In 1998 in Edmonton, Glen Sather still ran the show and Ron Low patrolled the Oiler bench. There was no sign of Tommy Salo yet, nor Mike Comrie or Eric Brewer.
At the NHL Entry Draft of that year, now seemingly so much farther in the annals of Oilerville, Michael Henrich was a first round selection. Chosen around Henrich were names that now appear daily near the top of depth charts and on game summaries, names like Lecavalier, Legwand, Tanguay, Gagne and Gomez.
To this point Michael Henrich has yet to play in the NHL and many have written him off to be another one of the Sather-era Oiler busts in the mold of Jason Bonsignore, Joe Hulbig and Mathieu Descoteaux. But Henrich’s tale, albeit full of some peaks and more valleys, may not be over quite yet.
The 6’2″, 206 lb right-winger will be coming to training camp on a mission of redemption and to reclaim his place as a top prospect in the Oiler organization. Seeking to erase the bitter taste of last season in which he played for five different teams, Henrich believes his time has come and that finally he is ready to make an impact.
Henrich spoke with Hockey’s Future from his home in Toronto.
Q: Edmonton drafted you 13th overall back in 1998. Is it safe to say that your hockey career has not gone according to the script you would have written for yourself?
A: Definitely. To go pretty high in ’98 the expectation is that in a few years you’re going to develop into a player, play on an NHL team and be a full time member. Obviously that hasn’t happened. I know my first year in the AHL wasn’t a great one, the second year was a promising year and last year… nothing I can say about last year was good as far as my development, where I was playing and why I was there. I think I needed a little more time to develop in the AHL and I think that last year would have really shown what type of player I really was and I never really got that chance (laughs).
Q: You were having a really good camp last September but then you came down with mono and that trashed your season.
A: (Sighs deeply) You know, I came back to Hamilton before the season started and they were an unreal team. It would have been unfair for the coaches to throw me into the line up of a team that wasn’t losing. Even when I came back from Sweden, they had only lost four or five games.
Q: Before you went to Europe, how much time off and away from the rink did you have to spend?
A: I was in camp for about six or seven days and then I took about a month and a half off.
Q: And what could you do with all that time?
A: I was just resting. My spleen was enlarged and that’s why you need so much rest with mono, if it ruptures internally and you bleed you’re dead because there’s nothing that can stop it.
Q: That must have been a very discouraging experience for you.
A: It really was extremely discouraging. The worst part is that you’ve been training all summer and you’re in the last year of your contract and you want to show something and you want to play. Then all of a sudden something like that kicks you and you’re like ‘Oh my God’ and what can you do? All you can do is lay down and rest and you can’t even be active in case you hurt it. Sitting around doing nothing and seeing other people progressing while you’re not accomplishing anything is definitely pretty tough.
Q: How do you handle the pressure from fans and management of being a first round draft pick, and do you feel more pressure as you get older?
A: I think so. It gets to the point where you say: ‘OK, it’s not your last chance but you’re getting a little older here and you’re no longer a young prospect.’ You’re still a prospect in the organization but it’s almost like a timeline. The pressure I put on myself, it’s not bad pressure it’s good pressure, knowing that I’ve got to show what I can do. I think that the organization is on my side in the way that they want to see the player that I can be and I think I’ve shown it before and they’re really excited to see what I can do.
Q: In hindsight, has the label of “first round draft pick” been a negative for you?
A: Has it been a negative? It’s tough to say, I think it depends on how you look at it. As far as progression goes, being a first round pick and being someone pretty high on their list, yeah it’s probably been a let down. In other people’s minds, who don’t know me or the situation, I’m sure it’s been a huge disappointment but I’ve got to look at it from within myself. I’m not one to make excuses; I’m pretty realistic. I haven’t accomplished what I know I can do and what the organization has wanted me to do but it’s good to know that there is always a future.
Q: Your first year in Hamilton, like you said, was not a good year. Second year saw marked improvement with increased point production. Last year was obviously kind of a write off. Compare yourself to the player you were two years ago with the good year and tell me if you are a better player today.
A: Yeah I am a much better player. I’m more mature, I’m in better shape and I’ve just rounded out in every way. I had a lot of time off this year where I just had a lot more thinking to do. ‘Why am I here? Do I want to be here again? What do I have to do or add to my game?’ It’s things like that that also make you more mature and stronger from within. Compared to that year, two years down the road, I can definitely say that I am a better player and probably a better type of person towards the game too.
Q: It’s sounds like you did a lot of soul searching. Was there ever a point when you felt that you didn’t want to come back again?
A: No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I really enjoy playing hockey; it’s just something that I love doing. It’s not about quitting, it’s about going ahead and progressing yourself, being better knowing that there’s going to be that chance. When I was in Sweden this year I knew that the season was over and then almost at the last minute they said I could come back to the AHL and play in Hershey. I had already been on four or five teams and I had been all over the place and so that was good to hear. I was like: “OK, I can do this I can keep coming back.” And then (the Oilers) were like: “Don’t worry Michael we’re going to re-qualify you and we’re not giving up on you.” And that’s good news to hear, that’s when you know that there are people on your side and you want to make them look good and yourself look good.
Q: Do you have a timeframe for yourself to make an impact?
A: (laughs) I’m planning on making an impact right away! The day I come into camp, I did it two years ago and I’m planning on doing the same thing. As far as spots or what the organization itself thinks of me and where they are going to place me this year, well, that’s going to be their decision.
Q: Fernando Pisani was drafted in ’96 and made the team midway through last season, so a precedent has been set for a “late bloomer”.
A: It’s funny that you say that because I played with “Pistol”, I call him that, I played with Fernando for two years in Hamilton and I’ve gotten really close to him. I look at him and he’s four years older than me but we both came in at the same time. He played four years of college and I played four years in junior. I guess you could say he was a late bloomer and I look at a guy like that and see he finally cracked the NHL at the age of 26 then there’s got to be guys out there that can still make it so why give up? That’s a kind of an inspiration in a way that there’s really no time frame as long as you keep a positive attitude and keep working something good will happen.
Q: The Oilers obviously feel that you can contribute to the organization since they recently re-signed you.
A: I don’t think they’re going to be wasting money unless they think they can get something out of it right?
Q: Were you always confident that you were still in their plans?
A: Always confident. I see other players out there that I have played against or with and I’ve seen how I play up against the other guys at camp. In my mind I think that I can make it, I can do this, so of course I stay confident.
Q: There is some stiff competition for rookies to make the team again this year. What separates you from the other forwards trying to crack the line up?
A: It’s not about what separates me but it’s more about me playing my own game and showing them what I can do. As far as I feel and what I know, what I did two years ago is one of the main reasons they kept me around and signed me. It’s what I know that I can do and then I have to make them make the decision.
Q: The higher profile prospects, like Rita and Torres, are on the left wing while you are a right winger. Is that a bit of an advantage for you maybe?
A: I think so. I know Edmonton moves their players back and forth on the wing but if they want a right-handed shot coming down the right side, of course it’s an advantage if there are fewer guys to pick from. I think it comes down to how you play and they’ll place positions no matter what.
Q: Can you play both sides?
A: I can play both sides but I am a natural right winger. If they were to throw me on the left, I don’t think I would complain though!
Q: If you happen to start the year in the AHL, you could be one of the veterans on the team. Does leadership play a role in your game?
A: This will be my fourth year in pro hockey now. I think the coaching staff would want me to see if I could handle being a leader and that’s something I would be looking forward to.
Q: The AHL affiliate has moved to Toronto. Would that be a positive change of scenery for you or does it really matter?
A: I live in Toronto and I’ve played in Barrie and Hamilton. The new rink is downtown but the practice rink at York University is just five minutes from my home so it’s pretty close. It would also be nice to get away and play somewhere else. I’ve never really been so far away that I could just come home when I wanted to. I don’t think it will really make much of a change though.
Q: Which of your former Bulldog teammates do you think have the best chance of making the Oilers this season?
A: I’ve played with Jani (Rita) and I think he could make it. He’s just a really good player and he puts up a lot of numbers. He finds ways to score and that’s something he has that a lot of other players don’t have. I also thought watching him play, that Jarret Stoll was really strong at both ends. I never really got to see Raffi (Torres) play that much but I know that he’s a bulldog out there and he’s pretty strong.
Q: What areas of your game do you feel need improvement to make the NHL roster?
A: I’m working on being more aggressive. Fighting out of the corners with the puck, holding onto the puck a bit more and controlling it. I think that’s what they want from me and that’s what I’m going to show them I can do.
Q: Your brother Adam (Henrich) is in the Tampa organization. Have either of you had an effect on the other’s career at all?
A: Definitely. Just as far as training in the summer, two brothers training to play pro hockey has a positive effect. The older brother giving him advice because I’ve already been there and I’ve seen the kind of situation he’s going into.
Q: Tell me how much one complete healthy season would mean to you.
A: It would mean a lot. I think a lot of people would feel different things and I could change some minds that’s for sure.
Q: You played a part of last year in Sweden. Was that a good experience?
A: The hockey wasn’t up to the NHL or AHL level of hockey. It was a conditioning stint in a way. I didn’t really enjoy being there. As far as the hockey went, at least I was still playing hockey. I played for Team Canada in a few of tournaments and those were great experiences with international competition. I wasn’t in the Elite League in Sweden, I was in the second division. There were a lot of Elite League teams that wanted me to come and play and that bothered me a little because I wouldn’t have minded playing in the Elite League. As far as an experience goes, yeah it was neat being over in Europe and it was also good to see where you don’t want to be.
Q: Are there any positives that you can take out of the experience or anything that could help to make you a better player?
A: Tough to say really. I got the mono and then I couldn’t find a flow to my game all year long. Usually when you feel good on the ice you can go forever but I always felt like I was struggling. The mono would stay in you for six to eight months so over there I had some sleeping problems. If there was one positive I could say it was being over there an experiencing European hockey. There are a lot of older guys who are done hockey here who go over there. It’s amazing the amount of connections you can make just being there for a few months. You never know what you may have to look forward to after hockey.
Q: Will you ever consider continuing your own career in Europe?
A: I think so, but not right now! If the money’s right I think you’d be willing to do it right? Now I don’t want to be over there but in the future it could be a consideration.
Q: Are you completely healthy now?
A: I’ve been to the doctors and they’ve done some tests and there’s nothing showing so I’m healthy. As far as my energy levels go I’ve never felt better, or at least not in the last year or so. I’m feeling really good.
Q: What are you doing now to keep in shape?
A: I have a personal trainer and we go out with about 20 or 30 pro players from 8:00 to 11:00 in the morning to work out. I’ve been on the ice about three times a week for the past month or so already. I’ll have been on the ice for about two months before training camp even starts. Everyone working out together is like a first or a second round pick, it’s actually kind of funny.
Q: Have you changed your game style since you turned pro or do you still play the same way you did when you were with the Barrie Colts?
A: I think I’m still the same type of player. What I bring to the game is a certain type of game and I think all I can do is get better in that, like I said, by getting more aggressive.
Q: How would you classify your style of play?
A: A lot of speed and a lot of skill. I can shoot the puck well and I can find the open areas well and get a lot of shots. I don’t know if I’m underrated in my playmaking but I can definitely make a good pass and find the open players. I have a knack for finding the net and I have a quick release.
Q: Tell me about your relationships with Claude Julien and Geoff Ward.
A: The thing with Claude and Geoff… what I went through, they went through with me. They are both good coaches and with good track records. They are looking for hard-nosed players with skill so if you show them that you’re really into it and you play tough, that’s what they like.
Q: What would a successful season be for Michael Henrich?
A: Ending off the season in Edmonton.