-- It's a long way from Katy, Texas, to Calgary, and an even longer distance to the NHL. But when 6-foot-7 defenseman Tyler Myers looked out on the ice during the Stanley Cup Final and saw 6-7 Hal Gill playing an important shut-down defensive for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he wondered if maybe he wasn't getting closer to his dream of playing an important role in the NHL.
With the Red Wings displaying the skills of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the Penguins showing off the talent of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the job of shut-down defenseman has become paramount in the NHL these days – and Myers just happens to be one of the top prospects available in the 2008 Entry Draft, to be held June 20-21 in Ottawa.
With five defensemen ranked among the top six North American skaters, it's safe to say the emphasis at the top of this draft is going to be on finding the next defensemen who potentially can help neutralize stars like those on the Wings and Penguins.
Myers becomes an even more intriguing story for two reasons – he was born in the not-so-hot bed of hockey in Katy, Texas, about 20 minutes from Houston, after his dad, Paul, had moved the family there from Bethlehem, Pa., to work in the oil industry; plus, Tyler is 6-7 and 204 pounds.
Not exactly the normal route or dimensions of your typical hockey talent. But it fits for the Kelowna Rockets defensemen. Myers has grown into a beautiful skating stride, and in only his third year of playing defense, he excites more scouts with the upside he presents.
"I had never really seen hockey until my dad took me to an (International Hockey League) game with the Houston Aeros when I was 6-years-old," Myers said. "By the second period, I was bugging my dad to let me play. The next day we went to buy hockey equipment at the local pro shop."
Myers’ hockey career struggled in the non-hockey Houston area. But when the family relocated again – this time to Calgary – hockey and Myers took off.
"Talk about a culture shock," Myers said about the move to Canada as a 10-year-old. "When I was playing hockey in Houston, there were three teams in my age bracket in a city of about 3 million people. When I got to Alberta, there were 13 teams I could play on in my community alone."
The looks folks gave him because of his size – he grew three inches in grade 10 alone – plus the Texas background made some hockey coaches look askance at him. But not for long.
"I guess, because I was from Texas, they started me out skating in Division VII, thinking it would be too tough for me," he said. "But there I was, still on the ice four or five hours later. Only this time, it was with the Division I players.
"It was a long day ... but it was one of the most rewarding days of my hockey-playing career."
There's one more twist to this story. Myers grew up a big fan and admirer of the play of Dallas Stars center Mike Modano and Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman. And that was different, of course, since this highly rated defenseman played up front until his second year of bantam, when he was about 14 years old.
"It's funny, but when I turned from forward to defense, I started to appreciate more of the defensemen in the NHL," he said. "I've heard a lot of comparisons with Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger, probably because of our height similarity. Honestly, I've always liked the way Nicklas Lidstrom plays. The way he plays at both ends of the ice, he's so poised that it’s fun to watch."
"When you watch a guy like that, you realize just how far you have to go to make it in the NHL. I just focus on using my skating ability and using my stick and long reach as a big advantage."
"I've heard a lot of comparisons with Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger, probably because of our height similarity. Honestly, I've always liked the way Nicklas Lidstrom plays. The way he plays at both ends of the ice, he's so poised that it’s fun to watch." - Tyler Myers
Paul Myers played hockey up to the university level and was all for his son Tyler to take on work in athletics ... as long as his schoolwork didn't suffer. Spoken like a typical geologist, eh?
"What I'm most proud of Tyler for is that he's a pretty smart kid," Paul Myers told me. "He's a very good math student and he's very analytical in his way of thinking. He asks a lot of questions and really works hard at doing the things he likes.
"I knew he was going to be a good athlete when I saw him play soccer at a young age. And then the way he pushed himself to be a better athlete – hockey player – when he was about 14, when he switched from forward to defense, it was at that point when he really became competitive. It was like he didn't want to let anyone score on him."
Myers has had a typical learning curve for a player of his physical stature, going through growing spurts. When he is on his game he can be a dominant player, especially in the defensive zone. He credits a great improvement in his defensive positioning to former NHL blueliner Jeff Finley, an assistant coach at Kelowna.
"For a younger guy, especially a younger guy at a new position, he's got a lot of composure with the puck," Finley said. "I think that's one of the reasons a lot of NHL scouts are high on him."
"He really plays one-on-ones well," added Kelowna defenseman Luke Schenn, who, like Myers, likely will go in the top 6-8 picks in the draft. "He's one of the toughest guys to beat in the league with that reach of his. He's a great skater and when he gets a chance to finish a hit or a chance to get a shot on goal, he's quick to react and makes opponents pay for coming into his area."
You might be surprised to hear what Myers plans to do between now and his first NHL training camp in September – to grow more. Well ...
"I'm too skinny," he said with a laugh and a pinch at his thin waistline. "I want to add 10 pounds ..."
He paused and laughed out loud at what my next question might be.
"Yeah, I know I'm going to get into an NHL strength-training program eventually. But I've always had trouble putting on pounds. After each game I'd get home and stuff myself with food. But it didn't help."
The next question was embarrassing, because I asked him what kind of foods he gorged himself on.
"Let's just say ... it wasn't pretty," he said.
When you see those long arms and legs bearing down on an opposing forward, you don't think about him being too thin. Not with that Texas-sized athletic ability.
Tall, athletic, smart, analytical, inquisitive, confident and, yes, hungry.
Tyler Myers hungers for a chance to become a shut-down NHL defenseman. And the way he's going, he'll get that chance very soon.
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist