. Stuck primarily in a third line left winger’s role on a deep and talented Brandon team, Cherneski finished with only 8 goals. Only 5’11 and 185 pounds at the time Cherneski didn’t have the raw ability to crack the Wheat Kings top line, or so everyone thought.
Cherneski got his big break at the beginning of the 96-97 season. After a growth spurt shot him up to 6’0 and a summer of lifting brought him up to 195 pounds Cherneski showed up determined to make an impact in his second WHL season. After an injury opened up a slot on the right side of the first line, Cherneski jumped at the opportunity and beat out any competition for the spot. The result saw a sniper being born. Graced with good speed, and great hands, Cherneski showed everyone he could be an offensive force. Everything was smooth sailing for Cherneski as he was named a WHL all-star and was on pace for a 50 goal 100 PIM season when an abdominal injury shot down his season as quickly as it had blasted off. The abdominal injury forced Cherneski out for the final weeks of the WHL season and made him miss the entire WHL playoffs. Originally thought to require surgery Cherneski could feel his stock his stock plummet as draft day approached. Ranked 11th at CSB midseason and 12th in the final rankings (has he been healthy he could have been ranked as high as 8th), Cherneski saw team after team pass him by on draft day. The Rangers who were looking for a winger with attitude and a scoring touch were all set to take Jeff Zehr with their pick when Cherneski fell to them. Rangers changed their mind and made the sharp shooting right winger their pick. Cherneski was seen jumping down the stairs as the Rangers called his name.
Cherneski had a mile wide smile on and couldn’t seem to slip into the Rangers jersey fast enough. In the back Cherneski was examined by the Rangers doctors and it was discovered his injury would not require surgery but rather extensive training. Stefan however would not be able to start on the program till mid September. At the Rangers training camp, Stefan looked out of place…he had not been on skates for almost 18 weeks and obviously looked shaky. Still the Ranger kept faith and sent him back to Brandon with the hopes he could recover fully.
Stefan Cherneski’s third WHL season got off to a booming start. Stefan lite the lamp regularly and hit the opposition almost as often. His solid play earned him a second trip to the WHL all-star game. However as the season wore on Stefan grew tired. Extensive rehab and his lay off caught up to him and his second half was not as good as his first half, but still it was solid. As the WHL playoff’s rolled around Cherneski put his fatigue on the back burner and scored 18 goals in 15 WHL playoff games. When his team was knocked out of the playoffs, Cherneski broke into negotiations with the Rangers. Impressed with what they had seen the Rangers signed him to the rookie maximum. Not satisfied with what he had done, Stefan dedicated himself to being the best he could be that summer. He worked long hard hours on his fitness and to make sure the weight didn’t slow him down he worked with a skating coach as well. The result was a beefier, stronger, faster player showing up for training camp. The scouting staff hardly recognized him as he walked into the locker room for the first time and took to the ice. Stefan was now a solid 200 pounds to go along with a slightly taller 6’1 frame. When he took to the ice Stefan showed great speed and surprised everyone including coach John Muckler. As it would turn out Stefan would impress everyone in his first camp as he survived cut after cut until training camp had ended. He was the final cut off the Rangers roster as they decided to get him a ton of playing time in the AHL. What would follow would be one of the most heart breaking events in my recent memory.
Stefan reported to the AHL in good spirits but determined to make the pro level. In his first handful of games Stefan was held pointless. But by then Stefan had learned to help out in other areas. He took the body and played strong two way hockey and fought anyone who dared challenge his smaller teammates. Finally Cherneski adapted to the AHL level and the points came. He scored his first goal and everything was rolling. But then Cherneski went down with a minor muscle pull which kept him out for a few games. When he returned Cherneski was still on a roll and he was getting attention as a dangerous player. But fate had something to say as after 11 games Stefan’s dream came crashing down as he was slammed into the boards and shattered his right knee cap. He knew it was serious when the doctors performed emergency surgery on his knee. They told him he was done for the year and maybe for good.
Stefan went home and rested and soon began rehab on his knee. After over coming so many obstacles before, Stefan was determined to not give up. The result was a faster recovery then expected and his already strong legs getting even stronger. As of the time of this article Stefan was just starting to skate again and doctors are amazed at his comeback. He is phenomenal shape and checks in at around 205 pounds right now, he is the best shape a hockey player could be. And at this rate he should be ready to make a serious challenge for an NHL job this fall.
Stefan Cherneski was a kid who was never supposed to make it. UN-drafted in the WHL he was seen as a plugger. Hard work turned him into a two time all star, and harder work nearly landed him an NHL job last fall. All along he was never seen as even a top prospect. He’s not in anyone’s top 50, but often as observers we forget the power of the soul. Cherneski has battled to return to hockey and in many ways might be even better after the injury. He is stronger then after and a year older. Still only 20, don’t be surprised to see Cherneski make the big club this fall. The Rangers lack of scoring wingers has been evident this year and if Cherneski shows up the same way he did last year, even John Muckler won’t deny him a spot.
As far as never being a top prospect is concerned, remember that Adam Graves was never one either. In many ways they are similar. They were both small forwards who worked hard to make it. While Cherneski will never net 100 points, he should be a solid 35 goal, 60 point contributor, with a possible peak of 40 goals. He works so hard and has good skills. His best asset is his nose around the net and his edge. He reminds me of Adam Graves, close in size, and their nose around the net (a lost an unappreciated art form) and their aggressiveness. Say what you want Cherneski has silenced all doubts so far in life, and if you asked him he’d say this is just another challenge to overcome and one that he is willing to work at.