CALGARY, AB -- Brett Kulak sat anxiously by his computer as friends and teammates received emails requesting one-on-one meetings, set to outline their assignment to the American Hockey League.
One refresh. Nothing. Another. Still nothing.
One for injured roommate Ryan Culkin came.
Kulak’s arrived much later, and instead of a ticket to California, his inbox contained an itinerary for Monday’s activities with the Flames.
Not an assignment.
“My roommate, a couple of my buddies at the hotel, they were getting emails, so I knew the word was getting around,” said the Stony Plain, AB native.
“I refreshed my email a couple times to double check that mine wasn’t coming. Third or fourth time I refreshed it that it didn’t come, I was just excited and moving on.
“I didn’t get an email until the next day with today’s itinerary, so I was pretty happy about that.”
Kulak, 21, is one of 11 remaining defencemen in Flames camp, and one of four major candidates to snatch up a position on Calgary’s blueline with both TJ Brodie (hand) and Ladislav Smid (neck) set to sit out the start of the regular season.
It hasn’t come unearned, coach Bob Hartley noted.
“He showed unbelievable progression,” Hartley said of Kulak. “He’s a great skater, he makes good decisions with the puck. He’s starting to show a body language that has earned him a right to still be in the NHL. He’s growing. They’re kids, they’re very young men. They’re learning about business off the ice and the on ice play.”
Tyler Wotherspoon, Jakub Nakladal and free-agent invite Ryan Wilson also remain camping with the Flames with sixth and seventh defencemen responsibilities up for grabs.
Kulak is the youngest of the four hopefuls.
And it’s been a long climb for the second-year pro.
In his first season since graduating from the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, Kulak got off to a rocky start. His season began in Adirondack, but the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder was quickly demoted to the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL. After a 39-game stint that saw him record 30 points, he worked his way back up to the AHL and, at season’s end, made his National Hockey League debut for Game 82 of Calgary’s schedule.
He’s trying to pick up where he left off last season.
“It’s exciting for me,” Kulak said. “It’s what I’ve wanted my whole life. Going down to the east coast was really humbling and motivating for me. When you’re down on the east coast, it feels like you’re really far away from the NHL. You’ve got to take it day by day, that’s what I’m still trying to do. It doesn’t seem too overwhelming and you just keep working at it.”
It has been working.
He’s caught the eye of Hartley, and in doing so has survived the latest round of cuts.
“I’ve heard stories of guys putting different colours of socks just to get noticed. Here’s the kid with the white and red sock,” Hartley said. “After that, you need a big pass, a big play, a big body check. You need to do something to get out. Some kids come in and get caught admiring the veterans or something like that - three days or three weeks goes by fast. Every time that you’re on the ice, you need to do something to catch our eye. Kulak has done that.”
Kulak hasn’t had time to get star-struck.
“You’ve got to have in your mind that you’re here for a reason,” he said. “You’re not here to admire all the guys who’ve been in the NHL for the last few years. You’ve got to understand that you belong. That’s when you play at your best.”
Because, with eight days remaining before the regular season, an email could be coming at any time.
“You never know,” Kulak said. “If you show up and have one bad practice you could get cut after that. You always have to be prepared to go to the rink and be at your best.”