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Even Daavettila surprised by his career path

by Lindsay Kramer

"The way he plays at this level is the way Pavel Datsyuk plays in the NHL. He's crafty. He's fast. No one has ever caught him (with a big hit) so far."
-- Nick Bootland on Trent Daavettila

Kalamazoo Wings coach Nick Bootland had a suggestion last year on how to best tell the story of forward Trent Daavettila.

"We always joked that it was our Disney story of the year," he said. "Let's make a movie of this kid."

An intriguing pitch, for sure, except that his true-to-life journey might be a tough sell. Even by the elastic standards of Hollywood, Daavettila's tale sounds too hokey to be real.

Especially to the player himself.

"If I look back, I'm like, 'How the heck did this happen?'" he said.

Simple. When it seemed like the whole hockey world - or at least the part of it that Daavettila kept bumping into - told him there was no place for him in the sport, he refused to believe it.

Now, the player who was shunned in college and cast off by several minor league teams is one of the best rookies in the ECHL, with 7 goals and 5 assists in the K-Wings first 10 games.

"It might sound like a cliché," Daavettila, 25, said by way of explanation. "I think a little bit was just a love for the game."

For much of Daavettila's hockey career, that's all he had going for him. The way things have turned out, it might be more than enough.

The second oldest of 11 children growing up in Howell, Mich., Daavettila's early hockey development pretty much consisted of massive pickup games on his backyard rink.

"I'd say (it was) nine-10 kids after school. Then the cousins on the weekend, the games would get bigger," he said. "You learn to stickhandle. You are always in tight, tight corners. You'd never shoot from far out. You'd always want to stickhandle your way down. It was never cool to score from far out. Everyone would call them cheating goals."

Daavettila played a season at Finlandia University in Michigan, then went to Michigan Tech. That school was a great place to get an engineering degree, but not so promising for Daavettila's hockey career. He never made the varsity there and instead immersed himself in pickup games.

Daavettila was just in it for fun, but a family friend, Jay Storm, who later would become Daavettila's agent, encouraged him to at least think about a pro career.

"I just laughed," Daavettila said. "I didn't think it could happen. I hadn't played in five or six years, at an organized level."

Daavettila graduated from Michigan Tech in 2008, and got a one-game look from the IHL's Flint Generals. He then dipped into what he thought would be his permanent lot in the real world by landing a job with a structural engineering firm in Saginaw, Mich.

The persistent Storm, though, kept nudging Daavettila toward his dream. He got Daavettila brief trials with IHL Muskegon and AHL Grand Rapids, trips that Daavettila took using his own vacation days.

"I was like 'Man, is this really for me?'" Daavettila said of the swings and misses. "What I thought was in good shape just wasn't in good shape. I thought I could play with those guys. My legs just couldn't move."

Daavettila kept beating on hockey's door, and the ensuing disappointments became more bruising. In November of 2008, Bootland brought him in for a tryout with the K-Wings. Daavettila looked pretty good and seemed on the verge of breaking through, but Kalamazoo went with Rick Cleaver instead.

"You could see he had a skill set," Bootland said of Daavettila. "But I thought the way he held on to the puck, he was going to get himself killed. He is very patient with the puck. You kept thinking he was going to make a mistake. Then he'd pop a guy for a breakaway."

Daavettila was sent packing again, but this time was different. He left with a parting gift - strong encouragement from Bootland, who told him to stay in shape because there'd be a spot for him somewhere, someday.

"I was dealt another blow," Daavettila said. "It's hard to judge if they are just trying to let you go easy. You just never know for sure."
"I was dealt another blow. It's hard to judge if they are just trying to let you go easy. You just never know for sure.." -- Trent Daavettila on being cut
Bootland wasn't fooling around. Last March, the K-Wings needed more help. The coach called Daavettila, who had been laid off from his engineering job and was just puttering around the house and trying to stay in shape. Bootland brought back Daavettila and gave him the extended look he deserved. Daavettila rewarded him with 9 goals and 9 assists in 20 games.

"At first I was the 10th forward. I wasn't playing much. That helped the most," Daavettila said. "My legs were heavy. Many days I was like, I don't know how I'm going to skate today. After that, my confidence grew a ton."

Daavettila's surprising production was a factor in that, and so was Bootland's faith in him. The K-Wings signed him to a contract over the summer, giving Daavettila his first hockey security since, well, forever.

That assurance was an even greater motivation for summer workouts, but Daavettila knew better than to take anything for granted though. He landed another engineering job, just in case.

"It was a weird feeling knowing you had a (hockey) plan for next year, somebody actually wants you," Daavettila said.

Bootland absolutely wanted Daavettila, but that didn't mean he knew what he'd be getting.

"I'd be lying to you if I told you he'd come in and be one of our top six forwards," Bootland said.

As it's played out, even that characterization would be an understatement. Daavettila's game-breaking offensive moves - the lingering legacy of his neighborhood scrums - are just side orders to his game. Bootland looks at the way he tends to the meat-and-potato skills like backchecking and knowing when to lift an opponent's stick and sees the vague outline of a heady comparison.

"The way he plays at this level is the way Pavel Datsyuk plays in the NHL," Bootland said. "He's crafty. He's fast. No one has ever caught him (with a big hit) so far."

Or, as Daavettila himself offers: "I try and do things that people aren't expecting."

His knack for pulling that off has turned Daavettila's career into quite a tale. There's only one problem with trying to chronicle it at this point - he hopes his story is a lot closer to its beginning than its end.

"I think there's a little more that still has to come before there's a movie," he said. "I'd like to make it one more level up. I just don't want it to end yet."

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