Young prospects wait anxiously for one of thirty teams to decide their future while scorns of media document their every move. The anticipation mounts with every passing minute, while hundreds of thoughts creep into their heads as one team is about to change their life forever.
Many prospects speak with 20-25 teams leading up to the draft, so trying to get a gauge of where one might be playing hockey for a living can be tough.
In Slater Koekkoek’s case, it was no different.
A two-way defenseman from the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, the Manotik, Ontario native claims he spoke with 26 teams before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, eventually landing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, 10th overall.
Though Koekkoek spoke with many different teams, the highly-touted rearguard says he had a good feeling about the Bolts selecting him.
“You can never be 100 percent sure,” Koekkoek said. “I had met with the Lightning quite a bit leading up to the draft and I received good feedback from them so I knew they were interested. When they called my name and selected me it was just an amazing feeling.”
Koekkoek missed 42 games during the 2010-11 season due to a shoulder injury, but that didn’t deter Lightning brass from using a top 10 selection on him.
“His injury last season was not much of a concern for us,” said Al Murray, the Lightning’s director of amateur scouting. “We had been following Slater’s progress for the past three seasons and had seen him play for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer, as well as the Canada/Russia Subway Super Series.
“Before the Entry Draft he attended the NHL Testing Combine and took part in all fitness tests,” Murray added. “One of our team doctors traveled to the combine to check out his shoulder and review his medical/injury history and all results came back positive.”
With the injury behind him, Koekkoek was eager to show the Lightning they didn’t make a mistake selecting him, and he had his chance to do just that at the Lightning’s development camp in July.
“It was such a great experience,” Koekkoek said. “The skill level was very good out there and the coaches were awesome, they taught us so much. It was an experience that I can learn from and I thought I performed pretty well.”
Murray agreed, noting Koekkoek displayed the type of skill set and poise that warranted his top 10 selection.
“Slater has a combination of hockey sense, competitiveness, skill, skating and size that you don't often find in a player his age,” Murray said. “We are very excited for his future.”
Hockey sense, competitiveness, and an above-average skill set are all part of Koekkoek’s repertoire, but as his head coach in Peterborough, Mike Pelino, explains, those are only a few intangibles that led to Koekkoek being selected as the 61st captain in Petes franchise history this season, a list that includes former and current NHL players such as Craig Ramsay, Mike Ricci, Doug Jarvis, Steve Downie and Zach Kassian.
“Slater is always our hardest worker in practices,” Pelino noted. “He has many attributes of a champion in terms of compete level, desire and commitment and on top of that he is a real good person. Slater always puts his teammates first and he is someone that his teammates want to rally around. If you take all of that and add his skill set to the equation, there is no better candidate for the captaincy.”
Koekkoek was thrilled with the honor.
“It’s a pretty big honor you know,” Koekkoek said. “Peterborough is such a well-known organization with so many great captains over the years, so to be a part of that group is definitely a big honor.”
Relishing his role as the new leader of the Petes, Koekkoek takes pride in leading by example both on and off the ice.
“Slater understands the responsibilities of a captain,” Pelino said. “Aside from his on-ice leadership, Slater is a tremendous role model off the ice. When he has an opportunity to interact with fans, charities and school kids, he is always front row and center. He is an outstanding role model in the Peterborough community.”
The Petes have started the season slowly, mounting a 2-6-2-1 record through the first 11 games of the season. Injuries have played a factor in the team’s slow start, but Koekkoek doesn’t see that as an excuse and is ready to right the ship, one game at a time.
“We should be doing better than we are right now,” Koekkoek said. “It’s been a tough start to the season but there is lots of room for improvement both personally and collectively as a team. We just have to get back to playing our game and we can get out of this.”
Describing himself as a defenseman who “loves to skate up with the play, but also takes pride in playing solid defense as well,” Koekkoek amassed five goals and 18 points through 26 games last season. This year, Koekkoek has followed a similar offensive trail posting two goals and seven points through 11 games.
Being a high first-round pick usually warrants extra attention from opponents around the league, and that has been no different for Koekkoek to start the season. Not only has his high draft status played a role in special defensive assignments against the 18-year-old rearguard, but his injury from last season has evidently, come back to haunt him.
“For sure there has been more attention,” Koekkoek said. “Most of the attention has been on my injury from last season. Players are coming in hard and trying to get you off your game, but that’s all part of the game and you just have to protect yourself, work hard and give it right back to them.”
Although Koekkoek says he never tried to emulate his game after an NHL player growing up, his coach in Peterborough sees him going down a similar path of two of the National Hockey League’s most elite young defensemen.
“I worked for the New York Rangers from 2005-09 and I was there for the development of Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto,” Pelino said. “Slater reminds me a lot of those guys when they were the same age. He is only 18 and he has a world of growth and development ahead of him but with his attitude and work ethic, he definitely has the abilities to be a premier defenseman in time. Once he starts to understand the game better he will be elite because of his skating.”
With all of the praise he has received from his coach and peers around the hockey world, Koekkoek understands there are areas of his game he will need to improve upon to get to the next level.
“There is always room for improvement regardless of where you are at in your career,” Koekkoek said. “I would say my decision making needs some work but that will develop with time to get to a National Hockey League level.”
And if his work ethic and competitiveness are any indication, Lightning fans should see Koekkoek making most of the decisions on the Bolts’ back end sooner, rather than later.