Q&A with Dwight Helminen

By Aaron Vickers

A lot has changed in the last eight months for Dwight Helminen, most noticeably the colors on his jersey.

Since the last time Hockey’s Future has had a chance to talk to the young American, he’s been an Oiler, a Michigan Wolverine, and now a Ranger.

Helminen, drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft got a taste of the business aspects of hockey long before ever inking his name to a professional contract. It was much to his own delight and excitement as Helminen saw his name flash repeatedly across ESPN’s ticker, announcing he had been traded from his original club to The Big Apple.

Trading in the blue, white and orange for the blue, white and red, Helminen has a new city to call home.

The New York Rangers, abandoning their design plans of building through free agency, decided to make an attempt to build from within, and began acquiring promising young prospects at the expense of some of their older veterans. One of these veterans, Petr Nedved, found himself amidst the organizations re-shuffling, and was swapped for Helminen, a deal which also re-united Rangers goaltender Jussi Markkanen with his Oiler teammates.

Helminen, described as an integral part of the Nedved deal, will soon find himself in untested waters. After three seasons with the University of Michigan, the New York Rangers made Helminen an offer he simply couldn’t refuse; a full-time career as a professional hockey player. Helminen, who last chatted with Hockey’s Future in December of 2003, opted to forgo his last season with the Wolverines and on August 2 it was announced that he’d signed a contract with the New York Rangers.

Helminen left the Wolverines after being named the club’s 2004 recipient of the Howard Colby Memorial Award. This award, voted on by his teammates, was not the only distinction Helminen had the luxury of having placed on him. Also named the CCHA’s best defensive forward award, he left a college career behind with very little to prove.

He will now move on to the world of professional hockey, starting with a clean slate, starting with everything to prove.

Hockey’s Future caught up to the 5’9, 200lb forward while attending the New York Rangers 2004 Developmental Camp, held at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, Alberta.

HF: Since Hockey’s Future talked to you last December, a lot has happened professionally for you. Where were you when you found out you were traded, and what were your reactions?
DH: I was actually just getting off the ice from practice; we were just doing skates at the time. I got off the ice, and checked my phone messages and I got the message and I was pretty shocked, but it was interesting and I was kind of excited about it and just seeing your name on the ticker on ESPN is pretty cool!

HF: Did the Oilers give any reasoning or express any reaction in regards to trading you?

DH: They said they were disappointed to have to let me go, but they were happy with what I had accomplished, and they thought of me as a good player and wished me luck. They said we traded your rights for Petr Nedved, so it was a very flattering thing to hear. It was pretty cool at the time.

HF: Being a prospect, was the trade something that came unexpected to you, being a part of a deadline deal?

DH: Yeah, for sure. You don’t really think of it, just because you aren’t a player, your rights are owned by a team. I’ve always thought it’d be cool to see your name on television getting traded, because you’ve seen it in the past where you’ve seen some of your friends traded, their rights, but it was pretty cool to get to see it on TV.

HF: Any reaction in particular to being dealt to the New York Rangers, who have had a checkered past, to say the least, when it comes to developing prospects?

DH: Well, my initial reaction, I was just excited. You’re going to a team that I guess you could say, wants you, coming over in the trade and everything. Up until now they haven’t been doing to well, and the prospects haven’t been developing to the point where people may be saying they aren’t doing a good job. You know, I think they are looking at changing their philosophy and I think it’ll be a good opportunity in the long run.

HF: Where do you feel you fit in with this Rangers organization?

DH: I think they’re looking forward to me being a good two-way player, similar to the role of a Todd Marchant or a John Madden. I guess that’s how people go about characterizing my game.

HF: Originally you were drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and you’re a Michigan boy. Moving to New York, do you take some comfort in being closer to home?

DH: You know, it really doesn’t matter where I’m going, wherever there’s an opportunity I’m excited to be there, but being it’s an American city and being closer to home, I think my family was kind of excited to see me go somewhere that wasn’t too far or too much of a hassle for them to get to, since there’s other kids as well. I have six siblings and many of them play hockey also, so they are probably feeling better that they wont have to run all over. I think they’d like to see me closer to home.

HF: You signing your first professional contract was something that was announced by the New York Rangers on the second day of camp. What were your reactions to signing the contract? Was it a feeling of relief? Was it something you were very eager in doing?

DH: It was pure excitement. It’s always been a dream of mine to play at that level, and it’s just one step, but a step closer to achieving that goal. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to prove myself and earn an opportunity to play in the NHL.

HF: In your first interview with Hockey’s Future, Oilers writer Guy Flaming posed this question to you: ‘You’re a junior now so you have one full year left of college. Do you fully intend to return next year and put off turning pro until college is done.’ Your response to the question was ‘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 work out.’ What, in that period of time, changed your mind and got you to sign?

DH: I guess, you know, just the opportunity that came around. I never really thought I’d get the opportunity to leave school as a result of a professional contract. At that time I was with the Edmonton Oilers, and I think they intended on having me stay for my full period. You know, the opportunity came, and I still don’t see that there isn’t any opportunity to finish my degree. I believe I can still finish my degree, but by leaving it, hopefully, better my chances of playing at the next level by leaving early.

HF: Your coach from the University of Michigan, Red Berenson, had said this about you leaving school. ‘We’re disappointed in his decision. It’s poor timing. We would’ve liked to see him finish his career and his degree at the University of Michigan.’ What do his words mean to you, and do they echo anything in your mind?

DH: I mean, yeah. For them it’s bad timing. It leaves them with an empty spot in their line-up and at this point, it’s really tough for them to recruit. You know, I wish the program well and want to see them do well, and I think the toughest part was leaving my teammates behind. I made a decision that I thought would be best for me and my future. He certainly has reason to be disappointed, but I think in the back of his mind he’d like to see me do well and be successful.

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 work out.

HF: You’ve officially wrapped up your college career with the signing of your first professional contract. Just reflect, if you could, on your time with the Wolverines.

DH: Those are some of the best three years of my life so far. The guys, the team, we had a great group of guys every year there. We always had a good shot at being a very successful team and it’s helped me as a person and also on the ice. Right now Michigan is probably the best thing to happen to me in my hockey career.

HF: Looking back at the 2003-04 season, you were the recipient of Michigan’s Howard Colby Sportsmanship Award. What does that sort of recognition do for a player such as yourself?

DH: It shows that I’m a disciplined player. I guess you could equate it to the Lady Byng. I was honored to receive it, given that it was voted on by the players, by your teammates.

HF: You were also named CCHA’s best defensive forward. Is it something you took great pride in receiving?

DH: I was truly honored to receive that award. If you look back at some of the names to receive it in the past, it’s impressive. It’s really flattering to receive the award. Towards the end of the season I thought about the chances of receiving it, but to actually get the trophy was really special to me.

HF: You’re here in Calgar for the New York Rangers prospect camp. What are your impressions of this Rangers camp in comparison to that of the Edmonton Oilers camp you attended last season?

DH: It’s kind of a different set-up. The Oilers camp was more of an introduction to their program and everything, and here, it’s a lot longer, three weeks instead of one week. Here I think they want to develop us; we’re doing everything from skills to strength. This three weeks are more geared towards seeing improvement and getting guys going on the right track. Edmonton’s was similar in that regard, trying to push players in the right direction, but this camp is more intense.

HF: Based on your experiences here, has it been a positive trip for you?

DH: Oh definitely. If anything, it’s getting guys into great shape, myself included, and by the time these three weeks are up I’ll be in great shape, and hopefully ready for the main camp.

HF: Although we’re only a week into the camp, have there been areas of improvement the coaching staff has tried to instill in you?

DH: They’re just taking a look, and things like that. One of the main things they want me to do is get stronger. I’m not the biggest guy out there, but that’s my focus right now, getting stronger.

HF: This upcoming season will be unlike any previous season you’ve had to get ready for. What sorts of expectations do you have on yourself in what is the first step of your professional career?

DH: I just want to go out there and prove I can play at the pro level. That’s basically my goal right now, to get myself into a position where I can go out there and show the organization and people watching hockey that I can be an effective player, a good player for the New York Rangers.

HF: Can you comment on a few of your fellow prospects, such as Al Montoya, who you know very well?

DH: He’s a real athletic goalie and he has the potential to be a top goalie in the National Hockey League. I really wasn’t that surprised about how high he went in the 2004 draft. I kind of expected him to go that high. He’s a great kid and a great athlete, and extremely competitive.

HF: Lee Falardeau?

DH: Lee, he’s a big strong kid. I’ve played with him or against him for a few years now, growing up in the same area. He’s always been a hard worker and he’s one of those guys that you hate going into the corner with because it’ll be a battle to get the puck.

HF: Hugh Jessiman.

DH: Big, strong kid. Great finishing touch around the net. He’s another one of those guys, who, when he has the puck, he’s tough to get off the puck. He’s got a great shot to go with it.

HF: Although you haven’t seen much of him, Nigel Dawes.

DH: When he’s out there you know he’s always going to be a threat on the ice. With great vision and great hands, and he knows how to bury the puck. You always know if you’re going out there against him, he’s always going to be a threat. You’ve got to keep an eye on him.

HF: With all this young talent the Rangers have managed to accumulate in the last six months and even through the last few Entry Drafts, what can fans expect to see from the Rangers in say, five seasons?

DH: A hard working team. I think that’s what the organization wants to see. They want players who they know will give 110 percent on the ice every night. I think it’s one of the biggest things you’ll see out of the Rangers organization for years to come.

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.