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An Unexpected Beginning | FEATURE

Michael Vukojevic wasn't expecting his pro career to start so suddenly, but he took the ball and ran with it

by Amanda Stein amandacstein / NewJerseyDevils.com

Michael Vukojevic was a frequent visitor to Mark Dennehy's make-shift office at Prudential Center between January and the end of the American Hockey League season. 

No, he wasn't being called into the principal's office for too many penalties or detention, or for lack of effort on the ice, in fact it was Vukojevic himself who was doing the knocking on a regular basis to talk to his first coach in a professional league. 

"I was in his office, probably, well, too much," Vukojevic said with a chuckle, "wondering if the (Ontario Hockey League) was going to start back up. And I kept telling him that I don't want to go, I can stay and stuff like that, and (Dennehy) kind of calmed me down and probably got sick of me walking into his office wondering if I had to go back."

You see, under normal circumstances Vukojevic would not have been eligible to be playing in the AHL, playing his professional season. But with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the Ontario Hockey League, Vukojevic's season with the Kitchener Rangers was wiped out. For a while, the OHL hadn't officially canceled their season and had they started up and running, Vukojevic would have had to return to Kitchener, ending his time in the AHL. 

Then Binghamton head coach Dennehy, who has been recently promoted to Devils Chief Scout, Amateur Scouting, remembers those knocks on the door from his worried player. 

"We literally said him, 'you know, Mike, I'd love for you to be here too. We love what you're doing. But that's not in either one of our control," Dennehy shared. 

Dennehy explained to Vukojevic that this was a time to work on the things he could control, that the lack of control will follow him through his career, whether it's injuries, call-ups, being sent back to the minors. The only thing he can control is making the best out of every opportunity. 

Tweet from @NJDevils: Keep that puck, kid!Check out Michael Vukojevic's first pro goal in our @Verizon Top Plays. pic.twitter.com/brdgdbvkOD

"The best pros recognize early on what's in their control and what's out of their control," Dennehy shared when asked what he talked to Vukojevic about when he'd sit down in his office. "And they free themselves up from what's out of their control, right. And they just really hone in on 'Hey, you know, my effort, my attitude, work ethic, my sleep, what I put in my body. These are things I can control, and I'm going to control them.' So, it was a great first lesson for Mike."

Dennehy recalls seeing that angst and nervousness leave Vukojevic after their conversations. 

"You just see the anger or anxiety leave their body. Like, you could see him just exhale and be like, you know what, you're right. I don't control that." 

It wasn't until April 20, 2021, when the OHL season was fully canceled, at which point the visits to Dennehy's office were no longer necessary for the young defenseman. 

The OHL did not play out their 2020-21 season; meaning Vukojevic was able to stay through the entire year, granted what was surely his deep-down wish. 

"It was crazy. I expected to only be here for two weeks," he said. "But I ended up staying for four months. I didn't pack suitably, but it was a lot of fun."

During those four months, Vukojevic, then 19 years old, saw his game slowly grow and adapt to the pro game. He came out with a bang, the left-shooting defenseman tallied five points in his first four pro games. He felt welcomed immediately into the locker room and while offensive success early on was thrilling, with a balanced head on his shoulders he was able to understand the journey that was ahead of him. 

"(It was) welcome to a man's game," he shared with a grin and thinking back on what he really learned from this first experience. "And (the AHL) has a lot of older players, and that was the biggest change for me. I went from being an older player to the child, to playing against guys on PTOs, with families to support and their motivation is through the roof, and you've got to kind of match it in your own way. And I think that was the biggest change, biggest adjustment for me."

 Tweet from @amandacstein: #NJDevils Michael Vukojevic (@mikevukojevic) in the box, still with things to say! 😂 pic.twitter.com/GfX5Iqu64k

Now as both Devils' rookie camp and training camp approaches, there will be no question of returning to junior. He's no longer age-eligible and will continue in the pros, whether it be in Utica or in New Jersey. The pool will be deeper than the competition for ice-time he faced last year. There are more veterans, the season will look much more normal, there will be no taxi squad, which opened up spaces for younger players in the AHL. 

Dennehy knew this was coming for all his players last season and emphasized in his exit meetings that the year was like no other, and it's going to get tougher from here on out. He has no doubt that Vukojevic is up for it, leaving this bit of advice:\

"You're going to have to hit your foundations on a more regular basis. But I will say that I always liked how Michael responded to the challenges."

Vukojevic assures that this time around he packed the correct amount of clothes, there won't be any potential trips back to Kitchener. It's on to the next, and he's not looking back. 

"Getting that pro taste of (hockey)," he shared, "is something that when you have it, you don't want to give it up."

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