It is said that pound for pound the fiercest
animal living in the wild is the wolverine.
Sometimes referred to as a “mini-bear”, the wolverine is notorious for
using its size to its advantage when it finds itself in need of attacking or
defending. It’s an animal that a lot of
diminutive NHL hockey players would benefit by emulating.
Over the years the Edmonton Oilers have shown a knack for
finding players who played with hearts twice as big as the frames that housed
them. Players like Ken Linseman, Esa
Tikkanen, Mark Lamb, Todd Marchant, and now Mike York all found ways around the
supposed problem of not being six feet tall.
While the Oilers have made a conscious effort to get bigger in recent draft
years, they have also selected at least one player who they simply could not
pass up just because of his height.
Dwight Helminen, selected by the Oilers in the eighth round
(244th overall) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft is a Michigan native who
is held in high regard by the organization.
Helminen, who was born in the Northern Michigan town of Hancock, grew up
just outside of Ann Arbor, the home of
(you guessed it), the Michigan Wolverines.
“He’s a smaller guy but everything is always ‘Attack!
Attack! Attack!’ in the offensive zone, there’s no playing the perimeter or
dipsy-doodling to find guys late,” described Chris McCarthy, an 11-year Oiler
scout. “He’s always going forward and
with his hands and his hockey sense he’s a main cog in that team.”
“He’s a guy with a really good chance of being a NHL
Listed in the Oiler media guide as 5’9”, 185 lbs, what Dwight might
lack in stature he can certainly compensate for in other areas of his
game. Helminen is an exceptionally
quick playmaking pivot who can star on both special team units thus enabling
his coaches to play him during any scenario of any game.
“This kid is a heck of an individual; he has tremendous
character,” beamed Oiler scout Bob Mancini who was once a coach for USA
Hockey. “We’re not supposed to have
favorites when we coach but he was one of mine.”
“He’s probably the best penalty killer in college
hockey, he’s a danger every time he’s on the ice, and he’s the type of
centermen that a lot of players are going to want to play with.”
“He is small, but he’s fast and he doesn’t get
hit a lot,” reasoned McCarthy. “He’s
got really good offensive skills, he sees the ice well, he’s got incredible
hockey sense, and he doesn’t put himself in bad positions. There’s always room in the league for guys
who can skate and think who are also his size.”
Before the college season started, Helminen was
considered a solid candidate to be named one of the ten Hobey Baker Award
Hockey’s Future was able to speak with the Oiler
prospect before a practice earlier this week.
HF: Your path to professional hockey is
taking you through the University of Michigan.
Why did you choose that school?
DH: Growing up my parents
always wanted me to go to college and if there was an opportunity to play
hockey, that was great. As I got older
I guess the opportunity arose for me but as for Michigan, I guess I never
really considered them until they came to me.
We only lived about 15 miles to the north (Brighton, Michigan) of Ann
Arbor and the hockey program, as well as the academics, are near the top in the
nation so it wasn’t a difficult choice for me to make.
HF: Was Canadian Junior
ever an option for you?
DH: I hadn’t really
considered it. I had watched the
Plymouth Whalers in the OHL and stuff but I guess my goal was always to
play college hockey. To get an
education first and foremost and then go wherever hockey takes me.
Well, hockey could take you to Edmonton. They drafted you very late in the 2002 draft. What were your initial thoughts about being
picked by a Northwestern Canadian team?
It’s going to be pretty far away from home for you, a different country
me I was kind of excited by the news.
The tradition up in Edmonton, the way they treat their young players and
the opportunities for young players there made my initial reaction to be
excited. I guess I’m used to the cold
weather living in Michigan so that part won’t be much of a change.
Oilers have a lot of players who played in the state of Michigan (Horcoff,
York, Carter were all Spartans, Comrie was a Wolverine, etc) is it encouraging
knowing that some current Oilers were taking the same steps that you are now?
very encouraging to see guys go from the college ranks and making it at the
professional level. It gives you a lot of hope.
HF: What do you bring to the
table on a nightly basis, what kind of a player are you?
DH: I think I’m a good
skating playmaking centermen who can play at both ends of the ice.
HF: Tell me what the June
mini-camp experience in Edmonton did for you.
DH: It was a great
experience. I got to the chance to know
the coaching staff a little better and to see how the organization is run and
also to see the guys that I’ll be competing with in the future. It was also great to see what they expect and
what they are looking for.
HF: What kind of impression did the city make on
DH: It was my first time there and it was neat to see the city
also. Going there I didn’t really know
what to expect but we got to go out a couple of times and see the city. It’s a nice city, a clean city and
from what I hear they’ve got some great fans.
HF: Did the Oilers indicate
to you what areas of your game they need you to improve on?
DH: Just areas
having to do with strength and being physical, the biggest thing that they want
me to work on is my strength, you know, not being the tallest guy.
HF: Do you set personal
goals for yourself at the start of each season and if so, what were they for
just want to go out there and make a statement around the league and the nation
as being one of the top two-way centermen who is used in key positions and who
plays the game 120%. Being someone who
makes an impact every game.
HF: How did
you injure your ankle earlier this season?
DH: I was cutting
behind the net and I got tripped up. I
went into the boards and the steel in my skate got caught in a crevice in the
boards and so I went in funny and got a little bit of a high ankle sprain. It didn’t keep me out for too long and right
now it’s pretty much 100%.
HF: How much of a
factor was that injury to your slower start?
DH: That’s part of
it. I was a bit snake-bitten at times
too and I guess there were a lot of guys at the beginning of the season that
were struggling so it was just how the team was playing too. I had somewhat of a slow start but now I’ve
picked up my play recently. They
changed up the lines and we’ve been doing pretty well.
HF: As you get older and become one of the team veterans, do
you find yourself trying to fill the role of being a leader?
yeah, it’s our job to lead this team.
We only have three seniors on the team and so I think a lot of onus
falling on the junior class and so we have to go out there and set an example
for the younger guys.
team lost only once in October but have been about .500 since then. In your opinion, why has the team struggled
more as of late?
DH: Our team is
struggling a little bit. We’re kind of
in the middle of the pack right now. I
don’t think we’re playing consistent every night. Some nights some guys are strong and on other nights some guys
are taking it off so I think that has a lot to do with how our record is right
HF: You’re one
of the top PK guys in NCAA hockey and, like the Oilers, the Wolverines have been
struggling while shorthanded. What
makes a good penalty kill unit?
DH: You have to have
guys who are willing to pay the price and block shots, guys who are going to be
out there pressuring the other team to cough it up and make mistakes. In the case of penalty killing it’s always
nice to have guys out there with speed who are always a threat to the other
HF: How closely do
you follow the Oilers during your own season?
DH: I check every
once in a while to see what their record is and I actually went down to one
game when they played in Detroit here (Nov. 26th). It wasn’t a great
game for the Oilers though.
HF: Michigan is one
of only two amateur teams on the continent with two Oiler prospects playing on
it. What can you tell me about David Rohlfs?
DH: He’s a big
strong forward. He does most of his
damage when he’s in tight around the front of the net. He’s a young guy so there’s still a lot of
room for him to grow and he has enormous potential with his size and he’s a
good skater. I see him as being one of
our top forwards down the road.
HF: Between you and
Jeff Tambellini, who’s faster?
DH: (laughs) I don’t
know, they don’t have us racing or anything.
I’d say it’s pretty tight and likely depends on what day it is.
HF: Brock Radunske
is also an Oiler prospect but he plays for your rivals from Michigan
State. Other than at the mini-camp in
Edmonton, have you ever talked to him or any other Oiler prospects?
DH: No one besides
Rohlfs. I see (Radunske) every once in
a while when we play against them but that’s our bitter rival so we don’t do a
whole lot of chitchat.
HF: Your brother Lars plays for Michigan Tech and there is a
possibility of playing against him in the Great Lakes Invitational. I would imagine that would be a lot of fun
don’t play each other in the first game so if both our teams either win or lose
the first game we could play each other.
It would be really fun though.
I’ve never had a chance to play against him because he’s a year and a
half younger. It would definitely be a
great to have the chance to go up against him one on one.
HF: Balancing the academics with the
hockey must be challenging, how do you manage to focus and excel at both?
DH: Right now I’m just taking general
studies. You’ve just got to come up
with a schedule and then stick to it and that’s basically the only way you can
get through it.
Oilers just played an outdoor game and a couple years ago your team did it in
front of an even bigger crowd. Did you
play in it?
DH: Yeah that was
actually my first college game! It
wasn’t as cold as it was up there but it was exciting and it was an amazing
experience being that it was my first game ever in college.
HF: You’re a junior
now so you have one more year left at college.
Do you fully intend to return next year and put off turning pro until
college is done?
DH: That’s my
thoughts right now. I want to get my
degree and with the potential lock out next season, it would make sense to
stick around for another year and get the degree. That way I will have something to work with if hockey doesn’t
HF: Are you planning
on attending Edmonton’s prospect camp again this summer?
DH: There’s a
possibility I’ll be up there again and I enjoyed it last time so I definitely
would strongly consider it.