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by Lonnie Herman / Tampa Bay Lightning
In no other sport is it as difficult to reach the professional level as it is in hockey. There are literally thousands of prospects in the U.S., Canada and Europe and only a select few roster spaces available. Players have to fight their way up the ladder, rung by rung. The competition is fierce.

In this occasional series, writer Lonnie Herman profiles some of the junior players who have been selected by the Lightning in the NHL Entry Draft and are beginning the climb toward the NHL.

Dane Crowley is thinking about the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In fact, he’s doing more than thinking - he’s dreaming about the Tampa Bay Lightning; about someday playing defense for them, skating in an NHL arena, hearing the crowds cheer and call his name.

Well, lots of kids might be having the same dream, but Dane is no kid and he is no idle dreamer. The 20-year-old is currently playing for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. He’s not laboring in obscurity there, because almost every night he knows a scout from the Tampa Bay Lightning will be watching after the Lightning took the Winnipeg native in the 6th round with the 168th selection at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. That was after Crowley had put in three seasons with the Saskatoon Blades and two more with the Swift Current Broncos.

He’s drafted, which means his rights belong to the Lightning, but he’s not yet signed to a contract. The Lightning have until June of ’08 to make it official, or his rights revert back to the pool of prospects. At 20, Crowley is nearing the end of his WHL eligibility, which began at the age of 16.

That’s how it starts for hundreds of prospects and hopefuls. They come from bantam hockey teams from all over the plains of western Canada, from towns like Nanaimo or Chilliwack, British Columbia, or Cut Knife, Saskatchewan, home of the 54-foot, six-ton tomahawk. The dream is always the same - to make it to the NHL.Let’s start with the statistics. Each year, every general manager in the NHL assembles the brain trust of scouts and coaches and settles in to their assigned table on the floor of a massive arena. Thousands of dollars and thousands of hours have been logged assembling the data.

The phone at the table is ringing every few minutes with trade offers, some tempting, some laughable. During the next two days, the future of some 200 young hopeful hockey players will be determined. Some will move forward in their careers. For others, it’s back to their junior team, or, if their eligibility has expired, they might head a life of raising cattle on the family farm. For Crowley, that would mean working in engineering, or maybe as a carpenter.

“I enjoy building things,” he explained.

More than 500 players are on the roster of the various WHL teams and in 2006 26 players, including Crowley, were selected by NHL franchises at the Entry Draft. That puts Crowley in some pretty select company. The burden is on him now, to prove that he belongs. In any year, an average of 25 rookies will make their debut in the NHL. Long odds, when you take the time to calculate it. The majority will never advance beyond the minor professional ranks.

The Lightning, however, are as hopeful for Crowley as he is about himself.

“He is a decent-sized guy with good strength and he moves well,” said Glen Zacharias, who scouts the WHL for the Lightning. “He’s a defensive minded player with good character and a good team guy.”

Character is an important trait for Crowley. He’s from a family of achievers and that has meant something to him. His mom was on the Canadian national volleyball team and his dad is a marathoner.

“They taught me a lot about goal setting, not only from a personal side but also from a team perspective,” Crowley said.

This summer, Crowley came east to participate in the Traverse City, Michigan, rookie tournament and then moved on to the training camp for the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, Norfolk. He didn’t make the squad, but he was encouraged.

“It’s not that much higher from this level and I can play there,” Crowley told The Everett Herald. “I’ve just got to work on some things – fine-tune some stuff and I can be there next year.”

He might be right. The growth and development of a hockey player, particularly a defenseman, is a time-consuming enterprise. The scouts look for progress, and that’s what Crowley has shown them so far. Originally forecast as a safe, defensive-minded blueliner, Crowley has contributed on the power play and has perfected a strong shot from the point. He plays physical, a trait the Lightning have always prized, and doesn’t hesitate to drop the gloves to defend a teammate, if the need arises.

“He leads by example on and off the ice and speaks up in the locker room as well,” Lightning chief scout Jake Goertzen said. “He needs to get a little quicker and learn to trust his first option when moving the puck. With his work ethic and desire he’ll get to the next level.”

So, as the Lightning proceed with their 15th season, 2,529 miles to the west in Everett, Washington, Dane Crowley begins his last campaign in the amateur ranks. If he plays well and develops as the Lightning believe he will, a professional contract awaits. Time will tell. There will be many aspects of his game that will be evaluated, but the Lightning likely don’t have to be concerned about his intellect: When asked his favorite NHL team and his favorite NHL coach, Crowley selected the Lightning and John Tortorella.

He already has the necessary smarts, it seems.
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