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Culkin parks injury woes, focuses on future

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t do anybody any good. I can’t cry about what’s happened. ‘Oh, poor me.’ I have to get on with it and make up for lost time. I really, really believe this is going to be the year.Ryan Culkin

CALGARY, AB -- The man himself flatly dismisses any likelihood of curses or hexes or whammies.

He doesn’t subscribe to the possibility of a malevolent shaman somewhere off in the shadows getting his jollies jabbing pins into a Ryan Culkin voodoo doll fashioned out of wood or rags or soap.

He won’t believe he’s been singled out to be flayed by Dame Fate or is being punished for unknown indiscretions in some previous life.

“Obviously, I haven’t had the best of luck the last two years,’’ is the way the Calgary Flames prospect politely puts it.

“And I know we’re only halfway through the summer but I’m feeling great, physically and mentally. The best ever.

“Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t do anybody any good. I can’t cry about what’s happened. ‘Oh, poor me.’ I have to get on with it and make up for lost time.

“I really, really believe this is going to be the year.”

If so, if this is the winter, it’s overdue.

Culkin, you might recall, was drawing rave reviews through his first year pro campaign, logging top minutes while gathering 18 points in 37 starts with Adirondack of the American Hockey League, Calgary’s top affiliate, when in a freak mishap, three tendons in his left wrist were severed by a skate blade in February of 2015, required surgery.

First shift of the second period, on home ice at the Glens Falls Civic Center.

“It was tough to see, tougher to accept,’’ he says now.

Months later, more dark clouds began rolling in.

Fully healed from the wrist setback and rarin’ to go, during the pre-main-camp of the annual Young Stars Classic Tournament in Penticton, BC, Culkin clipped a skate and went tumbling, sustaining a third-degree separation of his right shoulder, throwing him into yet another prolonged rehab situation.

When he did return to active service, he struggled, spent time in the ECHL, and never really regained the momentum he’d built up the winter before.

And so, today, we reach Year 3 of the program. By now, the 22-year-old Culkin figured he’d be at the front of the queue, first in line when the door to the NHL next swung open.

Instead, the fifth-round (No. 124) selection in the 2012 NHL Draft is at the deepest position on the Flames’ depth chart.

“My first year pro, I was doing great, full of confidence and feeling good about everything, and then that freak wrist injury happens and I lose eight and a half months of competitive hockey,’’ he’s saying, as Calgary’s kids wrapped up the second day of their development camp at WinSport.

“That was bad enough.

“But after I suffered the shoulder injury, I was really upset. Down. Depressed. That’s only human nature, I guess. The temptation, as you say, is to ask: ‘Why me?’

“But I’m past that. I’ve definitely moved on.

“I’m a better player than I was last year, coming here. So far, I’ve had a summer to train injury-free. Everything’s on schedule.”

The backing is certainly in place.

“He knows,’’ emphasizes Stockton coach Ryan Huska, “that we’re in his corner; that we’re pulling for him. That’s important.

“When players become professionals there are a lot of things they have to go through on the ice but there’s also a lot off the ice, as well. Ryan had a real challenging year last season, being sent down to Glens Falls, coming back to us and not playing the way he’d hoped.

“So there was a lot to sort through mentally.

“But I see him now, the work he put in … Testing-wise, he was one of the best guys here. He’s been terrific on the ice and in the system Glen (Gulutzan)’s going to bring into play will suit him. He’ll be challenged to stay up the ice a lot more, do things tighter in the neutral zone and I think you’ll see his smarts, his quickness on the ice will allow him to keep progressing.

“And his attitude is good: At the end of last year he told us: ‘I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to earn my place back.’ It took him a while but the last four or five games with us, he looked like the player of the year before.

“He does the right things. He’s a wonderful young man who’s learned a lot of lessons early and I think that’s going to be of benefit to him down the road.”

Not that Culkin is one to take anything for granted, mind.

Not anymore, at any rate.

“The game of hockey,’’ he says, “isn’t easy. It’s aggressive. It’s … hard. You’re always at risk. Yes, I had two fluky injuries, two major injuries, but I can’t let that keep me down. It’s not as if other guys haven’t been hurt.

“Conny (assistant GM Craig Conroy) told me: ‘You’ve got these two out of the way. Hopefully now you’ll have 15 years of good luck.’”

Fingers crossed.

Over the frustration and the wondering why, eager to talk about a future brimming with possibilities and not a past dogged by freakish setbacks.

No blaming curses or hexes or whammies.

“I’m really,’’ he says, by way of declaration, “looking forward to showing everybody what Ryan Culkin is all about.

“The Ryan Culkin who got injured …” A soft tap on the chest for emphasis. “This is not the same Ryan Culkin. I’m not the same Ryan Culkin. This is a better Ryan Culkin.

“That’s what I’m out to prove.

“And as I said before, I really believe this is the year.”

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