When Phil Axtell came to the Cedar Rapids Roughriders tryout camp in 2004, he immediately stood out, not so much because of his skill, but because he was 6’6 and 274 pounds. Trimmed down, Axtell is no longer a curiosity, but a legitimate NHL prospect.
The New Windsor, Maryland, native grew up playing hockey in suburban Washington D.C., including midget minors for the Washington Little Capitals, but he made the move to the Midwest Elite AAA Hockey League in 2002. Living with relatives in new Marquette, Mich., Axtell played midget major hockey for the Marquette Electricians for two seasons, scoring 25 goals and 39 assists in 66 games in 2003-04.
Able to coast on his size prior to playing for the Roughriders, Cedar Rapids head coach put Axtell on a strict diet and conditioning program in 2004-05. The curiosity that was Axtell gained the attention of scouts, as Axtell was selected to play the 2005 USHL All-Star Game, but he was limited to only 26 games due to a knee injury and was passed up in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
The conditioning program has paid off, as Axtell has much more quickness and can handle the first line ice time that he gets on the Roughriders in 2005-06. Axtell has trimmed down to 240, while his production has ballooned. After scoring six goals and five assists in his limited action in 2004-05, Axtell scored 22 goals and 15 assists in 47 games. Missing the 2005 USHL All-Star Game due to his injury, Axtell did get to play in the 2006 edition. As a physical player, Axtell has missed a number of games due to suspension, including one for leveling Indiana Ice goaltender Cody Reichard.
The 19-year-old power forward has an extremely hard shot but has also developed hands soft enough to be extremely effective around the net while utilizing his size to overpower defensemen and screen goaltenders. Axtell is slated to play the next four seasons for Michigan Tech University in the WCHA, and he’s also eligible for selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The third time should be the charm for Axtell. He can throw down with anyone and deliver heavy hits along the boards, but he has the skating ability and the stick skills to contribute offensively.
Hockey’s Future recently caught up with Axtell and discussed his early years around Washington D.C., his move to Michigan, his development in the USHL, his pending move back to Michigan, and his desire to play pro hockey.
HF: It seems like you’re a much better player this year than last year, what are some of the things you’ve been working on to make you a more effective player?
PA: Just training this summer, hard work, and coach helping me on the ice, different situations, it’s paid off a lot.
HF: Last year they put you on a conditioning regiment, tell me a bit about that?
PA: It was a strict diet. Coach knew every food that I ate, my housing parents, everybody, they all knew exactly what I was doing. I was weighing in every day, a lot of spin classes at the gym club. Right now I’m suspended, so I’m doing 35 seconds sprints as I can, a minute-and-a-half off.
HF: How much did you weigh when you came into Cedar Rapids?
PA: I came into camp at 274.
HF: How much do you weigh now?
HF: How much more energy to you feel now?
PA: Tons, tons. My feet move a little bit faster, it’s helped a lot.
HF: Growing up in the Washington D.C. area, what hockey did you play growing up, including the Little Capitals?
PA: I played for the Little Caps my eighth grade year. Everybody else was with Tri-City, which was just a AA team. I was always the biggest guy, always the best guy. I moved out and woke up a little bit, played in the real hockey world.
HF: How was it you ended up with the Marquette Electricians?
PA: I ended up going to Marquette because I had family about an hour and a half south. They didn’t want me in the cities, any problems or anything like that. So, I got up there and had a good time. I got a lot better at hockey and love the game a little bit more now too.
HF: How much of a step up was Midget AAA in the Midwest League over what you had played?
PA: Oh man, for me coming in out of shape, it was a huge, huge step. Once I got into shape, the hands came a little quicker and everything else came a lot easier.
HF: Is that a case where, back out in the Southeast, your size alone helped you be a dominant player?
PA: Yeah, hockey out there, there’s a few, you’ve got Garrett Roe and Ben Grotting on the Lincoln Stars, there’s not many guys who step up into this league. It’s pretty easy in Maryland.
HF: How big of a step was it then from Marquette to the USHL?
PA: To the USHL, I got here at practice, skated twice and hurt my knee, but I knew I was three steps behind when I got here. Once I got the rehab done and everything and dropped a little bit of weight, it wasn’t too bad.
HF: Any other injuries you battled last year?
PA: I had three knee surgeries last year. Two minor ones, little scope surgeries, one with my right knee, I tore my meniscus, and my left one I just had rough cartilage. I was a few weeks with that.
HF: What do you feel are the strengths of your game?
PA: Being a power forward, going into the corner, come out with the puck and get the puck in front of the net. A 15-foot radius around the net, I’m pretty good around there.
HF: What are some of the skills you’ve been working on to become a more complete player?
PA: My skating, my conditioning. Skating and conditioning are what I need to work on and get a little more patient with the hands and I’ll have the package.
HF: Have you always had such a powerful shot?
PA: I’ve always been big.
HF: Able to leverage some weight into it?
PA: Yeah, that’s it. I’ve always been big and I’ve always had a harder shot than everybody.
HF: This year you were able to actually skate in the USHL All-Star, how big of an honor was that and what was the skill like there?
PA: Last year I got picked to go to the All-Star Game and got hurt and everything. It’s a lot better to get to play and go out and show my skills. That was awesome, one of the best games I had. I got a good 15-20 minutes. It was a good game.
HF: You were not drafted last year, was that a disappointment to you?
PA: I was ranked like 79th or 80th, in the third round or something like that. I didn’t get drafted, but I think right now it’s more of an encouragement to prove everybody wrong, that they should have drafted me. I only played 26 games during the year, so they didn’t have much time to see me.
HF: Do you think this year, playing more games, giving scouts more opportunities to see you, do you think that increases your chances of being drafted?
PA: Yeah, I hope so. It doesn’t really matter, you go to college and do what I do. If I do get drafted, it’d be a big plus. It’d be pretty cool to get drafted and see your name on the board.
HF: What was it that made you decide to go to Michigan Tech?
PA: Well, I was in Marquette and I love that weather, the snow, the snowmobiling, all that type of weather. The environment up there, it’s so beautiful. In fact, they have a winter carnival and you get ice sculptures made out of snow that are 20 feet high.
HF: With Michigan Tech, do you think you’ll continue to play the role you play here, or what plans do they have with you?
PA: I think it’s going to be the same role. There’s not going to be as much fighting, can’t do that in college. I’m going to go up there this summer and get on the skating treadmill and work on my skating and conditioning even more. Hopefully I’ll be able to step into the WCHA with no problem.
HF: Not to beat a dead horse, but what’s the story with your suspension after hitting Cody Reichard?
PA: Yeah, there were a few bad calls. I was upset. I’m just sick of getting calls like that. Just being because I’m big, people run into me and I get the penalty. So, I was upset and took some steam out on the goalie.
HF: What are your goals with hockey?
PA: I think if I get into shape, tip-top shape, get in the conditioning and the right coaching and everything like that, hopefully I can get into the NHL, or the American League or something like that, make a living out of playing hockey.
HF: Will you continue to be the power forward who also adds that fighting element?
PA: Oh yeah, I hope so. I hope that’s what it’s going to be. I don’t mind fighting. If it needs to be done, it needs to be done. If the team needs it, I’ll be there to step up.
HF: Do you also hope to contribute offensively? Because that’s the thing I’ve noticed the most about your game this year, even if you took away the fighting, you’d still be very good.
PA: Yeah, when I’m playing, when I’m playing. Yeah, that’s what I love to do, get around that net and put that puck in the net.
HF: I heard when you first came that your skates were reinforced with metal in the boot.
PA: Yeah, it all happened, I was playing in Marquette and the Tuuks had completely rotted out, the bottom of the boot was all rotted out, nothing to connect it together. I was, at that time, home in Maryland before nationals and my dad has a buddy that has a racecar shop and just took the metal and formed it to the bottom of the boot and connected it with steel rivets.
HF: A little resistance training for you?
PA: Yeah it is, and a little extra support.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.