The road ahead of a free agent junior overager usually consists of two choices, heading to the lower minor leagues, or hanging up the skates. Only rarely is there a chance with an NHL team.
Calgary Flames free agent signee Derek Couture was one of the lucky ones.
Playing the 2004-05 season in the WHL with Seattle as an overager, the Calgary native was happy to be a part of the Thunderbirds resurgence. He was healthy, he was playing on the team’s top line and he helped the T-Birds capture the U.S. Division. Out and out, he was having the time of his life.
“I loved playing there,” he said with a huge smile from ear to ear. “I loved where I was living and pretty much everything about it. We had a great coaching staff and a good team. On top of that, we had a good year.”
Heading into the playoffs, the team began to make their run for the WHL crown. But like his junior career, time ran out on Couture and the Thunderbirds. They lost their bid at the championship in the second round when the Kelowna Rockets took game 7 in a gut-wrenching series.
The season was done. Couture was not.
Having already made plans to move on, Couture was going to register for college and use the scholarship he earned in part by playing in the WHL. However, before he could even focus on carrying out his plans, he got an unexpected phone call from a NHL head coach and General Manager.
“We were on the bus coming home that night after we had just lost game 7 to Kelowna,” Couture explained. ”Then I get this call the next morning and it’s Darryl Sutter from the Calgary Flames. He goes on to explain to me that he wanted me to come to camp and that they were really interested in me.
“I really didn’t waste time thinking about it,” Couture recounted. “I just got ready and went to camp.”
He did everything the Flames asked and worked twice as hard every day. He knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and he wasn’t going to let it slip through his hands. Shortly thereafter, Sutter and the Flames offered Couture an entry-level contract.
“It was great that I got the opportunity at camp because it led to signing a contact,” he explained. “I mean looking back for a moment there, I was just about to register for college. Then it was like the next day, and I’m this hometown kid signed by Calgary. I couldn’t have been happier how it all worked out.”
In the system
Having gotten over the hurdle of signing with Calgary, Couture’s focus shifted towards the team’s AHL affiliate, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights. He immediately noticed the increased level of player size, skill and attentiveness from the competition.
“I would say that a lot of the players don’t make as many mistakes as I was used to seeing,” Couture stated about the difference of play from the WHL to the AHL. “For instance, in the WHL you can really jump on a guy if he makes a mistake and that might rattle him. In this league, mistakes are hard to find.”
Another element he was quick to notice was just how the opposition got up in someone’s face.
“I also learned that you don’t have a lot of time to make things happen because someone is always looking to put a stick on you,” he continued. “Guys aren’t afraid to get up and cover you all the time.
“So far this season, I started off slow,” he acknowledged. “It’s a pretty big transition to make and I’ve been working on it since day 1. As of late, I feel my game is improving.”
Playing on what essentially is the Knights “energy line,” Couture loves the challenge of proving himself, while working his up through the system.
“You have to earn everything,” he said. “See the guys that have been here a lot longer, they’ve earned where they are at now. I’m just a rookie coming in here. I’m going to have earn all of my privileges, ice time included.”
Playing the fourth line has been a complete role reversal from last season, but something he is familiar with.
“I’ve played that role before and I am comfortable doing it,” Couture said. “You can’t take anything for granted, so when you’re out there, you have to make the most of your minutes. I know my role and I’m willing to do what it takes.”
Couture’s resurgence can be traced back to last season, after his initial junior team, the Saskatoon Blades, traded him to Seattle for left wing Aaron Bader. He came to a Thunderbirds team looking to find a new identity amid a group of young unproven players.
However, what he got was a shot in the arm.
“Thunderbirds head coach Rob Sumner and his staff helped me find out what the keys aspects to my game were,” Couture explained about his rebirth. “They really worked with me and explained what could make me successful night in and night out.”
Not only was Couture finding individual success, but that also translated into team success. While injected into the first line with talented forwards such as Aaron Gagnon (PHO) and Ladislav Scurko (PHI), Couture turned into the ultimate selfless player.
He helped set a spark that catapulted the team back to the top of the U.S. Division, while turning in probably his most complete season in his career. And during that time, he believes the Flames started taking notice.
“Darryl Sutter saw me play some against the WHL teams out his way,” he explained. “We also played against Red Deer, who is coached by his brother Brent. I think word just got back to him what kind of player I am.“
Flash-forward to this season, and Couture is happy playing his role and being among a group of rookies with the Knights in the AHL.
“We’re all going through the same things,” said Couture. “Regardless of who’s got what roles, were all rookies. That helps all of us because there are about eight us who are rookies. That’s almost half of the roster, so it’s great to be going through this together.”
Couture is far off from the next ‘big’ step, but it is something he is ready to get cracking away at.
“Now, I know I’ve got to work even harder. I mean, the thought of playing that first home game in the Saddledome in front of your friends and family, that’s the ultimate goal. I think about every once and while and it’s something I hope I get the chance to do.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.