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Like most prospects, Brett Kulak has had his ups-and-downs while striving to make it in the NHL. The key for him was learning to 'embrace the journey'

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Stony Plain, Alta., is, for hockey folk, consecrated ground.

Forever famous as the longtime home of Mr. Goalie, the legendary Glenn Hall.

"I grew up on Range Road 15, he lived on 628, more towards town from me,'' says Brett Kulak.

"But we both lived out in the country. Farm boys. His place was about two minutes away. My dad (Gil) knew him a little bit. So every now and then, maybe once a year, we'd stop in there and visit.

"As a young kid, it was pretty cool. I mean, this is Glenn Hall.

"Obviously, he played long before I was born. But just his name and how much my dad respected him made a real impact on me. Knowing now what he accomplished in the NHL, how good he was, Hall-of-Famer, hearing the stories …

"For me growing up, to have a guy from my town like that, it was quite an example to follow."

Kulak's played in 65 NHL games, total.

Hall, still spry at 86, played in 502 straight. In net. Without a mask.

Still, there's another from Stony Plain planning on becoming an example-setter.

Four years into his professional career, the fourth-rounder from 2012 has begun putting down roots on the Flames' blueline. He may lack Brodie's ethereal hovercraft skating, the savvy of Giordano, Hamonic's edge or Hamilton's flair for the dramatic (not to mention the photo bomb).

But the greatest ability, it's often said, is dependability. That's the prototype Kulak is modelling himself on.

"What Brett's done," praises Flames' head coach Glen Gulutzan, "is continue to add layers to his game every year. He's stronger than he was last year. Quicker. More confident. And he puts in as much work as anyone we have.

"The two years I've known him now, he's given himself every chance to play.

"He's not leaving anything on the table. As a result, you see his game totals going up each season.

"So, as I said, every year he's putting on layers. Building his game.

"And that's what good pros do."

The path to here, to now, has been riddled with detours. Kulak split time in Adirondack and ECHL Colorado in his first season pro, 2014-2015, had a 59/8 breakdown in starts for Stockton-Calgary the next campaign and virtually split time a year ago.

"Sometimes,'' admits Kulak candidly, "my biggest obstacle is getting in my own way.

"I remember a moment within, oh, my first five days of being shipped to the East Coast League from the AHL. My first year pro. Coming from Vancouver, where I was 'the guy' and everything went good. Then you turn pro and you start getting knocked on your butt a few times. 

"Anyway, I went to the rink one day and I still had the option of going back to junior that year as an over-age. I just wasn't sure I didn't want to retreat back to junior. I'd played awful. My attitude was awful, like 'Ah, I shouldn't be here.' You get discouraged, begin to doubt yourself, wonder whether you are, in fact, good enough.

"But I remember telling myself that day: 'No, I'm sticking this out.' And my whole attitude changed. I just started playing way better and the team had some success.

"That reflex reaction when things are going against you can be pretty powerful sometimes. So I find that the biggest obstacle. And it's something I continue to face because I still get scratched sometimes."

Count among the early influences on the young, impressionable Kulak former NHL defenceman Brian Benning, who logged 568 games at the top flight for five franchises.

"He coached my spring hockey team in pretty important years for me, from when I was, oh, eight years old until 14,'' recalls Kulak. "Just the NHL knowledge he was able to get through to us young kids was so important.

"Things like body position, stick position. Little tricks. I was an undersized D-man so he'd teach me how to play off the hips of bigger guys. I remember him telling me if you can knock their hips off kilter, that's their core balance spot.

"I also just remember the way he carried himself. I absorbed everything he said. When he spoke, I was all ears."

Another mentor arrived a few years later at the junior level, when Kulak joined the WHL's Vancouver Giants, then being guided by former Flames' boss Don Hay.

"He was a great skater at our level,'' recalls Hay, now in his fourth season in charge of the Kamloops Blazers. "He came in as a 17-year-old, and that was what you noticed about him immediately.

"I remember he went to the Prospects Game in Kelowna and I don't think then he really knew where he was at in his development.

"At the year-end meeting, I asked him what he was going to do for the summer and he said: 'Probably work out in a friend's garage.' I told him: 'You're going to get drafted here and if you're going to make a career for yourself you've got to make a commitment to getting your body into shape, gain strength, so you can play against elite players.

"A garage isn't going to cut it.'

"I think that's probably been his biggest challenge throughout. Great skater, really good hockey sense, has the ability to move the puck.

"But getting stronger and gaining confidence to play against bigger, faster guys were the keys. He's really worked on those aspects and developed into a real responsible, trusted player at the NHL level."

The progress isn't difficult to chart. This season, he's more than doubled his Flames' games-played output of the previous three.

"Every day you can just see the confidence building,'' says Kulak's frequent third-pair D-partner, Michael Stone. "You see him making plays with the puck now that he maybe wouldn't have 20 games ago.

"When you develop that confidence you feel you can play against those top teams. So when we get out there against the top teams, find ourselves against the top lines, he's more and more comfortable."

Just a few dressing stalls down the aisle inside the Flames' dressing room, Kulak counts himself lucky to see the ideal role model.

"The guy who pushes me every day is Gio. He's that dependable guy I spoke of, year in and year out. Brings the same work ethic, whether it's going great or not so great. I constantly watch how he does things."

This year, more and more, he's in range. More games. More minutes. More responsibility. Comes with the territory.

But in this business, like many others, is the realization that nothing can be taken for granted.

"I've had to learn to embrace the journey and be patient with it,'' says Kulak. "Everyone wants everything to happen just the way they want it to, and they want it to happen immediately.

"That's one of the challenges of this game. You're never sure, you're never safe.

"So yeah, I am playing more but I don't think I've got it 'made', whatever that means.

"What I'm working towards is being a full-timer. An everyday guy."

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