2008-09 was a tough year for Chris Vande Velde but not for the typical reasons. His team, the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, finished first in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and, on a personal note, the big center finished second on the team in points with 18 goals and 17 assists in 43 games.
So where did the toughness come in? In on-ice battles, for one. Vande Velde nearly doubled his penalty minutes from the season previous by tallying a team-leading 69, only one shy of the career high he posted in 56 games with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars in 2005-06.
And then in the post-season, the aggressive 22-year-old showcased more toughness by persevering through a separated shoulder in the WCHA playoffs. Determination kept Vande Velde in the line-up, but his injury kept him from making his usual contributions and the Sioux closed the season with three losses to finish fifth.
The playoff disappointment was certainly a tough pill for the UND lads to swallow, but Oilers Assistant GM Kevin Prendergast is quick to praise Vande Velde’s performance, character, and grit.
“He’s a big kid at 6-2, 210 pounds. He’s very good on face-offs, he’s physical, and he gets in the areas to create things,” Prendergast explains. “He played an awful lot for them this year and played very well in the playoffs despite playing with a separated shoulder, which we thought was commendable on his part.”
Although Vande Velde was a pillar in North Dakota last season, Prendergast admits he isn’t ready to make the jump to the Oilers just yet.
“We just felt that another year at North Dakota – which is an excellent program – of him playing on their first or second line and honing his skills a little bit is just going to make him a better player for us at the end of next season,” the Oilers exec says. “He plays for a good coaching staff there – they know what’s expected of him. We’ve already talked about what we think he’s capable of doing and we’ll go over it with him when he’s here for prospect camp.”
Prospect camp offers Vande Velde and two dozen of his fellow future Oilers the chance to show how they’ve developed over the past season and receive in-person assessments and guidance from Oilers coaches, staff, and fitness and nutrition experts. This year’s camp is slated for the second week of July in Edmonton.
“It’s a good indoctrination for them – learning what it takes to be a pro. It’s important for these kids, especially the younger ones, to get on the physical training and the weight programs as per what we expect from them,” Prendergast explains.
Although Vande Velde attends college in hockey-crazed North Dakota, many other prospects are immersed in athletic environments that focus on other sports.
“A lot of these kids go to schools where football is the number one program and the training that they get is more oriented towards football. A hockey player is more from the legs and waist down, whereas a football player is from the waist up. Jeff Petry
is one of those kids that we want to have a good look at here because Michigan State has one of the top football programs,” the Assistant GM says.
Prospect camp is a learning experience for the next generation of Oilers, and though Vande Velde has attended the event the past two summers, Prendergast insists the lessons will pay off for both the player and the organization.
“Everything that we have to offer as an organization is going to be here for that week” he emphasizes. “It gives [the prospects] an opportunity to tap into everything, use the resources we have, to listen, to learn, and to come back better for it. The ones that are coming back in September, it should be a big boost for them.”