While Colton Fretter can’t say he really enjoys being a rookie again, the 24-year-old is making the most of it, currently tied for third in rookie scoring with seven goals and three assists in nine games. He collected the ECHL Rookie of the Month award for October.
Under Chicago Wolves contract and assigned to the Gwinnett Gladiators, he’s in a new city and league, but a lot has remained the same for him as it was at Michigan State University.
First, he was able to keep his jersey number of 7. He’s had that number since he was about 7 years old, which he thinks may have been the reasoning for its selection. He’s also playing for another team whose moniker refers to classical warriors — Spartans and Gladiators. But more importantly, things on the ice are run much the same way. Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle played under Rick Comley at Northern Michigan, before Comley moved over to coach Michigan State. The two teach many of the same things.
Fretter said of his transition from college to pro hockey, “It actually wasn’t that tough. My coach at school preached defense, being in the right defensive position. As long as Coach Pyle sees you’re in a good defensive position, he lets you go offensively. It’s worked out pretty good. The things that I learned at school carry over.”
“The little things I teach him are things I learned from Rick,” Pyle said, “but also the tendencies that I had that made me successful.”
Pyle was able to use him a lot immediately, since there are certain things you know about a player coming from Comley’s team: “You know he’s well-coached, his character will be in line, he’ll work hard.”
Fretter has made some eye-catching plays for the Gladiators, getting behind the defense and breaking for the net.
“He reads the play really well,” Pyle said. “I’ve always told them, especially on our power play, you work without the puck, that’s 99 percent of the game. If you’re working hard enough to get open, you’re going to get it. On a set breakout, [Brad Schell] would give him the puck in the middle because he knew that in our system if you go there, you’re open. And he goes there and comes with speed so it’s tough to step up on him and if you do, and you don’t have the right angle, he’s going to beat you.
“I just think he’s really, really intelligent. And he’ll get better when he gets the confidence that ‘if I do this, it will work.’”
“I just pick my times and go,” Fretter explained. “Hopefully the d-men give it up into that hole.”
Deficiency becomes asset
Even though he gets these kind of chances, he doesn’t consider himself a great skater. In fact, it was this aspect of his game that kept him from being recruited into the NCAA for a year, and kept him from being more highly sought-after in the NHL entry draft.
“I’ve always been told I’m not a good skater,” Fretter said. “I just work on it a lot in the summers. I think this year I picked up a step. Every year I just work on my skating more than anything.”
Fretter played for the Chatham Maroons of the Western Ontario Junior Hockey League from 1999-2002, at the junior “B” level. He led the league and team in scoring in 2000-01 with 75 points. Working on his skating and losing 12 lbs between his second and third years made a huge difference in his popularity with NCAA teams.
“My second year I led the league in points and I didn’t talk to a single school. Then the next year at the start of the year, I got on an unbelievable scoring streak to start the year and then every school came. You’re only allowed five visits and I had to tell people ‘I can’t come to your school. I can’t even visit your school,’” he said, laughing. “It went from nothing to every school it seemed like, which was kind of weird.
“It was good though – I used that as motivation a lot to work in the summers. A lot of people said stuff about my weight and that’s when I lost it, that summer. It was kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Atlanta Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr, who helped draft Fretter in 2002, said that the organization was concerned about Fretter’s skating at the time as well.
Marr said Fretter’s “stride was short and choppy,” he had no acceleration and couldn’t pull away. But, Marr noted, Fretter has improved a great deal in four years.
Fretter explained that he did ”quick feet drills, foot ladders, short sprints and agility stuff” to improve. “I’d say going into my last year of juniors, I got really into working out,” he recalled. “I became more knowledgeable. That’s what I kind of went to school and got into, it was because of that. I learned more about what I should do. Once I got to school, they videotaped me skating and broke down my stride a little bit and started working on that. But that’s hard to change at 20 years old.”
Asked if he considered Fretter’s skating an asset now, Marr said yes. He also said Fretter has good work habits, skating habits and good jump.
The weight he dropped led to improved quickness, and a better body composition.
“When I went to school and was with our team trainer [Mike Vorkapich], I learned more about the lifting aspect rather than just losing weight,” Fretter said. “So I put the weight back on as muscle.”
Fretter’s body fat was last measured by the Thrashers at 8.8 percent, a good number for a pro athlete of any kind.
Marr commented that Fretter “worked his tail off at MSU” and was “the most improved athlete” each summer at the team’s prospect camp. He also commented on how good the strength coach was at MSU, pointing out how much he had helped current Thrasher Jim Slater as well.
Teams come calling
Fretter, a good student, had long intended to go the college route, and declined going to OHL camps as a teenager so he could retain his college eligibility.
“When I was 15 and 16, I thought [college] was the best I could get to,” he said. “I always wanted to go to school. My family is very school-oriented, so that was my goal.”
Thanks to his very good start in 2001-02, he finally got his pick of schools. Michigan State was a good fit for him academically with its program in kinesiology, the study of muscles and their movements.
“I got recruited to a few Ivy League schools that I could have gone to, but kinesiology seemed like it was kind of new and Michigan State has a great kinesiology program,” he said. “They’ve got to be in the top 10 in the nation. There’s a lot of research there since it’s such a big school. Obviously I wanted to go to a competitive team that would be there in the end. They had a perfect blend of school and athletics.”
In the time between Fretter’s commitment to MSU and arrival on campus, Comley took over as coach. The summer of 2002 was also when the Thrashers drafted Fretter in the eighth round, 230th overall. It came as a surprise.
“No one had ever been drafted out of my junior B league, straight out of that league,” he reasoned. “I talked to a couple teams – Atlanta, New Jersey, and Montreal I heard was interested. But I didn’t really expect it.”
Finding out he was drafted was an adventure in itself.
“I completely forgot the draft was going on,” he retold. “On the second day I was with a friend at the time, and went to his friend’s house and we were swimming and just hanging out. It was 6pm and no one knew where I was. I was like ‘oh, I’ll go check online and see if anyone I knew got drafted.’ I’m going through and got to the eighth round and my name was first. I remember just staring at the computer in shock. I called my parents and they’re like ‘Yeah, we’ve known for five hours, we’ve been trying to find you.’ They were calling everywhere I guess. A couple guys from Atlanta were trying to get a hold of me. I didn’t have a cell phone or anything. So no, I didn’t really expect it and completely forgot about it.”
In college, Fretter’s best year statistically came in his junior year, when he posted 20 goals and 24 assists in 40 games. It was more than double his output from the year before, when he had just 17 total points in 39 games. While some have a hard time explaining their performance, Fretter had none.
“Well, I was pissed off at my coach,” he said with emotion that was still clearly alive. “The whole preseason I was actually a healthy scratch, and the first game of the year I was a healthy scratch. Someone took a bunch of penalties the first game so he sat him. Then I went in and I got a couple goals in my first game. Then I remember he had a quote in the paper, ‘He’s earned a spot for one more game.’ It just pissed me off. So the whole season was just showing him that he was wrong. Plus once I started scoring, he put me on the power play, and got more ice time so that helped too.”
Senior year, the motivation was still there for Fretter, but he wasn’t able to repeat the numbers, posting just 29 points in 45 games.
“I didn’t play on the power play after about November. I don’t know why,” he said. “I wasn’t getting goals on the power play I guess, but was still second on the team in power-play points. That’s where I got half my points the year before, on the power play.”
Comley’s goats have a pattern of doing well once they leave his program – maybe to spite him, maybe because of what he teaches, or maybe both. Lee Falardeau (NYR) and Brock Radunske (EDM) were both pushed out of MSU after their junior year. Falardeau had 18 goals in his rookie year with the ECHL Charlotte Checkers in 2004-05. Radunske was injured most of his rookie pro year, but had 38 goals with the Greenville Grrrowl in 2005-06.
No matter what else happened at MSU, Fretter achieved his goal of getting his degree, and got a good jump on life after hockey. In the kinesiology program, he was required to do an internship, and acted as the strength coach for the football team, the men’s and women’s basketball team and soccer team. He’ll make a career in this area at some point.
“I’m going to play, obviously, as long as I can,” he said. “But if I don’t think anything’s panning out, I’m probably going to go back to school for physical therapy. My dream is to own my own gym. I’m going to take a test, probably in the summer, to become a certified strength coach and see what doors open up at that point.”
Following a model
The Thrashers had until August 15 of this year to sign Fretter before he became a free agent. They declined to sign him, but still have interest in him as a player.
Thrashers GM Don Waddell said in June, “We’d like him in our system. We’d like to do what we did with Pat Dwyer last year. Pat Dwyer was a guy that we drafted, then signed to a two-way contract with Chicago and he played all year in the American League. To me, he got an opportunity and he took advantage of it. I think Colton Fretter falls in that same mold.”
Marr said that they pointed out to Fretter this summer that both Dwyer and Kevin Doell started with the Gladiators and earned NHL contracts. These two players are meant to be models for him to follow.
Dwyer, a smaller college player like Fretter, joined the Gladiators for 14 games when his senior season at Western Michigan was over in the spring of 2005. He had a good 2005-06 season for the Wolves, and this summer, he was signed to an NHL contract by the Carolina Hurricanes. Doell, who won ECHL Rookie of the Year in 2003-04, was a free agent pickup of the Thrashers.
Having players sign AHL contracts as a kind of tryout is a model that teams might use more often under the 2005 CBA, now that mistakes are more expensive — players must be bought out at their NHL salary instead of minor league salary. The days of buying out a player who doesn’t work out in the minors, like Anthony Aquino, are over. Instead, teams will leave a player on the payroll if a mistake was made, but try harder to avoid making mistakes by not signing those who are big question marks.
Fretter said he had other ECHL offers this summer, but didn’t talk to any other AHL or NHL teams. “Atlanta said they thought I should sign with Chicago, so that’s what I did,” he said.
Fast forward to October, and Fretter got off to a good start. “Yeah, that was big,” he said. “That’s always good coming into a new team and getting off to a good start so the coach has confidence in you right away. I had Coach Pyle in Traverse City [at the Prospects Tournament] and he saw me a little bit. So I’m happy that’s he’s my coach and he’s given me the opportunities that I have right now.”
Rooming with goaltender Dave Caruso, a fellow rookie, the Ontario native likes his situation, teammates, and the area. But like every player, he wants to move up the ladder. “Obviously I like it here, but it’s not where I want to be,” he said.
“He realizes every day that he’s got to prove himself,” Pyle said of Fretter. “It’s the perfect attitude to have. He’s good, but not good enough for him.
“The kids that are humble like that, the guys who don’t put the carriage before the horse, to me, have the best chance. He knows he’s got to work every day. His commitment and his mindset are perfect for a professional hockey player. And he will be successful.”
Pyle was the third to draw the analogy to Dwyer.
“Just from what I’ve seen here, if I was an NHL team, I can see a team taking a chance on [Fretter], like Pat Dwyer. He’s got a lot of upside and the character to go with it. And he’s coachable. We were on the bus the other day and everyone else was sleeping. But he’s watching the film with me, going ‘On this situation, where should I be?’ He’s asking the right questions, he wants to know. When we do a penalty kill, he’s not out there, but he says ‘Where do you want that second guy to be?’
“He’s bought in from Day 1, even in Traverse City. You could see he understood. He didn’t question it. If I tell him this is where you need to be, this is why I need you there, he does it, and because of that, he’s been successful for the first month.
“He’s gonna be a good one,” Pyle added.
Rookie of October
Even after a career of ebbs and flows, Fretter was surprised that he’s near the top of rookie scorers in the league.
“I wasn’t expecting to get off to this kind of start,” he said. “There’s guy who’ve been here before, so I didn’t know how much ice I’d get to start. To post the numbers I have, I’m pretty happy.”
Indeed he’s getting a lot of ice time on the Gladiators’ top line with the league’s current leading scorer Schell and last year’s MVP Jeff Campbell. That’s a good spot from which to put up numbers, but the fact is that Schell and Campbell, both playmakers to a fault, need Fretter just as much as he needs them.
According to Pyle, Fretter brings a blue-collar attitude to the line, and is the designated triggerman.
“I told him today, ‘you’re a shooter — shoot that puck, put it on the net.’ On that line, that’s what he is because Soupy won’t shoot enough. Scheller’s learning to.”
Being willing to shoot is how Fretter has gotten seven goals already, which leads the team and puts him tied for third league-wide in goals. Fretter’s goals to assists ratio is much higher than what’s been true over his career, so it’s unlikely to hold. But he’s always been good in the clutch, something that may become valuable in the shootout later on.
In the meantime, he’s having fun playing against recent teammates like Corey Potter, now with Charlotte. Fretter laughed that in the game last weekend, he “tried to run him once but he jumped out of the way.”
Fretter has a key role on the power play, playing the high slot area where Pyle likes to park a good shooter who will pay the price to stand there. Although he lacks size at 5’10, 187 lbs, Fretter has good balance and claims his territory. Another thing he does consistently well is drawing penalties.
Marr, in town for a series of Gladiators games last weekend, liked what he saw. He said he thought Fretter adapted immediately to this level and noted that the new NHL makes it easier for guys like him.
As far as what he needs to do to move up, Marr said Fretter needs to be consistent through the increased number of games, continue to be a good two-way player, and be ready when he gets an opportunity at a higher level.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.