The message was loud and clear, and Kyle Turris
understood its meaning.
"Hey kiddo, forget about playing in your hometown in front of your parents and all of your friends, you haven't earned it," was basically what Phoenix Coyotes
coach Wayne Gretzky
told the 19-year-old British Columbia boy earlier this month.
Turris, who is from New Westminster, was expecting to play when the Coyotes visited GM Place in Vancouver on Nov. 6. Gretzky instead made him a late scratch, dashing the hopes of more than 100 of Turris' biggest fans who were at the game.
Turris, disappointed, has been a different player ever since.
"It was difficult, but you learn pretty quickly when you don't get to play in your hometown," Turris told NHL.com. "I was upset, but I came back the next day and took my anger out on the ice and have been ever since."
As the third pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, Turris entered the NHL this season carrying the burden of expectations in his luggage. He hasn't exactly set the League ablaze, but Turris, 19, is learning the ropes as Gretzky shows faith in him.
"It's a challenge for him. There is a lot of pressure on a guy that was the third pick overall," Gretzky said of Turris, who turned pro after just one season at the University of Wisconsin. "Two years ago he was playing Tier 2 hockey, so the other guys that played a couple of years of major A or college, it's a different level. He's gotten stronger, better and quicker in the last month. We all know his hockey instincts and hockey awareness are really strong. It's just a matter of him getting stronger and quicker and he's doing that right now and he's playing well. I'm happy with him."
Maybe most important, Turris is gaining confidence with his maturity.
Take, for instance, that night in Vancouver when he watched in street clothes just like the 100 or so friends and family members who came to see him in a Coyotes uniform. Turris could have pouted and had that "woe is me" attitude, but he didn't. How he handled the entire ordeal, with professionalism, hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I think it was a turning point for Kyle in a sense that he has become more mature," Phoenix GM Don Maloney
told NHL.com. "He understands this is serious, that this is a business. Instead of saying, 'Oh this is wonderful, great, super and love everybody,' this is now like I have to play and I have to play hard all the time and be a productive player in order to play. I see a difference in him."
The difference, Turris says, is in his confidence. He may not be producing as many points as he'd like - he has seven through 21 games entering this week - but he's getting opportunities because he's skating hard and figuring out the NHL game.
As a result, Turris said right now he is "the most confidence I have been all year."
"I just didn't have confidence," Turris said of what ailed him through the first month of the season. "Maybe a little bit of nerves, but I think that comes with confidence. Because I had no confidence I was nervous that I was going to screw up. There came a point where I said I can either play like this the whole year or not take it as hard when I do screw up, take it as part of the game and learn from it."
Obviously, Turris has lots to learn, but he said he's getting used to the travel and how to play at a consistent level.
"I'm getting my legs under me now," he said.
He also understands how to use his size and strength to his advantage. He's listed at 6-foot-1, but Turris barely weighs 180 pounds. He's a toothpick on the ice and probably needs to pack on 20-25 pounds, but that won't happen this year.
"I'm not the biggest guy and I'm not going to physically be able to win a one-on-one battle with a guy like (Brian) McGrattan or (Shane) Doan, so I have to be a bit smarter," Turris said. "When I do use my physical strength, I have to use it in a short spurt where I can overpower a guy quickly. In a big battle, I don't stand a chance."
Maloney thinks Turris is primed for a breakout soon, likely in the second half, which would go against conventional thinking. Usually straight-out-of-college players suffer second-half swoons because they're used to playing roughly 40 games, not 82.
"It's a challenge for him. He's gotten stronger, better and quicker in the last month. We all know his hockey instincts and hockey awareness are really strong. It's just a matter of him getting stronger and quicker and he's doing that right now and he's playing well. I'm happy with him." -- Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky on Kyle Turris
"I really believe he's getting the tempo and the strength," Maloney said. "It's going to take him time to get stronger, but Wayne plays him. It's a little bit of good faith right now and hopefully we'll be rewarded in the second half. I love his effort, but for an offensive guy we need production."
You don't have to tell Turris that. He knows he was drafted third overall because he's a point-producer. He had 66 goals and 55 assists in 2006-07 when he was playing in the Tier 2 British Columbia Hockey League. He had 11 goals and 24 assists with the Badgers last season. Turris led Team Canada to a gold medal in the 2008 World Junior Championship with eight points in seven games.
"I'm doing all the right things now," Turris said. "I'm working hard. I have my legs under me. I'm skating. I'm creating chances. I'm getting shots. They're going to go in, they have to. Once they do, I'm hoping to get more bounces and things open up for me."
If they don't, the Coyotes might have to re-think Turris' development. He can be sent down to the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League, but that's only going to happen if he really hits the skids.
"If it gets to the point where he is clearly struggling and fighting the puck and his confidence is shot, then, yeah, you send him some place where he gains some," Maloney said. "Right now I don't think that is the case. You just continue to compete and Wayne gives him opportunity to have success. I really feel we'll be rewarded with our patience, but it does take some patience."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com