Which came first: The chicken or the realization that playing professional hockey was a life calling?
For Garrett Meurs
it clearly -- and proudly -- was the chicken. Roughly 30 of them, to be exact.
Prior to taking a moment to discuss the anxieties and anticipation of the 2011 Entry Draft, the 18-year-old Plymouth Whalers right wing was finishing an errand that's as much a part of his life as lining up for a faceoff.
"I got chickens," the native of Wingham, Ont., said. "I was out there feeding them. About 30 of them."
By there, Meurs meant the farm that he grew up on and where he learned the values that helped shape his development as a person and as a hockey player.
"It's a great lifestyle," he said of his experiences on the farm.
It's also the perfect lifestyle to help instill the kind of work ethic that's needed to evolve from a raw talent to a complete hockey player.
"Living on a farm, you've got to work hard for everything you do, and that's kind of how I go about it as a player," Meurs said. "Just try to work hard, do my best and do everything I can to help my team win."
No one has seen that be the case more than Whalers coach Mike Vellucci
"His upbringing definitely translates into his game and his personality on and off the ice," Vellucci said. "He's a small-town kid and it's a tough transition when you're coming from a high school of 200 kids to 6,000 kids, so it's a big transition."
It was a transition Meurs handled quite well. In 2009-10, his first season with the Whalers, he had 16 goals and 18 assists in 62 games as a 17-year-old. This past season, his goal total slipped to 10, but his playmaking ability blossomed as he finished with a 40-point season thanks to 30 assists.
He's No. 79 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft.
"My first year coming into the league, I didn't know what to expect and just wanted to do my best, but my teammate, A.J. Jenks, just told me to go to the net, keep your stick down and put the puck in the net when I get it to you," Meurs said. "The next year, I just tried to do the same for someone else."
Meurs' hockey journey started around the age of 3 with mini sticks when he learned how to skate. From that moment, passion and talent took over and he began his climb toward the top of the hockey mountain. But it didn't come without some familial influence.
"My dad always wanted me to play hockey," Meurs said. "So I started playing and liked it and realized I was pretty good at it and started wanting to keep getting better."
But as much as life on the farm meant to him, bigger and better things awaited Meurs elsewhere.
"I left my hometown to go play Triple-A hockey," Meurs said, referring to one of the early turning points in his hockey career. "Coming from a small town, leaving the area to go play travel, that was a big step. Driving to and around big cities, it was a big challenge. But I just kept working hard and the coaches were very helpful and I met new people. It was the best thing for me."
Now, the small-town kid with the big-time game will hope to bring his talents to the highest level and the biggest stage, the National Hockey League.
"It's obviously been a dream to play in the NHL," Meurs said. "I'm a bit nervous, I guess, but you don't have much control over it at this point, so I try to not worry about it too much. I'm just hoping to get drafted as high as I can go."
Regardless of how high Meurs gets selected, there will be ample room for improvement and growth.
"He definitely needs to get bigger,” Vellucci said of his 5-foot-10, 169-pound forward. "He's strong and has good core strength, but he's still wiry, doesn't have a ton of weight."
Growing into the body NHL general managers should expect has been an incremental progression.
"When I first saw him, he was a skinny kid who had a lot of speed and skill and raw talent," Vellucci said. "Now, he's committed toward improving on his size. He's been here three months since the season ended until school working out five times a week with a trainer."
Moving forward, Vellucci said, "Strength is going to be the key. Physically and mentally maturing. To play at the next level he’s going to have to put on 20 pounds."
But that will be the case with many prospects. The one thing Vellucci said he hopes Meurs takes advantage of is his goal-scoring ability.
"I think he should get back to being a goal-scorer," he said. "Scoring-wise he had a down year (in 2010-11), but I thought it was bad luck more than anything. He hit more posts and crossbars than anyone I've seen."
Meanwhile, NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards believes grit and tenacity will bode well for the young prospect moving forward.
"Garrett is most effective when he plays a hard-working, up-and-down game for 60 minutes," he said. "He can be very effective in an energy-type of role. He skates well and has very good speed and acceleration. Also, he's got a willingness to get involved and battle both in front and in the corners. Garrett needs to put all his abilities into a complete and consistent effort every night to be effective."
Fortunately for Meurs that likely will happen eventually, given his skills and commitment. But the draft will come before any of his eventual successes, like the chickens did before his passion for hockey developed.
But ultimately, if you ask Vellucci, "The sky is the limit."