WOODRIDGE, Ill. --
Seven Bridges Ice Arena -- home of the just concluded Team USA Olympic Men's Orientation Camp -- is a mere five hours away from Waterloo, Iowa.
But, that journey took San Jose Shark Joe Pavelski
from Waterloo the better part of seven years. Needless to say there have been a few wrong turns and detours along the way.
"It's been quite a trip, quite a journey so far," Pavelski told NHL.com Wednesday, the last day of the three-day camp held here. Pavelski was one of the 34 players on hand, meaning he has a fighting change to be on Team USA's final 23-man Olympic roster when it is announced in late December.
Not too bad for a Wisconsin boy that left home for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League as an 18-year-old that was uncertain of his hockey future.
"When I went to Waterloo, I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know how far my (hockey) abilities were developed," Pavelski said. "I went there and I had a lot to learn. It was my first taste of reality, I think."
While it was sobering, the life-changing experience was also exciting. His two-year stay in Waterloo gave him the exposure to earn a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, as well as become a 2003 Entry Draft selection of the San Jose Sharks.
It didn't matter that the selection came in the seventh round, at No. 205. For Pavelski it was another validation that he was on the right path as far as his hockey journey was concerned.
Stops in Madison -- where he played with future NHLers like Edmonton's Tom Gilbert (also at the U.S. Olympic Camp) and Chicago's Adam Burish -- and in Worcester of the American Hockey League followed. At each stop, Pavelski knew he was at least one step closer to reaching his dream of making it to the NHL.
|Anaheim Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer, center, shoves San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski, left, away from goalie Jonas Hiller, of Switzerland, in the third period of a first-round NHL hockey playoff game in Anaheim, Calif., Monday, April 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Avery) |
When I turned pro, it was kind of scary," Pavelski told NHL.com. "What was I getting into? You don't really know, but you know there was something more out there that you knew you wanted to pursue."
While Pavelski may have been terrified, he didn't show it. He played 18 minor-league games, averaging more than a point per game, before he was finally called up to the NHL.
There, he has enjoyed an up-and-down existence. Pavelski started his NHL career like a house afire, but too quickly niggling injuries and the wear-and-tear of the pro game took away his jump and he struggled.
At one point, he was benched by then-coach Ron Wilson -- the Team USA coach for the 2010 Olympics, by the way -- right before the start of the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs (check) and Pavelski was crushed.
"It's tough to swallow when you are not playing good at the end when you need to play good," Pavelski said.
But, Wilson, who now coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs after being dismissed by the Sharks after the 2007-08 season, believes that it was a wake-up call that had to be delivered. The coach insisted that his young center needed to be physically stronger to reach his full potential.
"Joe's much stronger now," Wilson told NHL.com on the last day of the orientation camp. "He's always had great hockey sense, but he is much stronger player now. That's just physical maturity and figuring out what you need to be an NHL player.
"In practice, Joe plays against Joe Thornton
, who is 235 pounds, and if you don't have the strength to at least survive those battles, you are not going to last long in the League. To his credit, he has worked hard on his own to make himself stronger."
It was a tough lesson for Pavelski to learn, but one that has stuck with him since.
|San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov, (20) celebrates the Shark's win with teammates including Joe Pavelski (8) at the end of a shootout in an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 7, 2009, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot) |
"I'm still at that level now -- how can I get stronger?" he told NHL.com. "It just takes time and a commitment. Slowly, your mind develops and you want to train now and you want to get better. How do you train? You play so many games, but you have to do it. For me especially, I feel I lose my strength very quickly if I don't train."
This past season, the benefits of Pavelski's off-ice regimen were obvious. He missed just two games and scored a career-best 59 points, the fourth-highest total on the team. Just as importantly, he didn't waver down the stretch.
"I could argue easily that Joe was San Jose's best player at the end of last season -- especially down the stretch and into the playoffs. He's a very savvy player, who really has unbelievable hockey sense to maybe make up for a lack of size. He's strong now and he can compete in any situation."
Adding physical stamina and strength to a toolbox already brimming with innate hockey talent has delivered Pavelski here to Seven Bridges Ice Arena and allowed him to share the stage with 33 other players that are considered the cream of the American crop.
At this point, it doesn't even matter if the journey continues to Vancouver in February. Sure Pavelski would love to be one of the 23 players chosen to represent Team USA at the 2010 Olympics, but just being invited to training camp has validated all the twists and turns that have compromised his hockey journey to this point.
"Coming to this camp and meeting guys from around the League," Pavelski said. "You know of them and know them a little bit, but now you get to know them a little bit more on a personal level and that's exciting."
But, it is not just the Olympics that are exciting. Pavelski is also champing at the bit to get back to the Sharks and wash away the bitter taste of last season's playoff ouster. He knows he is ready to do his part.
"I will be as confident as I have ever been," Pavelski warned. "I'm coming off one of my better years and have had a good summer training so far."
So, it appears Pavelski's journey may still be in its infancy. Who knows where the finish line will be.