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The Amazing Derlago

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
It’s not often that hockey players are compared to magicians, so some might argue that contrasting Manitoba Moose forward Mark Derlago with Harry Houdini is quite the stretch.

No, Derlago has not performed the suspended straitjacket escape or been in the Chinese water torture cell, but the 22-year-old has made a career of defying the odds just as Houdini did.

Derlago’s tricks certainly haven’t gotten the same press, however they are mind boggling nonetheless.

Take his rise to the American Hockey League for example. In early March Derlago was a member of the Bakersfield Condors in the East Coast Hockey League. The rookie winger was tearing it up in his first year of pro hockey with 32 goals and 15 assists in 63 games, which included becoming only the seventh player in team history to surpass the 30 goal plateau and the first to ever record back-to-back hat tricks.

By mid-March Derlago was signed to a pro tryout contract with the Moose and he is now filling in for Jason Jaffray, who is out with a separated shoulder, alongside Brad Moran and Jannik Hansen on Manitoba’s top line.

No smoke and mirrors here, just a lifetime of hard work and perseverance.

“It was exciting to get the call,” said Derlago. “It was kind of unexpected this late in the season and I really hadn’t talked to them all year so it was a welcomed surprise.”

Derlago made his AHL debut on March 19 against the San Antonio Rampage, recording an assist in a 3-2 Moose win. He followed that up with another assist the next night as Manitoba took down San Antonio 4-2, to win their eighth straight game.

“Not many guys get called up for the first time ever and get thrown on the first line so obviously the pressure was there, but I think I got it out of the way early and just played.”

It’s a little early to start touting Derlago as the next big talent that will become a regular in the Moose’s line-up and eventually make it to the Canucks, but he does have family genes on his side. Mark is the nephew of Bill Derlago, Vancouver’s first round draft pick in the 1978 Amateur Draft.

Many people don’t remember ‘Billy D’, the fourth overall pick in ‘78, as his time in Vancouver was brief. He missed the majority of his first season with the club recovering from a knee injury, and the next year, despite recording 26 points in 54 games, he was traded to Toronto, alongside Rick Vaive, for Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler.

Derlago played seven seasons for the Maple Leafs before making stops in Boston, Winnipeg and Quebec, finishing his NHL career with 416 points in 555 games. As fate would have it, Bill never truly soared as a member of the Canucks, but Mark is hoping he can build on what his uncle started with the organization.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” said the 5-foot-11, 200-pound sniper, who was overlooked in both the bantam and NHL drafts. “But right now just to get called up to here is all I’m worried about. I just need to perform here and help this team make a hard run into the playoffs.”

Before playing for the Condors this season, Derlago was a member of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings. A native of Brandon, MB, Derlago thrived in his hometown with 175 points (90-85-175) in 237 games, figures few thought he would accumulate following his rookie season.

After recording 28 points (8-20-28) in 76 games to begin his WHL tenure, Derlago was looking for more to start his second season in the Wheat City, but his hockey career and life were put on hold when his neck was broken from a vicious hit from behind in a pre-season game.

Only 18-years-old at the time, Derlago was placed in a neck halo brace that allowed him to recover fully from his injury, but it forced him to miss the duration of the 2004-05 season.

“It was a tough time,” said Derlago. “Breaking your neck and being out for a whole year, it was not only affecting hockey but my whole life, so it was really difficult. I just got through it and it’s made me a better person and a better player. It helped me realize that the game can be taken away just like that so I enjoy it a lot more when I’m out there.”

Derlago returned to the Wheat Kings’ line-up in 2005-06 and showed no signs that he was ever injured, recording 142 points (82-60-142) in 157 games, including playoffs. Last season Brandon’s captain led the WHL in goals with 46 and finished 10th overall in scoring.

It’s incredible that Derlago was able to overcome such a devastating injury and resume his hockey career, but even more impressive that the youngster never took aim at the player who hit him, or complained while in the awkward halo.

Getting the chance to add a character player like this to the line-up doesn’t happen every day and Moose head coach Scott Arniel is impressed with what the undrafted youngster has done so far.

“I thought coming in last night, under tough circumstances, that he really did a good job,” said Arniel following Derlago’s first game. “He made a real nice play on the power play for our first goal and it looked like he got more comfortable as the game went on.

“I think it really shows that just because players aren’t drafted, doesn’t mean their hockey careers are over. The one thing that we do here is, if we need to fill holes, we give those people opportunities. Mark’s an offensive guy so for him to come up and play on our fourth line probably wouldn’t do him any good and it wouldn’t do us any good. We’ve put him in a situation where hopefully he can have success and I think he’s doing a lot of real good things.”

It wasn’t as easy as presto: welcome to the AHL, but Derlago has made it anyways. The way he’s done it is as inspirational as it is unconventional, proving that maybe he does have a few tricks up his sleeve after all.

  2 - Recorded two assists in his first two games as a member of the Moose

  18 - Suffered a broken neck when he was 18-years-old and returned within a year

46 - Led the WHL in goals with 46 in the 2006 / 2007 season and finished 10th overall in scoring.

175 - Recorded a total of 175 points (90-85-175) with Brandon of the WHL in 237 games played

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