TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Maxim Noreau is living proof that hard work certainly has its rewards.
Less than a year after earning a tryout with the Minnesota Wild at last year's eight-team Traverse City Prospects Tournament here at Centre I.C.E. Arena, Noreau was signed to a multi-year contract by the big club last May.
Call it what you will, but don't call it lucky. Noreau, who had 8 goals and 16 points in 50 games with the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Houston last season, seized his opportunity through plenty of hard work.
"Maybe there were a couple of spots open in Houston, so it's possible I lucked out by being in the right place at the right time, but I really worked hard for it and never made any excuses," Noreau told NHL.com. "In the summer before getting the invite to Traverse City, I had my ups and downs, but it's nice to know all the effort I put in enabled me to get a contract."
While it isn't the first time a player arrived on a tryout and left with a contract, the 21-year-old defenseman certainly provides a glimmer of hope for all those following in his footsteps. He's back in Traverse City this week, in fact, hoping to make an impression at this year's event.
"It was a dream come true because I worked my whole life for this," said Noreau, who has 2 points in two tournament games. "I know I had some bad breaks in junior and didn't get drafted and maybe had an off-year, but I tried to fight through it like a lot of guys are doing here on a tryout. So, I wish them all the best and hopefully they'll be able to sign a contract like I did."
Doug Risebrough, Wild president and general manager, said inviting players on a tryout basis is challenging and rewarding.
"We feel it's important to go beyond just the players that your organization drafted, so we try to challenge our scouts to find somebody each season to come in on a tryout," Risebrough said. "Maxim is a great example of a player who went through that process and eventually earned an NHL contract. So in some ways I feel having guys in on a tryout is almost like expanding the draft.
"We've traded a lot of picks the last couple of years trying to either move up in the draft or by acquiring players throughout the year, so we ultimately lost draft picks. If you can find one or two players, it's like gaining the pick you lost."
Much like last year, there are a slew of undrafted hopefuls at this year's Prospects Tournament on a tryout basis. Columbus invited a tournament-high 13 players on a tryout, while Minnesota ranks second with 11.
Forward Justin Hodgman, who spent the last three seasons with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, is one such player on Minnesota's roster.
"I was ecstatic to get the invite," Hodgman said. "Sitting through three drafts is kind of tough on a junior hockey player, but to get the phone call and be invited to camp gives me one shot. I was invited to the developmental camp and I think I just came (to Traverse City) with the intention of working hard and hoping for the best."
For players like Hodgman, who had 37 goals and 80 points in 64 games with Erie last season, the time is now to make an impression.
"Everyone here is looking to reach the next level," the 20-year-old Hodgman said. "I played well in the OHL and I'm sure if I went back I'd still have a lot more to prove and a lot to work on. It's kind of tough because I'm torn since my heart is still in Erie, where I've been for three seasons. I want to win there, but I also want to make this squad (in Minnesota), so it's tough leaving the junior world. But my focus right now is being a part of the Wild organization."
Goalie Ryan Daniels, one of eight players on a tryout with Atlanta, not only is grateful to have an opportunity but have a chance to spent time with fellow prospects. Daniels finished 20-15-10 with a 3.15 goals-against average in 49 games with Saginaw in the OHL in 2007-08. He posted a shutout on 23 saves in a 3-0 victory against the Rangers on Sunday in his only start of the prospects tournament.
"There's nothing wrong with having a little bit of fun with the guys away from the rink, but I think whether you're here on a pro contract or a tryout, you're here to work hard and show them what you have," said Daniels. "This may be a business trip when you're at the rink, but there's nothing wrong with having a little fun with the guys away from the rink, either."
Mark Cundari is in a similar position with the St. Louis Blues. Cundari, who spent last season with Windsor of the OHL, thought he would be drafted in June. When that didn't happen, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound defenseman opted for Plan B.
"When I wasn't drafted, I felt I'd have to prove myself again during the season, but five minutes after the draft ended I got a phone call from St. Louis management telling me they wanted to see me at this year's developmental camp," Cundari said. "I was excited at the beginning, as I'm sure anyone would be at that point."
"Our staff gets together and tries to assemble a lineup that will compete in Traverse," said John Davidson, the Blues' president of hockey operations. "This allows us to look at the people that we have and also those here as free agents. It doesn't make much sense to bring players who have already played with St. Louis."
Risebrough said his scouts work diligently in gathering information on players with potential prior to extending a tryout.
"Our staff puts a list together and we call them pretty quickly because every other team is thinking along the same lines," Risebrough said. "First impressions are always important. If you're the team to call first, that player may be more inclined to join your club on a tryout basis. We want every player to realize that our organization is all about development."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.