The road to the NHL can be fairly standard for a talented player in the United States, Canada or Europe. Virtually all Canadians with the skill and junior draft status will opt for the Canadian Hockey League. Americans will strongly look at the U.S. junior route or college. Europeans will tend to play junior hockey in their native country and occasionally come over after they have been drafted by the NHL, like Lukas Kaspar.
Then there are those who completely went in a different direction, including the Sharks Torrey Mitchell
, Douglas Murray
and Alexei Semenov.
Mitchell hails from the hockey mad province of Quebec, but both his parents are educators and he never fully considered the traditional route of playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“Both my parents are teachers,” said Mitchell. “My dad was the athletic director at a school in Montreal that is a lot like a prep school.”
It was not like Mitchell hadn’t been noticed by QMJHL scouts and he had no other options to attend a prep school in United States. In fact, he also felt a great deal of pressure to go the road more traveled and stay in Quebec.
“My midget AAA team was one of the top teams in Canada,” said Mitchell. “I think all but one player on our team was drafted (in the QMJHL). All of them went to the Q. There was still pressure after my first year at Hotchkiss.”
Mitchell was not just a role player, but a high-end talent back in Montreal.
“I was a fourth round pick (in the QMJHL),” said Mitchell. “I would have been a first round pick, but I told everyone I was going to Hotchkiss. I may have gone in the top five.”
Instead, he left for America to continue his hockey career at Hotchkiss, a member of U.S. High School East. However, there was a brief instance when he considered returning home, although that obviously didn’t happen.
“It ended up that my draft rights were traded to Rimouski where Sidney Crosby was playing,” said Mitchell. “I was 19 and it made it interesting.
“I was 16 or 17 when I went to Hotchkiss prep school in Connecticut,” he continued. “The main reason was I wanted to play college hockey.”
The best laid plans worked out for step two towards the NHL goal when Mitchell signed with the University of Vermont. He starred for three seasons, before turning pro and heading to San Jose’s top development affiliate in Worcester to conclude last season.
That brief AHL stint and a strong training camp landed him in his dream job in the NHL.
SWEDEN TO THE IVY LEAGUE
Murray also ventured to the United States to improve his NHL chances and improve education opportunities, although his plans changed along the way. He initially thought he would return to Sweden after one year.
Murray was moving up the ranks of defensemen prospects in Sweden when he jumped to America to play high school hockey and skate in the little known Eastern Junior Hockey League for a club called Applecore.
“I had just made the Swedish under-17 team national team and I hadn’t made that before,” said Murray. “The quality at the high school and in junior was not as high. I wanted to try the smaller rinks and I always watched highlights of North American hockey. I was very curious.”
However, education was an important factor for Murray much in the same way it was for Mitchell.
“Hockey is kind of a gamble,” said Murray. “I came over for a couple of reasons and the other was the schooling aspect. In Sweden, there is no set up like college sports here. It is tough to get an education and pursue hockey at the highest level. A degree is the best insurance if you don’t make the NHL.”
Murray’s parents were split on their son making such a big jump across the Atlantic, but both were happy he received an Ivy League education from Cornell.
“My father was behind me the whole time,” said Murray. “My mother wanted what was best for me, but she had a hard time with it.”
The distance did not affect their relationships, though.
“I see my parents now more than some guys whose parents are in Canada or the United States,” said Murray.
Asked if he’d travel the same path again, Murray didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” said Murray. “There may have been a better route for hockey, but not for both. It’s about the journey and my journey has been great. Even playing in the minors, I learned skills that helped me. I appreciate things here and don’t take anything for granted.”
Russia has a strong history of developing NHL-level players, but most stay in Russia until they are drafted and then come over to play in the NHL. For Semenov, he went in a different direction, heading to Canada to play in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I was drafted by Sudbury in the first round (of the CHL Import Draft),” said Semenov. “I didn’t come right away, but my agent suggested I come over here to try a different type of hockey.”
Semenov knew he was highly regarded by the NHL, as evidenced by Edmonton drafting him 36th overall in 1999, so he simply thought he would start preparing for his future life.
“It was really different with the language,” said Semenov. “I would sit in class and not know what they were saying. I knew yes, no and thanks. I just sat and watched the kids.”
While in a setting native to his culture and language, Semenov had been away from home early in life, so he was not intimidated in moving to Canada.
“When I was 12 years old, I traveled a lot by myself,” said Semenov. “When I was 11, a friend and I would take a 15-hour bus ride to play hockey.”
Moving to Canada as a teenager was blessed by his parents.
“They were cool about it,” said Semenov. “They trusted me.”
All three players have found success in the NHL via their distinct paths and have shown there is more than one way to reach the ultimate destination.
San Jose will play hosts to Dallas tonight at 7:30 at HP Pavilion in a contest that can be caught on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and SJSHARKS.com. Limited tickets are still available at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at SJSHARKS.com.