James Wright took the road less travelled, and although the path ahead is unfamiliar and remains uncertain, it is undoubtedly one he desires to venture down again.
Wright’s journey is one that all NHL hopefuls making their way through the ranks want to take. As a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, Wright was considered a long-shot to make the Lightning roster out of training camp, but through hard work and perseverance he not only earned a slot in the opening day lineup, but also scored his first NHL goal just seven games into the 2009-10 season.
Wright completed his first season with the Lightning by appearing in more than half the team’s games while recording two goals and five points before he was returned to his junior team, the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League on January 21. Boy, have Giants fans been thankful, as he has become one of the most valuable players on the team since his return. The 20-year-old, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native has helped lead the club to the WHL Western Conference Finals, in which the Giants currently hold a 2-1 series lead over the Tri-City Americans.
“So far the playoffs have been going well for us,” Wright said. “We’ve put together more consecutive wins in the post-season than we did during the regular season, so we’re just trying to stay hot here until the end and hope that we can carry the momentum all the way through.”
In part, Wright’s career-high 14 playoff points through 13 games have gone a long way in the overall success of the Giants’ playoff run through the first two rounds, and the center also cites his NHL experience as a contributing factor to his success.
“Now that I’m back in the WHL, I’ve been playing more and I’m looked upon to lead and teach some of the younger guys,” Wright said. “But my time with the Lightning helped me develop into a more mature player. It allowed me to see the strength and speed of a lot of NHL players, and all of that has helped me adapt and reading the plays a little easier. I got good advice from a lot of the guys in Tampa who were always trying to help me out and teach me about what to improve on.”
Although Wright has been assisted along the way – reviewing on-ice practice drills to which he owes a lot to the Lightning coaching staff, speaking with forward Steve Downie twice a week on the phone and exchanging weekly text messages with his former roommate on Lightning road trips, Victor Hedman – he is well aware that his future in hockey, which he hopes will include a rapid ascension back to the NHL, all depends on himself.
Wright’s former teammate on the Vancouver Giants is Atlanta Thrashers young sparkplug Evander Kane, who while he serves as an inspirational source of proof that young players can consistently compete in the world’s elite league, does not stand as an indication of anything to come for Wright because as he sees it “every player is in a different situation.”
“I look at myself and I know what I have to do. That’s why I really need to have a good summer,” Wright added. “Playing in the NHL was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life and whether I was playing a lot of minutes or not didn’t matter. For me, it was all about becoming a better player.”
Opportunities to improve one’s game are aplenty, and Wright will have his first chance to showcase his skills to the Lightning’s new management team when Tampa Bay holds its prospects camp at the St. Pete Times Forum this summer. With new a new general manager and head coach evaluating him, Wright is aware that last summer’s success doesn’t necessarily translate to future fortune.
“Training camp will be fun, but it will also be another new experience for me,” Wright admitted. “New management will be in place so I’m going to have to prove myself all over again. To be honest though, I’m really not worried. I know it’s out of my control, so all I can do is come in as ready as possible.”
Wright is confident he will be ready, both on the ice and for the new experiences that come his way as he journeys down the uncertain road to the NHL.