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Pavelski has gone from obscurity to Olympic hopeful

Thursday, 08.20.2009 / 1:10 PM / All-Access Vancouver

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- Seven Bridges Ice Arena -- home of the just-concluded Team USA Olympic Men's Orientation Camp -- is a mere five hours away from Waterloo, Iowa. However, that journey took San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski the better part of seven years.

Needless to say, there have been a few wrong turns and detours along the way.

"It's been quite a trip, quite a journey so far," Pavelski told NHL.com on Wednesday, the last day of the three-day camp held here. Pavelski was one of the 34 players on hand, meaning he has a fighting change to be on Team USA's final 23-man Olympic roster when it is announced in late December.

Not too bad for a Wisconsin boy who left home for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League as an 18-year-old with an uncertain hockey future.

"When I went to Waterloo I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know how far my (hockey) abilities were developed," Pavelski said. "I went there and I had a lot to learn. It was my first taste of reality, I think."

While it was sobering, the life-changing experience also was exciting. His two-year stay in Waterloo helped him earn a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, as well as become a 2003 Entry Draft selection of the San Jose Sharks.

It didn't matter that the selection came in the seventh round, at No. 205. For Pavelski, it was another validation that he was on the right path as far as his hockey journey was concerned.

Stops in Madison -- where he played with future NHL players like Edmonton's Tom Gilbert (also at the U.S. Olympic Camp) and Chicago's Adam Burish -- and in Worcester of the American Hockey League followed. At each stop, Pavelski knew he was at least one step closer to reaching his dream of making it to the NHL.

"When I turned pro, it was kind of scary," Pavelski told NHL.com. "What was I getting into? You don't really know, but you know there was something more out there that you knew you wanted to pursue."

If Pavelski was terrified, he didn't show it. He had 26 points in 18 minor-league games before being called up to the NHL.

There, he has enjoyed an up-and-down existence. Pavelski started his NHL career like a house afire, but too quickly nagging injuries and the wear-and-tear of the pro game took away his jump and he struggled.

At one point, he was benched by then-coach Ron Wilson -- Team USA's coach for the 2010 Olympics, by the way -- for the first two games of the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs and Pavelski was crushed.

"It's tough to swallow when you are not playing good at the end when you need to play good," Pavelski said.

But Wilson, who now coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs after being dismissed by the Sharks following the 2007-08 season, believes it was a wake-up call that had to be delivered. The coach insisted that his young center needed to be physically stronger to reach his full potential.

"Joe's much stronger now," Wilson told NHL.com. "He's always had great hockey sense, but he is much stronger player now. That's just physical maturity and figuring out what you need to be an NHL player.
 
"In practice, Joe plays against Joe Thornton, who is 235 pounds -- and if you don't have the strength to at least survive those battles, you are not going to last long in the League. To his credit, he has worked hard on his own to make himself stronger."

It was a tough lesson for Pavelski to learn, but one that has stuck with him.

"I'm still at that level now -- how can I get stronger?" he told NHL.com. "It just takes time and a commitment. Slowly, your mind develops and you want to train now and you want to get better. How do you train? You play so many games, but you have to do it. For me especially, I feel I lose my strength very quickly if I don't train."

"When I turned pro, it was kind of scary. What was I getting into? You don't really know, but you know there was something more out there that you knew you wanted to pursue."
-- Joe Pavelski

This past season, the benefits of Pavelski's off-ice regimen were obvious. He missed just two games and scored a career-best 25 goals and 59 points, the fourth-highest total on the team. Just as important, he didn't falter down the stretch.

"I could argue easily that Joe was San Jose's best player at the end of last season -- especially down the stretch and into the playoffs," Wilson said. "He's a very savvy player who really has unbelievable hockey sense to maybe make up for a lack of size. He's strong now and he can compete in any situation."

Adding physical stamina and strength to a toolbox already brimming with innate hockey talent has delivered Pavelski here to Seven Bridges Ice Arena and allowed him to share the stage with 33 other players who are considered the cream of the American crop.

At this point, it doesn't even matter if the journey continues to Vancouver in February. Sure, Pavelski would love to be on the U.S. Olympic roster, but just being invited to training camp has validated all the twists and turns that have comprised his hockey journey to this point.

"Coming to this camp and meeting guys from around the League," Pavelski said, "you know of them and know them a little bit, but now you get to know them a little bit more on a personal level and that's exciting."

It's not just the Olympics that are exciting. Pavelski also is excited to get back to the Sharks and wash away the bitter taste of last season's playoff ouster. He knows he is ready to do his part.

"I will be as confident as I have ever been," he said. "I'm coming off one of my better years and have had a good summer training so far."

Pavelski's journey still appears to be in its infancy. Who knows where the finish line will be?