It was one year ago that Kerby Rychel took a huge step toward his childhood dream.
The Blue Jackets, armed with three first-round picks in a deep 2013 draft class, had their eyes on Rychel - a burgeoning power forward prospect who could seemingly do nothing but score goals for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires.
And when Columbus heard a name other than Rychel's uttered by the San Jose Sharks - who picked one spot ahead at No. 18 - they knew exactly who they were picking.
Rychel didn't disappoint in his first season in the Blue Jackets organization. He nearly willed the Spitfires to the playoffs on his own, but it wasn't enough; Rychel was the centerpiece of the OHL's biggest trade deadline deal, a nine-piece trade that sent him to the Guelph Storm, a team that had a legitimate chance to advance out of the OHL and into the Memorial Cup.
Guelph was already a strong team, but it got even stronger with Rychel. The Storm breezed through the OHL tournament and were red-hot entering the Memorial Cup tournament in London, Ont., but they came up one win short. The Edmonton Oil Kings rallied in the championship game to win the Memorial Cup, and Rychel admitted it was a tortuous way to end his junior hockey career.
"To be honest with you, it still kind of stings," Rychel told BlueJackets.com. "We had such a great year in Guelph and I enjoyed my time there. We were right there...but overall, it was such a good experience.
"It was good to get away from home and join Guelph, but at first it wasn't easy to leave Windsor. Knowing I was going to a great organization in Guelph really helped, and we were right in the middle of a playoff race too."
Next up for Rychel: his first taste of pro hockey, and it's up to him whether the journey begins in Springfield or Columbus. He will attend Blue Jackets development camp in early July for the second year in a row, and will return to central Ohio in September with his sights set on a roster spot - but it won't be easy.
The Blue Jackets are stacked at forward and that was before they acquired Scott Hartnell from Philadelphia on June 23. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has been consistent in saying that young players won't be forced into NHL duty, that they will be given ample time to develop and prove they are "over ripe."
Rychel believes he can crack the Jackets' roster out of camp, and that's the motivation behind his rigorous offseason training.
"My main goal is to be a Columbus Blue Jacket next year," Rychel said. "I know it's a challenge and an opportunity I'll have to earn with so many good players in Columbus, but I'm excited to come to development camp and training camp and try to earn my spot. I'm going to work really hard this summer and do whatever I can to be ready.
"They made a lot of noise in the playoffs and it was fun to watch. That series with Pittsburgh could have gone either way. The organization is on the right track and there's going to be great things happening there in the years ahead, and I really want to be part of that."