Less than three years ago, Mason Raymond appeared to have as much chance of making the NHL as your average beer leaguer. He was small for his age (under 5-foot-4), and although he could skate, Raymond hadn't stood out enough in midget hockey to attract the interest of any WHL teams, let alone any pro scouts. In fact, the Cochrane, Alberta native nearly gave up hockey entirely and focused on his other passion - archery.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't too sure about hockey coming out of midget," says Raymond, an avid hunter and an accomplished marksman. "I was always the smallest kid and I never got recognized. All my buddies were getting drafted and I had serious second thoughts."
Thankfully for the Canucks, Raymond shelved the plans of slinging arrows competitively and signed on with the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League with an eye for earning a scholarship down south.
And then he grew.
"I was a late bloomer I guess," says Raymond, who now carries close to 175-pounds on a solid 6-foot frame. "And I guess I just started to believe in myself and figured out what I could do with hockey."
Born in 1985, Raymond was eligible for the 2004 draft, but opted out. He wasn't getting much attention, and gambled on having a big enough season with the Kodiaks to generate interest despite being an over-ager.
It paid off. Raymond scored 41 goals and 42 assists in 55 games with the Kodiaks this past season. He led his team all the way to the junior 'A' national championships where they lost in the final to the Weyburn Red Wings.
That playoff performance, especially a tough series against the Surrey Eagles that saw Raymond become the prime target of some aggressive physical play, opened the eyes of Canuck scouts.
"I think I showed a lot of people that I could play," says Raymond. "And that no matter what the opposition dished out, I could fight through it. I got hit into the boards and got cut for ten stitches, but I got right back out there. I think I showed a lot of determination and guts."
And that was the big question mark with Raymond. He's always been a slight kid playing a finesse game; not exactly a scout's dream. But Raymond's got shammy-soft hand and the legs of Gaetan Boucher. The question was: could he get big enough and did he have enough heart?
The Canucks feel the answer is 'yes' on both counts. That's why they think Raymond was a steal in the second round with the 51st overall pick.
"We feel he's able to play," says Ron Delorme, Chief Scout of the Vancouver Canucks. "So many people I've talked to have told me what a good player they think [Raymond] is. Kevin Lowe just told me the other day what a good pick he thinks Raymond is."
"He has very good speed and he sees options so quickly. He handles the puck extremely well while he's in motion and he's always dangerous because he can change direction in tight spaces so quickly. And his thinking complements everything else so well."
Delorme says Raymond could have easily gone in the the first round, but being a 19 year-old, other teams likely felt they could wait until the third round and still get a crack. The Canucks weren't willing to gamble.
"We had considered moving up to late in the first round to get at him," says Delorme, "that's how high we are on him."
Raymond's coach in Camrose, Boris Rybalka, agrees. He feels Raymond's an elite talent, and he's not alone. Raymond had 26 different NHL teams interview him prior to the draft August 30th.
"What the Canucks will see when he does eventually play for them, is a highly skilled player with amazing speed. He's got high end pro speed, even this year in junior. If you look at a guy who has played in a Canuck uniform, I'd say he's got that Pavel Bure high end type of speed."
But the real asset, according to Rybalka, is his football-sized heart.
"The reason the Canucks took him in the second round I think is because of his phenomenal attitude. When we played Surrey in the Doyle cup last season, they saw what Mason Raymond can do."
"Everyone knows Mason has skill, can score and can turn on a dime, but he also has the heart and the character. He took quite a beating physically in that series and got up and kept coming back. I think that's what sold [the Canucks] on Mason - they saw what a competitor he is."
According to his father Terry, Mason gets a lot of that from his upbringing. Raymond grew up on a farm 30 minutes West of Calgary, though at times Cochrane can seem much further than that.
"The life that Mason's always been accustomed to is: you work hard and you play hard," explains Terry. "That's the way we live. We keep cattle out here. You have go out and you work hard and enjoy the lifestyle."
"Mason's a big hunter. He appreciates getting out into the outdoors. City life's chaotic. It's different. It's not our cup of tea."
Growing up outside the blur of city life has given Raymond a bit of a different perspective on things.
"Mason doesn't bounce off the walls," says Terry, "he's a focused kid."
"If you give him a work project to do he gets it done. And he gets it done better than anyone would have expected because he strives for perfection."
"Mason's that one of those kids that says 'Oh, I'm going to start working out', he just goes and does it. That's the kind of person he is."
On draft day Raymond watched the first ten picks just to see his friend, Devin Setoguchi, go eighth overall to San Jose. He then threw a tape in the VCR then hit Windermere Lake to do some wake boarding. It's not that the draft wasn't exciting for him, it's just that there's no point getting all worked up over something you can't control. As his Dad Terry put it: "It was a beautiful and you can't sit inside watching television all day."
Mind you, when he did get the call from a close friend telling him he went in the second round to Vancouver, Raymond was ecstatic.
"I said are you kidding me. I ran back like crazy to check it out and sure enough It was true. From then on it's been pretty neat."
"I went on the website of the Canucks, and to see your name on there is like a dream come true. I mean I never thought I'd ever go on an NHL website and see my name. It's been a crazy couple of days."
And with the high hopes the Canucks have for Raymond, it's only going to get crazier.
Raymond is committed to playing college hockey next year with Minnesota Duluth where he'll get plenty of time and attention in the weight room. If he continues to develop physically, and hone the skills showed last year in Camrose, the Canucks may just have the steal of the 2005 draft.