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Feature: The long road to the NHL

by Staff Writer / Calgary Flames

By Karl Wiebe

“Giving up never crossed my mind,” admits Chuck Kobasew as he takes off his skates in the Calgary Flames dressing room. It’s 10:30 in the morning, and the workout was light, since it’s a game day. However, even after a “light” practice, the parade of players that enter the dressing room are sweaty – yet focused. They will watch video, have a team meeting, try to get some rest, and then give it their all tonight in front of 19,000 screaming fans.

Just another day in the big leagues

Chuck Kobasew
Young Kobasew

Kobasew stands only 5'11" and weighs under 200 pounds. The speedy winger is now in his fourth NHL season with the Flames. “As a kid growing up, I dreamed about playing in the NHL. There are so many kids across Canada who play hockey. Most of them have those dreams as well. It’s very tough to get here. It’s even harder once you are here – to stay and be consistent.”

What are the odds of making the NHL? This question has been silenty echoed by hockey players and hockey parents for the past 30 years. What does it take to overcome the odds?

Dion Phaneuf, now in his second season with the Flames, is quick to thank those in supporting roles. “My family gave up a lot – not only financially but their time, bringing me to the rink everyday. Early practices in the morning. Weekends and weekdays. There are alot of coaches and especially family that help you along the way.”

Mike Burke has seen many minor-league players during his 20-plus years in the Flames hockey administration department. He works closely with Darryl Sutter, making sure that hockey contracts follow NHL rules and guidelines. He points out that the serious hockey players start to separate themselves from the pack as early as 12 or 13 years old.

Dion Phaneuf
Dion Phaneuf

“Amateur scouts are definitely projecting,” Burke notes. “A typical 20-year old kid in junior might score six goals his first year, 20 in his second, and then 43. Scouts used to draft the kid at 20 years old, when he scored 43. Now they are drafting them when they score six.”
Burke notes that the scouts are basically making educated guesses about a player’s progress.

“Will the kid go six goals, 20 goals and 43 goals? Or six, 11 and 14? That’s the scout’s job,” Burke notes. “In our case, the Flames scouts identify very particular attributes that they have to see in a player in order to be interested.”

Once the player has established himself in Bantam or Midget hockey, there are elite programs available. These young players are actively recruited and then play against other elite teams. WHL and AJHL franchises scout these elite squads.

Kelly Kisio, General Manager of the Calgary Hitmen, works with amateur scouts to target potential future professionals.

“We’re scouting 15 and 16 year olds that are still developing for the most part,” Kisio admits. “A lot of teams used to draft size, and they would hope that he became a good player. Now we draft more good, skilled young players. They have a good chance of success in our league.” However, nothing is guaranteed. Kisio is quick to point out that many young players have mental attributes that are not fully developed when they are drafted at the CHL level.

Kelly Kisio
Kelly Kisio

“The mental part of the game is 75-80 per cent. The rest is ability,” notes Kisio. “There are a lot of guys with great ability. There’s not much difference between the guys in the minors and the guys in the NHL. They all scored goals in the WHL, or CHL, or college. The guys that are mentally strong, push themselves really hard every night, those are the guys that are going to succeed. It’s not necessarily the guy with the most skill. Some guys just don’t have the mental capacity to push themselves.”

Kristian Huselius never thought about the odds of making the NHL. He was too busy having a good time.

“When you are a kid, you don’t think about that,” Huselius notes. “You have dreams and visions of playing. You just have to keep playing because you love the game so much.”

Huselius was drafted in 1997 by the Florida Panthers, but played in Europe for six years and was a stand-out player in the Swedish Elite League. He finally signed a contract with the Panthers in the 2001-02 season and stepped into the NHL.

“You have to challenge yourself everyday because you want to be better. The NHL is a tough league to play in, but it’s the best league in the world. Every player wants to play in it.”

Thousands of minor league and European players have similar dreams. However, very few ever reach the NHL. Many players are simply unable to maintain the consistant performance levels and intense physical demands required throughout an 82 game professional schedule. Others get injured. Still others spend years jumping from minor-league affiliates up to the NHL for a game or two, only to be sent back down. 

“I got lucky – I was in the right place at the right time,” notes former Flames forward Kelly Kisio. Originally, Kisio entered pro hockey as an undrafted free agent and played in the minor leagues and overseas for a couple of years. Finally he signed a free agent contract with the Red Wings in 1983 and went on to play in more than 750 NHL games with the Red Wings, Rangers, Sharks and Flames.

Kisio says that he wasn’t surprised at how hard it was to make the NHL, since he never expected to make it in the
first place.

“When I was growing up, I saw the NHL far on the horizon. I knew the chances of me making it weren’t very good, so I was just playing and trying to do my best. I tried to play in a better league every year. I got lucky; I was in the right place at the right time and got a chance to play.”

Kisio was noticed by the Detroit Red Wings organization and was able to sign a free agent deal – not bad for an undrafted minor-league hockey player. “A lot of times, that’s all it takes – chances to play.”

One of Kisio’s Calgary Hitmen snipers, the 5'11" Fredrik Pettersson, is looking for that chance to play. The Edmonton Oiler’s 5th round draft pick achieved a major success by playing in an NHL pre-season game at the start of the
2006-07 season.

“I didn’t really know how hard it would be until I went to the NHL [Edmonton Oilers] camp, and you see how hard the guys work. These guys are working out during the summer – they’re in great shape.” Chosen 157th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, he knows that the odds are still against him, as many NHL draft picks never even crack the big-league lineups. “You have to sacrifice,” Pettersson notes. “I left my family in Sweden. I left home at 18 and quit school to come to Canada to play hockey.” 

Long Road

Flames forward Chuck Kobasew knows about the learning curve that young players face. “My biggest eye opener was my first training camp, and also the first regular season game.”

He knows that the struggle to learn and get better never stops, even after you make the NHL. “You’re used to being one of those guys who are counted on at the lower levels. When to get to the NHL, there are so many guys that are great players. It’s enjoyable to learn from them everyday.”

How much of a long shot is making the pros? We can use the Calgary Hitmen as our “test franchise” to start. The Hitmen began operations in 1995-96, and have played 11 full seasons to date. In that time, a total of 20 players have established some sort of major-league career, most notably Stanley Cup Champion Andrew Ladd with the Carolina Hurricanes. Ryan Getzlaf skates with the Anaheim Ducks and Brad Stuart mans the blueline for the Boston Bruins.

Using the Hitmen as an example, this would mean that, on average, about two players per season made the NHL from a squad of over 25 players. This is less than a ten-per-cent chance per year at the WHL level.
So what does it really take to make it to the NHL and make the best ten per cent?  Flames scout Tod Button notes that, unlike in the movies, scouts don’t really discover the next Wayne Gretzky or Jarome Iginla skating at the local community rink. “Almost all of the kids we draft are pretty well known to the entire scouting fraternity. So as scouts we really don’t ‘discover’ players as much as we evaluate their potential for future success in the NHL.”

Button works with fellow scout Mike Sands, along with General Manager Darryl Sutter and other scouts to ensure that the amateur players are properly evaluated. Both Sands and Button agree that the three most important traits to make it to the NHL are skating ability, hockey sense and character.
Of course, luck and hard work are important as well – just as they are for any important goal in life.

This article initially appeared in Blaze Magazine, on sale at all Calgary Flames games



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