Alex Kangas is living his NHL dream, just not the one he expected.
Selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Draft, the goalie from the University of Minnesota had his professional hockey career derailed by hip injuries and never played in the League.
Kangas started gaming competitively while rehabbing. Now he is one of 24 players remaining in the inaugural NHL Gaming World Championship.
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They are preparing to showcase their EA SPORTS NHL 18 skills in regional tournaments in the United States, Canada and Europe. The eight European finalists will play head-to-head at the studios of Viasat, a Nordics-based broadcaster, in Stockholm on May 6. The eight Canadian finalists will participate at Sportsnet's studios in Toronto on May 11, and Kangas will be one of the eight finalists from the United States at NBC's studios in Stamford, Connecticut, on May 20.
"To qualify is pretty satisfying and exciting," said Kangas, who is from Rochester, Minnesota. "My buddies still don't think this is a real thing."
The top two from each region will compete in the World Final at the new Esports Arena Las Vegas at Luxor Hotel & Casino on June 19. The champion will win $50,000 and attend the 2018 NHL Awards at The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas with a guest the next day.
Kangas, 30, said the decision to register for the inaugural tournament was easy.
"I've always been ultracompetitive -- sometimes to my detriment," Kangas said. "It was easy to get into competitive NHL gaming because it was two things I enjoyed already."
Kangas, a real estate agent in Minnesota, was originally going to miss a qualifying game because of work, but a freak spring snowstorm allowed him to play.
Now he's ready to face his rivals - including some bitter ones -- in the United States regional.
"You get to know a lot of the guys you play against," Kangas said. "Much like other sports, there are people you get along with and people you don't."
Rivalries also are prevalent in the European regional, where seven of the eight finalists are from Finland, including Tuukka Kuha, a 21-year-old from Mikkeli.
"Finnish top players know each other well, and we have faced each other many times," Kuha said. "There's some rivalry between Finns, but there are good friendships as well."
Kuha started playing competitively six years ago and plays every day to hone his skills.
Chris O'Donnell of Stoney Creek, Ontario, a finalist in the Canadian regional, has his own methods.
"I improve my skills by trying to play the toughest competition whenever possible," O'Donnell said. "I also rewatch some of my games to see where I went wrong and what I need to work on."
O'Donnell, 24, is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan who prefers to play as the Tampa Bay Lightning in NHL 18. He has been playing competitively for nine years but said he is especially proud of his success in this tournament.
"It truly means a lot to me advancing this far in the tournament," O'Donnell said. "This is the biggest tournament I've ever been a part of, and I've put a lot of work into improving my play throughout the year."
Kuha and O'Donnell each said he would save the prize money if he won. Kangas has different plans.
"It'd pay for a lot of rounds of golf this summer," he said. "I've been looking at getting a new truck, so it would for sure help with that."