TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Growing up in the Tar Heel state – a hotbed for basketball – it’s easy to assume that 6-foot-9 Jarett Meyer is a dominating low-post figure destined for a Division 1 college scholarship at one of the nation’s top hoop powerhouses.
That would be the furthest from the truth.
“Yeah, I get that all of the time, but I love hockey,” said Meyer, who is among 22 invited players at the Red Wings’ 45-man development camp at Centre Ice Arena this week.
“Hockey is just a fun sport, there’s nothing else like it,” he added. “I played baseball growing up; I played all the other sports with my friends. But hockey is what I looked forward to almost every night when I would go to practice or every game.”
Meyer, an 18-year-old defenseman, has definitely turned some heads among the Wings’ coaching staff.
Jiri Fischer, the Wings’ director of player development, who is overseeing the five-day camp, first encountered Meyer while checking in on Zach Nastasiuk at Owen Sound in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Nastasiuk, the Attack’s captain for the past two seasons, was the Wings’ second-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
“Everybody sees that he’s a big guy, everybody sees that he’s 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9,” Fischer said. “Every NHL organization is looking for the next Zdeno Chara. Where is that guy? Where is the next (Victor) Hedman? That’s not always a realistic expectation for all the guys that are big.”
Aside from his height advantage, Meyer has a second-to-none commitment and dedication, which is just as impressive as his skyscraping size on skates.
Last summer, before landing a roster spot with Owen Sound, he tried out for the Barrie Colts, but he didn’t make the cut.
It was only two years ago that Meyer traveled great distances just to keep his dream of one day making it to the National Hockey League alive. Though he was born in Long Island, N.Y. his family moved to North Carolina when he was an infant. He returned to the tri-state area, moving in with his grandmother a few years ago, to continue playing hockey.
But things weren’t going so great then, either.
“I was playing in New York, about 30 minutes from home, but it wasn’t working out,” Meyer said.
A coach on a competing team, wanted Meyer, but the team was in New Jersey, several hours away.
“It was about an hour-and-20 minute train ride to Penn Station, and then another 30-minute train to New Jersey, and then walking about a half mile, mile to the rink,” Meyer said. “Then do it all over again on the way back, so I could get up in the morning for school.”
That’s commitment, but at this level, NHL coaches and scouting staffs are looking for development from young players. Meyer has the unteachable tools – his height and reach – but he needs to work on his foot work and skating, which isn’t always easy for someone who is still growing.
“It’s easy to pick out the long body and the big stick,” Fischer said. “That doesn’t guarantee success on the ice (but) he has that tool set that other guys just don’t. Now how good of a hockey player he will become?
“He has to really work on his skating and really work on his agility and really work on his anticipation as a defenseman. You just can’t react. When big guys just react sometimes a long stick is a good thing, sometimes it creates angles that are easier for forwards to play. … He’s got a long way to learn.”
Naturally, his height and stick reach make him an imposing defender.
“Smaller guys, they’re speedy and quick, but when you’re big and strong like that it’s tough to get by, especially if they have that big stick and strength in the corners and in front of the net,” Nastasiuk said. “He uses that to his advantage a lot, and those are the strengths that he’s got.”
But developing his skating and foot work will only enhance his God-given attributes.
“It’s a huge help,” Meyer said of his height. “People will say not to rely on it too much, which is hard not to do, but it’s really big when you don’t have to make that extra step.”
Meyer has been fortunate to know and have worked with Bob Halkidis, a former NHL defenseman, who skated with six different clubs, including the Red Wings, over 10 seasons.
“Since I was really little I’ve been doing drills with Bob Halkidis, and he would teach me how to move my body because I was always tall,” Meyer said. “He was in North Carolina and we’re really good buddies. He taught me when I was 5-6 years old. He had me doing agility drills because he knew I’d be big and it really helped me just getting used to my body.”
Meyer believes he’s ceased growing vertically. Now it’s time for him to shine as a late-bloomer.
“I’ve slowly been settling into this size,” he said. “But you can never settle into that one until you stop growing.”
Meyer, who was not selected in last month's NHL draft, is free to sign with any club as an unrestricted free agent. By attending this week's camp in northern Michigan, he hopes the Wings will invite him to compete in the NHL Prospects Tournament and the team's main training camp in September.