Making the jump to pro hockey

By Guy Flaming





Making the Jump

It has gotten increasingly harder over the past few years
for players to graduate from the amateur leagues and immediately slip right
into a NHL sweater. Even the highly
touted prospects are spending time developing in the American Hockey League
these days. Top rated young guns like
Jason Spezza (OTT), Dustin Brown (LOS), Jiri Hudler (DET) and Maxime
Ouellet
(WSH) have toiled in the premier minor league and are back there
again this season.

 

It is no longer a situation where a newly drafted youngster
can just simply walk into a prestigious roster spot with whichever big league
squad drafted them. The fact that Joe
Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier and Ales Hemsky all struggled in the NHL at young
ages further emphasizes the point that the need for development in the minors
is an increasing reality for more and more top players.

 

As many of the Edmonton Road Runners can attest to, even
taking that first step up to professional hockey from college or junior can be
quite difficult.

 

“Everything’s a step quicker so you have to think one step
ahead to get the puck where as in college you had a little more time and more
space to make a play,” pointed out Joe Cullen. “Here everybody is a much better player so you have to react much
quicker.”

 

Cullen played his amateur career at Colorado College and is
now in his sophomore year with the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers. The jump to the AHL or even the ECHL seems
to be hardest on U.S. college players mainly due to two things, the road time
and the game schedule.

 

“The travel, the pace of the game, the schedule it’s all
very different from college,” said former Wisconsin star Brad Winchester.

 

There are twice as many games in the AHL as there are in
college hockey and the distance between some cities is huge. For instance, the road trip that Edmonton is
currently on saw them crisscross the entire continent almost three times
beginning from their Alberta home to Newfoundland, then to San Jose California
and finally back to Ontario.

 

On the ice, the game is obviously tougher as the opposing
players are bigger, faster and older than the competition was the previous
year.

 

Rookie ECHL player Kenny Smith, the former captain at
Harvard, knew the physical demands would be incredibly tough on him this year
and trained with that in mind all summer.

 

Obviously the game
is a lot faster so I’m going to have to make decisions a lot quicker and really
move the puck hard and on the tape. In
college you can get away with a few bad passes, but here they are going to capitalize
on that every time,” Smith explained.
“I’m a big guy and I’m going to have to keep working on my pivots and
stuff and with the guys out there flying I’m really going to have to be at my
best.”

 

Mike Bishai played in Kalamazoo as a Bronco while
attending Western Michigan and he’d be the first to say that the minor leagues
have helped his game a lot. After
college Bishai played in the AHL, then spent most of the following year in the
ECHL while the Oilers and Canadiens shared the Hamilton Bulldogs, but less than
a year later the center spent a month in the NHL.

 

I’ve seen
it from year to year where a guy might not even be able to play on the AHL team
in November and by March he’s one of the best players. Six months later he could be playing in the
NHL, that’s how development happens,” Road Runners GM Scott Howson said about
the quality of the minor leagues. “Mike Bishai couldn’t play on our team in
Hamilton, he was a spare on our Calder Cup final team, and midway
through the next year he’s playing in (the NHL).”

 

In the pro game everyone is
always in position and doing their job but in college everyone is running
around a bit more,” Bishai said. “You
have to be smarter here which was a big transition and definitely my defensive
game has come a long way since the first day I showed up in Hamilton. If you make too many mistakes then you’re
not going to be on the ice; that’s what pro hockey is all about.”

 

There are also Edmonton sophomores who turned pro after
playing junior instead of college, but the transition still takes time. Jeff Woywitka struggled to find his
game in the AHL last year after four extremely successful campaigns with the
Red Deer Rebels of the WHL.

 

“The biggest adjustment I think is in elevating your game to
the next level knowing that every game is going to be a battle,” said the
Alberta born defenseman. “It’s not like
junior because now everybody is your size or bigger so you have to be strong
and ready to go every game. You have to
get quicker and stronger because the game changes so much.”

 

Doug Lynch was Edmonton’s most successful AHL rookie
last year. He had a strong enough
season to earn an All-Star appearance and he was also named to the AHL’s
All-Rookie team. After his four year
run through the WHL, the expectations were there for Lynch as well as for
Woywitka but for some reason, the red headed rearguard seemed to be able to
adapt easier than any of the other rookies.
Still, there were things to get used to.

 

“In junior we played about the same amount of games and the
travel was relevant but it’s just that every night you have to bring
your ‘A’ game; you can’t take a shift off or a night off, all the old clichés
are true,” said the well-spoken Lynch.
“In junior, there isn’t much movement except for trades but here there are
guys being called up or sent down, so you have to perform every night. With all the movement you are always playing
with different players, so you really have to be able to adapt your game to
someone else’s and make sure you all mesh together.”

 

With bigger and faster competition, not to mention more
experienced, the margin for error is much smaller than any amateur player would
be used to.

 

“It is much less,” Lynch agreed. “One mistake can cost you a hockey game and
if that happens eight times during the year it’s 16 points you’re out so you
have to make smart plays. It’s about
experience out there so you have keep playing games and getting confidence
because it’s the most important thing.”

 

“Obviously everything happens a step faster, even the goalies
are bigger and faster,” added Nate DiCasmirro. “All around you have to get used to the game and step up your
play. In college you can maybe lose
your guy once in a while and nothing happens.
Here you make a mistake and nine times out of ten it ends up in the back
of your net. If you make mistakes
you’re not going to find yourself playing much so you have to be able to do
your job and do it well.”

 

For Sean McAslan, a member of one of the Calgary
Hitmen’s most dynamic lines ever, pro hockey has meant a change in his
role. Partnered with Brad Moran and
Pavel Brendl in Calgary, McAslan was playing on the top line but with the Road
Runners he has adapted to life as a checker.
The adjustment took time and there was one critical issue that the
winger from Okotoks Alberta had to overcome.

 

“Consistency, that was my biggest problem at the
start,” McAslan sighed. “I was able to
go out there on certain nights and do my thing but the biggest thing in this
league is that you have to come out and do it every night and if you
don’t then you’re going to be sitting in the pressbox.”

 

And even that is a big difference once you turn pro.

 

“In junior, the team doesn’t carry a lot of extra guys so
whether you have a bad game or not, you’re going to be playing a lot but here,
if you’re not playing well, someone else is going to take your spot right
away.”

 

Brock Radunske fought the consistency tag all through
his college career at Michigan State but now he’s a pro rookie and believes
getting used to the AHL won’t be as hard for him as for maybe some other
collegians. As a member of the Michigan
State Spartans, the power forward experienced more travel than he would have
with some of the east coast schools.

 

“There’ll be an adjustment but we flew last year and
balancing school full time is no easy job either. Turning pro you just have to worry about practicing every day,”
reasoned Radunske.

 

Aside from Radunske, the Road Runners also have Kyle
Brodziak
, Simon Ferguson, Jason Platt and Jeff
Drouin-Deslauriers
as rookies. Brent
Henley
has played professionally for a couple years but not at the AHL
level so he finds himself as an in-between guy that some of the ECHL bound
rookies came to for advice.

 

I have some
experience so I think I know things that others guys don’t. I’m still not in a position yet where I’ve
been a full time AHL player though so I’m still learning from guys like Rocky
(Thompson) and (Dan Smith),” said Henley.
“There are a lot of little things that I was taught in my first year of
pro that I’d like to pass on that might make the difference between playing
junior and pro.”

 

Henley took an
interest in fellow blueliners like Kenny Smith and Jason Platt during training
camp.

 

“Going into their
first years as pros they still have a lot of good years ahead of them and I
think just from watching them that they could be good AHL players,”
remarked Henley. “They had a lot of
questions for me about housing and how things work down in the ECHL with travel
so I tried to inform them the best that I can.
I told them not to even think about going down, think about what it’s
going to be like staying here and if you go down, think about it then. Prepare yourself to play in the AHL, that’s
what I’m doing and that’s the only way you can stay. If you prepare yourself for ‘the Coast’, you’re going to
the Coast.”

 

The Henley Giant
isn’t the only player willing to give the new guys some advice.

 

I would
tell them to be ready to play every night because the biggest thing is
consistency,” said hard-hitting McAslan.
“You want to go out and play your game, you can’t be something you’re
not so you have to play to your strengths and do what got you there. If you’re a checker, you don’t want to try
and dangle guys to impress the coach.”

 

“Some guys come out of junior or college where they were big
scorers and they might be thrown into a different roll in the pro game,” said
former St. Cloud forward DiCasmirro.
“You have to accept the role that you get and play to the best of your
ability, stay positive.”

 

“Make sure you’re good off the ice and take care of
your body,” offered up Lynch. “Most
guys out of junior have had all their meals cooked for them by their billets or
their parents so that’s a big step.
Personally I don’t like cooking at all, it’s a struggle for me,
but I have to eat well.”

 

Others feel that patience is the key for the younger players
and it’s a message they were told themselves at the time.

 

“I’d say the same things I heard a lot last year myself; try
not to get down on yourself,” said Cullen.
“When I wasn’t playing a lot at the beginning of last year I began
questioning if I was ready for this league so you just have to keep coming out
and playing a good game. They want you
here for a reason so don’t change, play the way you’re supposed to play and try
your hardest.”

 

“Be patient and work hard,” Winchester advised. “This is an organization where there is a
lot of good depth in the minor leagues and it’s a different game from
college. Continue to try and work on
your game and be patient.”

 

“Attitude is everything. It’s a long season and a lot of guys coming
out of college who haven’t played that many games and even for the junior guys
who are used to playing 16 and 17-year-olds, it’s a lot different when you start
battling 28 and 29-year-olds that have spent ten years playing pro and it’s a
wearing season,” said injured center J.J. Hunter. “You’re going to go through slumps and good
times but you have to keep an even keel or else you’ll be on an emotional
roller coaster. The second thing is
just hard work. There’s nothing that
will replace being willing to go out and work on your game and if you continue
to try and elevate your game then that’s all that you can ask of yourself.”

 

“I think they have to be smart with the
puck, play their position and be really sound defensively. When I first came in that was a huge thing
for me,” Bishai revealed. “For the
first month or so you really try to keep it simple until your confidence grows
and you’re playing at your peak. Just
work as hard as you can every day and get better every day.”

 

For their part, the rookies have
performed pretty well thus far in the early season in their limited roles. None is a regular in the line up thanks to
the presence of NHL players like Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres on the roster
but when they get a chance, guys like Kyle Brodziak are doing their best. They understand that the opportunities will
be few and far between so they need to capitalize when they do get the nod.

 

I know that early
it’s definitely going to be tough,” said Brodziak at the start of the
year. “But every day I’m going to come
prepared to work to try and get into that lineup.”

 

As injuries to
Henley, Hunter and now Brad Winchester begin creeping into the roster, the
rookies will have to be ready to contribute on a broader scale. Being part of the top team in the league
though is a great learning tool in of itself.
The organization is a firm believer than winning is a major asset to
development of young players and to this point that would mean that the young
players are coming along just fine.

 

Stats on Stats

 

Hockey’s Future put
the question to a handful of players to determine their opinion on stats and
how important a player’s personal success is to them in the big picture.

 

HF: Are you a player who sets statistical goals
for yourself at the beginning of each new season?

 

Joe Cullen: Not
really, I figure if I just play my best that the numbers will come so that’s
how I tend to look at it. One of the
main things I like to do is penalty killing and defensive stuff so I try not to
get scored on, not to be a minus player.
That’s the biggest goal for me; if I do that then I’ll get more ice time
and the offensive numbers will come.

 

Jeff Woywitka: Obviously
you want to contribute offensively and stay sound defensively and that’s my
game; to join the attack and also be responsible defensively. Points are going to come if you play well,
but it’s all about the team. If you get
a few more points than you did last year, I had 28 so if I could get 40 this
year I would be happy. Some guys can
have 50 points but they’re a -8 and that shows that they might be strictly
offensive players, so you want to be known that you can do the job defensively
too.

 

Mike Bishai:
I think everybody sets goals for themselves, I have them in the back of
mind but I try not to worry about that too much. Some guys might start squeezing the stick and the puck doesn’t
bounce their way. For myself I just have
a standard goal so I just go play my game and that stuff will come. In college I don’t think I was ever a plus
player and you come to pro hockey and you have to start worrying about those
things.

 

Brad Winchester:
Yes and No. I think it’s good to
set goals for yourself; I have a thought in my head of what I would like to
accomplish this year. On the other hand
you have to break it down into the smaller things too in terms of trying to
improve and the little things that will improve my game overall. You can read too much into statistics by
just looking at goals and assists.

 

Doug Lynch:
No. I know what kind of player I
am and what I bring to the table. For
me it’s all about the win. Contributing
to the team in order to win is what I’m going to do. Blocking shots is something there’s no statistic for but I’ll
shut up and do that job or whatever it takes.
This year I want to provide some leadership for the young guys coming up
and keep honing my own game. You always
have to keep learning, especially from the older guys because they each bring
something different and you have to take that from them and learn. The best
night would be that you had a good night and your team won. If you have a good night but the team loses,
you’re left with an empty feeling.
You’ve got to win man, that’s what it comes down to.

 

Nate DiCasmirro:
I think everybody does at the beginning of the year; you want to see
yourself get as many as you can but you don’t want to jinx yourself. If your team has success then you’re more
than likely going to have personal success.
Team comes first.

 

Sean McAslan:
Nothing set in stone. 20 goals
is a mark I think that I can get because I got 12 goals last year and I didn’t
play all the games so I can score some more.
If I’m playing my game then the points are going to come. 20 goals is a pretty big goal of mine and I
think I can get to that point and also getting over 100 penalty minutes seems
to be kind of benchmark for my style of game too.

 

Rob Globke (FLA) with San Antonio: Nope.
I set goals for every game; I want to have a certain amount of shots or
hits per game and whatever happens after that happens. I think if you concentrate on little things
the other stuff will follow.

 

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