On June 24, 2016, after my name had just been called by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the NHL Draft, there was only one thing going through my head as I walked up to the stage at the First Niagara Center.
Don't trip. Don't trip on the stairs. Don't fall.
I didn't fall, thankfully. I made it up in one piece. And walking up those stairs, hearing Gary Bettman say, "Welcome to the NHL," putting on my new team's sweater for the first time - it was a really cool feeling.
Obviously, I wasn't drafted by the Rangers. I didn't end up in New York until almost two years after my draft year. We'll get to that later.
Before the draft, everyone would ask me, "Who do you think's going to draft you?" And that's such a hard question because there's 30 teams. You never know what's going to happen. There could be trades, whatever - but still, when people asked me, I would say, "I think Tampa's going to draft me." For some reason, I just had a gut feeling there was a good chance I would go to them. But it's crazy how it worked out like that because it usually doesn't.
Every year, about a month before the draft, the NHL Combine happens. Mine was in Buffalo - same place as the draft. At the Combine, basically what happens is you interview with a bunch of teams that are interested in you, then you do some fitness testing, and it gives teams a good idea of how you'll project.
At my Combine, I interviewed with 28 of the 30 teams. The Rangers didn't have a first-round pick that year, but they still interviewed me. It's funny because even though they didn't have a first-round pick, I still had the same feeling that I had when I came out of Tampa's room: It was just like a good feeling. I felt like I had a good interview with them, and they told me, too, that they didn't have their pick, but they said it's good to always just talk to kids and even get them ready for the other interviews and such.
At the time, I was young and I didn't know much. I wasn't really thinking to myself, Maybe I'll end up with them someday. When I got drafted to Tampa, I thought was I was going to play for Tampa. You never really think you're going to get traded, especially being a prospect; I mean, it doesn't happen too often. But thinking about it now, interviewing with them that day in Buffalo was probably a blessing in disguise. It's worked out in the long run for sure.
I was really lucky because my brother Quinton helped me out a lot with the interview process. He's six years older than me and was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the first round in 2010. He was telling me different questions he was asked, how you should answer certain questions and just kind of preparing me before I went there, which was really special. He had been through it all and kind of knew what was coming, so I really got lots of advice from him.
The day of the fitness tests, I'm not gonna lie - I was pretty nervous. But everything's happening so fast that you're just in the moment. I was just trying to do the best I could. I kind of forgot about the nerves. My trainer had really helped me prepare and just kind of be ready for each test that was coming. There's all the bike tests and stuff, which I was really nervous about just because I've heard so many stories and I hadn't done them. One of the tests is the Wingate, the 30-second one. Most guys hate that test. For me, the VO2 test was way worse. It takes around 15 minutes, and it's pretty much just grinding for as long as you can. The Wingate is brutal, but it's only 30 seconds and it's over right away. They're both tough tests, but if I had to choose one, I'd probably choose the Wingate.
About a month later, I was back in Buffalo for the real thing. My mom, dad, brother, two sisters, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and my billet family from Moose Jaw all came with me to the draft. The morning of, we went for a walk around Buffalo, had breakfast together and such, but I really wasn't my normal self - I was really nervous and wasn't really talking much because the draft wasn't till 7, so it felt like it took an eternity just to get through that one day.
As it got closer to draft time, I got my suit and stuff ready to go, got dressed, and headed downstairs to meet my family. They got on one bus to the arena, and I went on the bus with the players. When we got to the First Niagara Center, I had to find out where my seating was and everything, and when we finally sat down, it still took about another 40 minutes to get the actual draft going. Time has never moved slower than the day of my draft. It felt like I was sitting there all day, just waiting and waiting. I didn't get picked till 27, so you can imagine - that's still a really long wait.
From there, it's all kind of a blur. I was just so excited to hear my name called.
Here's a pro tip for you: Take your jacket off before you leave your seat and head up to the stage. I remember I was always watching draft videos, and I always noticed how everyone always took their jackets off ahead of time. When my brother got drafted, he did the same thing, so when I went, I knew to take it off. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, one of the personnel for Tampa was there to meet me, and the first thing he did was ask for my jacket. I was like, "Oh, I already took it off - I gave it to my parents back there." I was a little ahead of the game. Nothing like a good first impression.
Getting up on that stage was a really cool feeling. Putting on a sweater with an NHL logo on it for the first time - there's nothing like it. I did a couple of interviews after that, and then finally, I got to go see my family. It was such a special day for all of us.
Almost two years later, it was a random day in February, and I was on the bus with my WHL team. It actually turned out to be NHL Trade Deadline day, but you're not thinking about that when you're a prospect. I was actually sleeping, and my buddy behind me showed me Twitter, and it said I had been traded to the Rangers. Half an hour later, I got a call from Steve Yzerman, and five minutes later I got a call from Jeff Gorton. That's how I officially found out I was a Ranger. But Twitter stole the show.
That summer, I went to my first Rangers development camp. A couple of months after that, I went to Traverse City for rookie camp, then training camp, and suddenly I was on an NHL roster for the first time. When I got drafted by Tampa, I didn't think I'd be making my NHL debut at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 4, 2018, but things definitely worked out for the best.
Draft day is weird. It goes by so slow, and then all of a sudden, when you get to the good part, it goes by so fast that it's all a blur. So try to take a step back and enjoy the experience.
And remember: Don't forget to take your jacket off.
And don't trip on your way up to the stage.