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Wesley's Path Illustrates Progress of Hockey in N.C.

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes arrived in North Carolina in 1997. 17 years later, the state is on the precipice of seeing its first homegrown player graduate to the National Hockey League.

Michael Smith
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Josh Wesley, son of Hurricanes and NHL great Glen, will likely be the first such player. The defenseman is ranked 79th among North American skaters in the NHL Central Scouting Service’s midterm rankings.

“You don’t really think about it as a dad, but I guess in the back of your mind, you’re always hoping that the day will come where, it’s been his dream and it’s what he’s wanted to do,” Glen said. “He loves the game, and most of all, he’s worked hard for getting in the position he’s at right now. The only advice I gave to him was continue to push yourself up the ladder and be the best you can be every night, because there will always be someone watching.”

* * *

Josh, 17, is currently in his first season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Whalers General Manager and Head Coach Mike Vellucci said Josh has arguably been the team’s most improved player since the start of the season.

“His hockey knowledge is obviously very good with his pedigree from his dad,” Vellucci said. “What I’ve been most impressed with is how he’s improved since the beginning of the year. He’s getting better and better every day. He wants to get better, and he wants to learn. He listens, and he asks questions. And his confidence has gotten better.”

Having just converted from a forward to a defenseman just a few years ago, a move Vellucci once made himself, Josh faced a bit of a learning curve in his transition to junior hockey.

“More so early on the in the year, we had to work with him a lot doing video on the way we play the game in the defensive zone, but since early November, we haven’t had to do as much because he’s adapted so well,” Vellucci said. “He’s picked it up quite easily. Defensively he’s very sound now, and we play him against the other team’s top forwards. He’s played really well.”

Glen said that, compared to himself at Josh’s age, Josh, listed at 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds, is more defensively sound than he was.

“I was more of an offensive guy. He understands the game better defensively than I did,” he said. “But from an offensive standpoint, he’s developing and learning.”

“When he was younger, he was more of an offensive defenseman,” Josh said. “When I came to the OHL, I had to step back and become a shutdown guy who can jump into the play whenever the opportunity arises. When my dad was further along in his NHL career, he took the role of a shutdown defenseman also.”

In 45 games this season, Josh has posted eight points, including two goals. Vellucci said that he feels those numbers can increase with time.

“I believe there’s a lot of offense in him. We’ve got him on the power play, our second unit right now,” Vellucci said. “He sees the ice well, and he’s got offensive instinct for sure.”

* * *

It’s the beginning of Josh’s story that is perhaps the most notable.

Josh was raised in North Carolina, as his father, of course, logged 10 seasons with the Hurricanes; prior to his retirement, Glen was the only player to have played for the Canes in every season since the team relocated in 1997.

Josh was first on skates as a young boy in the Triangle.

“I think we did the ‘Mice on Ice,’ they called it, at the Cary Ice House,” Glen said, referring to a program that appears to still exist today. “That’s where it really all started. He started taking lessons.”

Among the few Josh skated with was Kasperi Kapanen, son of former Hurricane Sami Kapanen and now the No. 1. ranked international skater ahead of the 2014 NHL Draft.

As Josh grew, so did the Jr. Hurricanes youth hockey program. He was along for that ride, joining at the program’s infancy to see it to the burgeoning organization it has become today.

“It’s been an incredible run. … [Those] that grew up here are having their kids grow up to play the game,” Glen said. “It’s amazing just to be able to see how far it’s come from 1997 to here we are today and the growth of youth hockey in North Carolina.”

“It’s been a huge change. When I was a little kid, you’d go to the rink and only a couple of your buddies would be able to go with you because they’d be the only ones that were able to skate,” Josh said. “It’s grown [since then] and will be a really good hockey place.”

Vellucci said there is no difference in Josh’s game versus hockey players from anywhere else in the United States. It’s about what you can do, not where you’re from.

“Hockey has changed a lot in this country. We had a kid on our team from Texas last year, and California is real big in hockey,” Vellucci said. “Now, [North] Carolina is starting to groom a lot of athletes and hockey players. He’s fit in great.”

* * *

Wearing an autographed Carolina Hurricanes CCM sweater featuring his father’s familiar “2” and “A,” a 10-year-old Josh, along with his mom, brother and sister, streamed onto the ice to celebrate Glen and the Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup on June 19, 2006.

Quite the lasting image for a hockey-playing youngster.

“Words can’t even describe the feeling,” Josh said. “With my family, we had just been waiting for him to win the Stanley Cup for a while. I think it was a very special moment that all the kids were old enough to be able to remember it for the rest of our lives.”

“Seeing how excited he was and seeing his eyes when we had the Stanley Cup at home and on the ice there, it was something that for me, it was a lot more fun as a dad being able to see that for my family, just because of the support I got from them,” Glen said.

Not even three years later, Josh and Matthew, again wearing Carolina Hurricanes sweaters featuring the No. 2 and the “A,” skated onto the ice with their father as his jersey was hoisted to the rafters, joining Ron Francis’ No. 10.

“It was a great moment and something that I’ll always remember in the back of my mind, too,” Glen recalled.

* * *

In his U-16 AAA year with the Jr. Hurricanes, Josh became a full-time blue-liner after playing both center and defenseman.

“It’s really different. I’m still learning the position and the little things you do as a defenseman. Growing up, I was a forward and always wanting to score,” Josh said. “When I changed to defense, my coach looked at me and said, ‘Hey, play your game. You’re going to be [like] a fourth forward out there playing offensively.’ But now that I’m in a higher league, the pace is so much faster that I had to step back and say, what is my role on this team? I believe it’s to be a shutdown defenseman that jumps into play.”

As a 16-year-old, Josh joined the United States National Team Development Program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a season.

“That was a neat experience wearing the red, white and blue,” he said. “All the guys on the team were like brothers to me, and I still keep in contact with them.”

In three short years, Josh progressed from the Jr. Hurricanes to the U.S. NTDP to the OHL, a steep climb in competition.

“When you’re back at home in [North] Carolina, you could go end-to-end with the puck,” he said. “When I transitioned to the United States Development Program, that obviously couldn’t happen, so I was definitely wondering why things weren’t working as they used to. Once I figured that out, I set myself up with what I needed to do in order to play [effectively].”

Following his season with the NTDP, Josh had a choice: he could attend a university and play hockey there, or he could play junior hockey like his father did with the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League.

“At first, I pushed him to play the college route, but ultimately I said, ‘It’s your decision, Josh. You have to make that decision. I can’t make it for you. It’s going to be your career,’” Glen said. “There were college teams that were pursuing him, and in the end of it, he had to take the pros and cons of going either way, and he decided that he wanted to take the fast track and play junior hockey.”

Plymouth, Mich., is just a short hop, skip and a jump away from Ann Arbor.

“I had both options completely open. Just talking with my family, they said they were there for me whatever I choose to do,” Josh said. “When I came to Plymouth for a little bit, I basically fell in love with it. I knew right from there after talking to Mike Vellucci that that was the team I wanted to play for.”

* * *

As a hockey player, and especially now as a defenseman, Josh is in a unique position when it comes to constructive criticism of his game; just a phone call away is a man who played 1,457 NHL regular season games and 169 NHL playoff games over a 20-year career – who also happens to be his father.

“When he was in juniors, he said, ‘I learned from the older guys,’” Josh said. “I think that the older guys on my team have definitely given me some great advice, but when I need a little bit more, I think it’s special that I get to call up my dad and be able to talk with him.”

“It’s hard because if he talks to me, I’ll try and give him some advice, but I try and stay out of it and let Mike Vellucci coach and do what he needs to do,” Glen said. “If Josh needs some advice on things, I’ll try and give it to him. But most of all, I just try to be a dad there and be supportive and just enjoy watching him play.

When he does call me, it can be for anything. But it’s usually, ‘What did you think of my game?’ I’m pretty honest with him in assessing, and there’s a fine line there. I try to be very positive but also not being critical where you’re going to be negative and shoot a guy down. That’s where the dad part of it comes in,” Glen continued. “First and foremost I’m his dad, and that’s the most important thing. Your tongue can be very dangerous with the things that come out of you and can leave an ever-lasting impression, so I try not to be harsh because those things will always be remembered in the back of your mind.”

There’s also the fact that Glen is now the Director of Defenseman Development for the Hurricanes. Trips to Plymouth to watch Canes prospects sometimes going head-to-head with his son can be almost surreal.

“It’s interesting to also watch them, and there’s your son on the other side, and they’re competing against each other,” Glen said. “I guess that’s where you have to pinch yourself. This is business, and business is business. The tale of two tapes right there.”

* * *

With scouting staffs around the NHL hosting annual meetings around the release of the midterm rankings, Vellucci said his phone has been busy with inquisitions about Josh.

“They can’t believe how much he’s improved since the beginning of the year and how, at certain times, he’s been our best defenseman. I’m proud of him. He’s a great kid off the ice, and on the ice he wants to learn and get better every day,” Vellucci said. “The biggest thing that everybody talks about is his progression. If he’s gotten this much better in three months, what’s he going to be in the next six months to three years? I see the sky is the limit for him, really because of his work ethic and commitment to be better.”

Josh wasn’t even aware where he landed when the NHL’s Central Scouting Service released its midterm rankings in mid-January.

“I actually didn’t even hear about the NHL rankings until some of my friends texted me. I was pretty amazed,” he said. “But through all my hard work, I knew I wasn’t going to settle for that. I’m still working harder and harder every single day to keep on moving up.”

Come June, he could be the first Jr. Hurricanes-groomed and North Carolina-raised hockey player to graduate to be drafted into National Hockey League.

“Coming from North Carolina, they’re still growing with hockey there,” Josh said. “I just think it’s pretty neat being a hometown boy from North Carolina being able to step up and play in a league against some really talented guys.”

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