Following in his father’s footsteps but quickly making a name for himself at the same time, North Dakota freshman Taylor Chorney is showing the rest of the hockey world what the Edmonton Oilers saw in him that lead to being the 36th player selected at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
The Fighting Sioux of North Dakota are icing four rookies on their defensive corps this year, but according to the club’s head coach Dave Hakstol, on most nights it’s hard to tell.
“I think at times we need to have a little patience keeping in mind the fact that we do have four freshmen back on the blue line, but performance wise (Chorney’s) not playing like a rookie,” said the bench boss. “He plays in all different situations; on the power play, he kills penalties and of course he plays five-on-five and he’s doing a very good job of it.”
“The first week or two took a little adjustment because it’s obviously faster than what I was used to but the past couple weekends I’ve felt pretty comfortable,” Chorney told Hockey’s Future recently.
Part of the reason that Chorney is coping so well at the school stems back to his childhood.
“I grew up being a Sioux fan my whole life probably because of my dad, but I came up a bunch of times through my childhood to watch them play and I just grew up wanting to be a part of the Sioux family,” Chorney explained.
The father is Marc Chorney, a defenseman who after finishing as an All-American at UND went on to play four seasons in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings. The younger Chorney has had his heart set on following his dad’s example for many years and committed to the school right away in his junior season of high school.
“I knew all along that if I got a chance to, this is where I was going to come,” he said.
Luckily for him, UND felt the same way.
“There’s a history there with Taylor and his family do to the fact that his dad was a great player here so knowing the family and the character of the family, that was an immediate attraction,” said Hakstol, himself a former UND player during the early ‘90’s.
Chorney’s journey to North Dakota began at his home in Minnesota where he decided to leave his local high school in Hastings and transfer to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the hockey factory that has churned out NHL players like Sidney Crosby (PGH), Ryan Malone (PGH), Noah Clarke (LA) and Ty Conklin (EDM).
“I was either going to go to the national program in Ann Arbor or to Shattuck,” explained Chorney. “I actually committed to go to Shattuck before I got invited to go to the national team I guess but it ended up being a great spot for me; I had a blast when I was at Shattuck.”
As it turned out, Chorney ended up playing in both programs last year having donned his national sweater a couple of times for international tournaments with both the U17 and U18 squads.
“I wasn’t really expecting that when I went to Shattuck that I would still get a chance to play on some of those teams, but I guess it was sort of a try out for me at the February tournament in Sweden and I ended up doing pretty well there,” he said. “They invited me back to the WJC camp and that turned out to be a great experience.”
By all accounts Chorney’s performance during the August training sessions in Lake Placid vaulted him up the depth chart for USA Hockey to the point that it would be very surprising if the 18-year-old were left off the roster.
“I thought Chorney was one of their top two defensemen in the camp; he played really, really well,” Edmonton VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast reported. “He’s coming through the experience of the U18’s and the Four Nations tournaments so it’s not as though he’s never been in that type of atmosphere. Plus he skates so well and moves the puck so quickly that on the smaller ice surface, that’s the type of player they are going to need.”
Coach Hakstol agrees.
“My opinion is that certainly he’d bring an awful lot to the table to that team and I hope that he has that opportunity,” the coach expressed. “I think he’s certainly one of the top ’87 born defensemen in North America.”
Edmonton prospect Rob Schremp became a fan of Chorney’s during the summer sessions and can’t imagine a scenario where he isn’t on the squad.
“I didn’t even know who Chorney was until we got to camp,” Schremp admitted. “He played unbelievable actually, he was the best defenseman on our team.”
Making the team won’t be easy, as the Americans are considered the early favorites due to their experience and depth compared to Team Canada. On his side though is the fact that Chorney has not only played on past national teams but he has captained them.
“I was the captain of the summer U18 World Cup in the Czech Republic,” Chorney said as he recalled the day he was given the honor. “I was pretty surprised, I can remember the exact moment at practice where the coaches hadn’t really said anything to that point about captains and then they just made an announcement so I was pretty pumped about it. It’s a great experience to represent your country like that and being the captain makes it even more special.”
Chorney was also the captain during his final year at Shattuck-St. Mary’s as well and it’s that leadership ability that makes having him on your team extra special.
“His personality draws people to him off the ice and on the ice in the locker room,” coach Hakstol described. “His competitiveness makes him an immediate natural leader. Right now he’s doing that in less of a vocal way and more with his actions on the ice, but Taylor’s character is of the highest degree.”
“If you’re a natural leader you still chip in,” Chorney said when asked of the difference going from captain one year to rookie the next. “I try to lead by example on the ice and I try to be the hardest worker but the older guys are obviously the guys to key on so I’m just taking a back seat and trying to learn from them.”
One case that exemplifies the quality of Chorney’s character is that in order to help out his team, the youngster voluntarily surrendered a portion of his own scholarship so that North Dakota could quickly fill the void left when Matt Greene opted to turn pro with the Oilers. By putting the team ahead of himself, Chorney displayed the type of qualities any organization would love to have in their system.
“They were in a tough spot and they needed someone to help out,” Chorney reluctantly explained to Hockey’s Future. “They asked me if there was any way that I would do that because they needed to get another guy and I said yeah, that was fine with me.”
From an Oiler standpoint, that’s the sort of gesture that is as rare as it is impressive.
“I’ve never heard of a kid doing that before. Never.” said 13-year Edmonton scout Chris McCarthy. “It speaks volumes about his character and how this is a total team guy and it’s all about ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. He gives everything for the club, doesn’t want any accolades, just wants to win and to have the best possible guys on the team. It proves a lot about Taylor’s character. I got to meet him first hand at the WJC summer camp and he was very polite, soft spoken but well spoken, and just a wonderful kid.”
With such a young team this year, North Dakota’s season is a pretty good comparable to the stage of his development Chorney finds himself in. There will be growing pains for both the Fighting Sioux and for Chorney as well but an impressive start has produced hope that a return to contention isn’t far off.
On the personal side, the adjustment to a higher level has been evident, but UND is very pleased with what they have seen in the play of the freshman rearguard. Statistically the offensive production hasn’t been there but in all other aspects of the game, Chorney has been a bright spot for the team.
“He’s doing a lot of good things and that’s one part of his game that will continue to develop so that’s not something I’m concerned with at all,” assured coach Hakstol. “He’s doing a solid job on the power play, he’s playing a lot on one of our two units and I think as he continues to adjust to the speed of the game his natural decision making will take over.”
“He’s not a big guy but he has a big frame and he’s still growing and he can play the game anyway you want it,” described UND associate coach Brad Berry. “He can play defensively, he can play both the left side and the right side on the backend plus he’s got some good offensive abilities so he’s a well-rounded player that’s only going to get better.”
Edmonton has also been closely following Chorney’s rookie campaign and development coach Geoff Ward has liked what he’s seen so far after four separate viewings.
“This is a guy that every game I have seen him in he has gotten better,” began Ward. “As a freshman playing against 22 and 23-year-old guys it can be intimidating, but he’s done a good job. He’s steady in all areas and that’s what sticks out to me the most. He’s a strong passer, moves the puck well and the thing I really like is that after he moves the puck he follows it up the ice so he’s always in a position to be the fourth man. He’s a guy that has tremendous upside and as a freshman right now he does a lot of things very well. I think in three years we’re going to be extremely excited to see how far he’s come.”
“You can expect kids who come out of prep schools that have no big experience against NCAA teams to take a while. From our standpoint he is doing exactly what we thought he would do,” agreed McCarthy, “He’s playing well, he’s making mistakes and learning from them and he’s getting good coaching, plus he’s got a good shot at making the WJC team.”
In the past Chorney has set goals for himself, statistical targets, but this season he has suspended that habit.
“I didn’t this year because it’s my first year and I didn’t know totally what to expect,” he explained. “I’ve been trying to focus on getting better offensively so I go to the rink early every day and shoot pucks and work on my puck handling. I got my first goal recently so I hope I can keep that going too.”
The other aspect of playing hockey at a NCAA institution is obviously the academic side of things. Chorney hasn’t declared a major or anything yet, instead choosing to allow himself to settle into his surroundings without overloading himself right off the bat.
“For this term I took it easy just to get adjusted,” Chorney confirmed. “Even the hockey side is pretty demanding because we’re at the rink for four or five hours a day so it’s tough to take the really hard classes until I get completely used to it. Next year I’m planning on adding a math class and stuff.”
“I think once I figure it out it’s not going to be too bad, especially coming from Shattuck because as a school that was pretty demanding there and that will really help me coming here because I already have that equal balance with hockey figured out.”
Although listed by the school as 6’ and 180 lbs, Chorney says the truth is that he’s a hair shorter than that but is playing somewhere between 185 and 190 lbs.
“I might get a little taller but I’ll still fill out more for sure,” he said. “Compared to my dad we’re about the same height but he’s a lot thicker than I am. I think I could get up to about 200 lbs. by the time I’m done here.”
And when exactly will that be? Will Chorney follow in the footsteps of other recent UND players like Greene, Zach Parise and Brady Murray by choosing to turn pro before graduation?
“Yeah I’d put some thought into that if the right possibilities present but I’m not thinking about that right now,” he admitted. “I’m just spending my time here trying to get better to make that next step. But if the opportunity presents itself and it’s the right situation for me then I’ll definitely do it.”
One might think that the coach would be disappointed to hear that, but on the contrary, Hakstol knows that it is all part of the business and if anything, it’s a credit to the program.
“When it comes to hockey we know that we have to put a winning product on the ice, but we also work extremely hard with each individual player that comes through here,” began the coach. “It’s two sided; we want to develop them as a person so that they have an opportunity to be successful not only in the NHL but in life and those two things go hand-in-hand. When you turn pro, that’s a really big word, you have to be ready to be a professional on and off the ice so we take pride in that, developing the character and the person and hopefully we can be a vehicle that allows the player to step in at the NHL level and be successful there.”
Chorney’s eventual NHL future lies with Edmonton after the club drafted the blueliner early in the second round this past summer. According to Chorney, the thought of playing north of the border in the country of his birth is a preferable one.
“I actually had a talk with my dad about that beforehand and I told him that I would much rather go to a Canadian team just because of the coverage of all the teams, it’s just so much more in-depth and you’re more under the spotlight and there are better fans,” he said. “It just seems like all the Canadian teams have a much better tradition and it’s the same with only about seven teams in the States.”
Perhaps having been born in Thunder Bay, Ontario had something to do with the added attraction to playing in Canada. Chorney considers himself an American but holds his Canadian heritage in high regard and says he has considered reacquiring his dual citizenship status. But did the rearguard have any inkling that the Oilers were interested in him?
“I had an interview with them at the combine but I had like 20 interviews in those two days so nothing really stuck out in my mind from any of them because it’s all just a blur of going in and out of rooms for ten hours a day,” recounted Chorney. “I did remember the Oiler interview a little bit though because the atmosphere in the room was a lot different than the other ones. The guys were a lot friendlier and it didn’t seem as much like an interview as it did just a chat with a bunch of guys. I didn’t have any expectations heading into the draft though.”
The thought of possibly one day playing on the same team as Matt Greene is a pleasant one especially considering the two could actually make for a solid pairing.
“He’s more of the guy who will be mean in front of the net and in the corners and I’m the guy who can move it out of our end and make some plays with the puck,” described Chorney. “I think we would compliment each other pretty well.”
And Greene agrees.
“He’s unbelievably smooth with the puck and really sound defensively too. He makes great decisions, moves the puck well, skates really well and is physical too for his size,” Greene described to HF in September. “He’s the total package. He’s got a really good offensive side to him, he can put the puck in the net, plus just the way he moves the puck and skates with it is really fluid.
“Yeah, he’d be a really fun guy to play with.”
The NHL comparison Chorney most often hears is that of Calgary’s Jordan Leopold.
“I’m a guy that can lead the rush if I have to but I’m more into leading the transition game. I’m pretty good on the regroup, finding the open man and make smart decisions with the puck,” he self-described. “I haven’t put up many points yet this year but looking at (Leopold’s) stats neither has he, so who knows?”
Whoever he reminds people of, the consensus from hockey scribes is that Chorney will eventually be a NHL player and according to some players he’s skated with, there is little question of it.
“I think he’ll be an Oiler in the next five years for sure,” predicted Schremp.
As with all prospects, there is a certain amount of uncertainty but few defensemen in the Oiler system have looked this good this early. He’s definitely one Oiler fans should keep their eyes on.
“They have a proven track record of producing good hockey players so that was definitely a big thing that drew me to that school.”
–On why Shattuck-St. Mary’s was a good fit for him.
“I think it’s stupid. I think it’s just a small group of people that have been dragging this out for way too long. If you ask the majority of Native Americans I think you’d find that they like the name and I think we as a school we represent the name really well, we don’t do anything that would harm the name.”
–On the ongoing debate over whether the name ‘Fighting Sioux’ is ethnically insensitive and should be changed.
“I had hopes that I’d go somewhere in the second round but I thought maybe in the 50’s or somewhere towards the end. When I got picked at 36 I was pretty excited.”
–On the draft.
“I talk to coach (Brad) Berry about it a little bit and some guys on my team like Kyle Radke and those guys say that everyone up there is just die-hard Oilers. That gives me a good feeling about going there someday.”
–On how he feels being property of Edmonton.
“He skates with us at practice every day. He obviously doesn’t take part in the hitting and stuff but if you came out and watched him you’d just guess he had a hurt shoulder that he was rehabbing, you can’t tell that he broke his neck or anything. He shoots the puck fine and he skates the same way so I think his recovery is coming very well.”
–On UND player Robbie Bina who was injured by fellow Oiler prospect Geoff Paukovich last year.
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