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Focusing On Hockey

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

If ever there was a player who fit the mold of the typical Dallas Star, it’s right winger Raymond Sawada. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he is a big, strong, physical player, a hard worker who excels at both ends of the ice and has outstanding character. 

But Sawada also has some very unique qualities. He’s extremely intelligent, as evidenced by his Ivy League education with the intention of some day going into some aspect of the medical field, he’s got a twin brother that he left behind on his climb up the hockey ladder and while he’s a mature 23, he’s heading into his first full season of professional hockey.

After scoring 10 goals and 26 points in 36 games in his senior season at Cornell University, Sawada signed with the Stars last March and reported to AHL Iowa to get his first taste of life where hockey is the only focus.

“It happened all pretty quickly right after my last game in college, but it was a good experience, to get down there into the pro game,” Sawada said. “It gave me a little bit of confidence coming into this next year and knowing what things I really need to work on over the summertime.”

Skating in Iowa’s final 10 games, Sawada made a definite impact at the AHL level, scoring two goals and nine points. The Stars’ second-round selection (52nd overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft, he is considered one of the primary candidates to earn a roster spot in Dallas in 2008-09, if not out of training camp in September, then at some point during the year.

“Ray got his degree, which we were behind him 100 percent,” noted Stars’ Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Bernhardt. “He’s obviously more pro-ready than if he had come out (of college) early. Also very important, Ray got a taste of the American Hockey League and pro hockey at the end of last season and took full advantage of that. He’s knocking on the door. He could need some more experience in the pro game, but he’ll be very close to the National Hockey League.”

Sawada certainly made an impression on his teammates during his short time in Iowa.

“He was unreal, I think he scored like 10 points in 10 games,” said fellow prospect and Iowa center Perttu Lindgren. “That’s really good when you came from college, it’s such a different game from the AHL.”

“Sawada is just a speedboat. He’s fast, he’s big, he’s built like a bodybuilder,” added fellow Iowa winger Francis Wathier, another player who will compete for a job in Dallas this coming season. “He’s huge, he plays hard. We play almost the same game. He’s really fast, he’s got a good shot, he finishes his check and he’s got a lot of grit.”

Sawada, a native of Richmond, British Columbia, was among the contingent of Stars prospects attending last week’s 2008 development camp at their practice facility at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco. It was his third time at the camp, but it just might be his last, as the maturing winger looks to stick in Dallas and make his mark as an NHLer.

“I’ve been to this camp twice before during my college career and each time, it’s been a lot of fun and you get to meet a lot of new people,” Sawada said. “From now on, and especially heading into training camp, my main goal is trying to play in the NHL and making the Dallas Stars. If I don’t make it right away, then the rest of the season, that’s going to be my goal, but coming into training camp, that is my primary goal.”

If Sawada can take that big step, it appears that he’d fit right in with the club’s style of play.

“Our identity as a team is we want to play hard, be hard to play against, be relentless as a group and (Sawada) kind of typifies that kind of mode,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “When you have our captain and leader of our team is Brenden Morrow, he sets an awfully high standard for how our team wants to be perceived and how other teams perceive us when they play the Dallas Stars - you better know that this is the kind of guy that you’re going to have to deal with. The more guys you can have like that, the better for us.”

Sawada hopes to follow in the footsteps of defenseman Matt Niskanen, who left college in March 2007 and joined Iowa for the final stretch of their season before attending the Stars’ development camp last summer. Then Niskanen went to training camp in September, won a roster spot and delivered an excellent rookie season for the Stars, playing key minutes and establishing himself as an integral member of the club. 

Defenseman Mark Fistric also fulfilled a key role as a Dallas rookie after attending last year’s camp, getting called up from Iowa during the season and developing into a good, reliable defender in the NHL. 

Watching those guys make the jump he wants to serves as extra motivation and encouragement that Sawada can do it, too.

“It’s definitely reachable and definitely attainable and seeing those guys do it last year definitely gives me a little bit of confidence that it is achievable to do just in one year, even coming out of college,” Sawada said.

“That’s a good example and I think that’s something that (Stars co-General Manager Les Jackson) talked about when he had that first meeting with the players at the orientation,” noted Director of Player Personnel Dave Taylor. “Les said, ‘We started this last year, and you look at a guy like Niskanen or Fistric, who spent the majority of the year with the Stars, so that opportunity is there for you guys.’” 

One of the biggest adjustments players coming out of college face in their first full professional season is the grind of playing 70-plus games, including on back-to-back nights in different cities and three-in-four nights with travel in between. In college, the season is about 30 games and they only play on weekends, with both games at the same venue. In addition to that, the NCAA game offers much more practice time, with on-ice sessions every weekday to work on skills.

Sawada indicated that his 10-game stint in Iowa was extremely valuable because it helped him get a sense for how that will go, and the fact that he performed well has fueled his confidence that he can indeed take that next step.

“It’s definitely a different lifestyle, because, well, there’s no school, but you play a lot more games in a shorter period of time, so that was a little bit of an adjustment,” Sawada noted. “But I think it was good for me to go down there and see that I can play at that level and hopefully make the jump.” 
While there will likely be an opening or two at forward, Sawada will face some stiff competition in order to claim a job in Dallas. Two other prospects joining him at last week’s camp, fellow Iowa alums James Neal and Wathier, figure to be other front-runners seeking to land a spot on the big club.

“They’re guys that have gone through the process and that are knocking at the door, so they’re anxious for the opportunity, they’re anxious to show their work that they put in,” Tippett said of the talented trio. “Steps like this are great steps that continue to move them along, but the real test for them will come in training camp, when they have to come in and they have to earn a job.”

Both Neal and Wathier acknowledged that Sawada will be one of the guys they have to beat out to make the team.

“He’s a big guy, he’s real physical, he can score, he plays gritty, so he’s a good player,” Neal said of Sawada. “Obviously, he’s an older guy, too and he’s just battling for a spot. It’s good competition. We both know what we got to do, we’re both going to be competitive and keep going.” 

“Definitely, James Neal and Sawada, we’re all good buddies but we’re all fighting for a spot,” Wathier added. “It’s going to get that competitive edge out of ourselves, but in the long run, after we’re out of the rink, we’re all good buddies, but we fight for a job. It’s going to be the same thing for the veterans. We want to take their jobs and they’re not going to let us do that, for sure.”

While it may be a bit odd to have to reach your dream at the expense of your buddy, Sawada knows that’s what life in pro sports is like.

“That’s the reality of it, everybody’s competing for a spot,” Sawada said. “I guess you take the friendship away from the ice and just basically leave everything out there and know that it is a business in the end and that, even though you can be friends off the ice, you’re really competing for the same job.”

While Neal and Wathier were his teammates for just a few weeks, one person who skated alongside Raymond Sawada for much longer was his twin brother Stephen, who last laced up the skates in the same locker room with him six years ago with the Junior B Richmond Sockeyes. 

“We were always on the same team all the way up until juniors and then when it came time for me to go play Junior A, he stayed behind and played Junior B,” Sawada said. “He continued to play Junior B. I think he just played more for the love of the game and wasn’t really too competitive out there. He played Junior B for about four years, then he went to UBC and had to not play hockey any more due to a shoulder injury.”

Sawada admitted it was an adjustment for him not having his brother with him when he went to play for Nanaimo of the Junior A BCHL, where he scored 20 goals and 52 points in 54 games the year Dallas drafted him.

“It was a little weird at first, but after a while, you just get used to it,” he noted. “I think I was a little bit harder on him - when he made a mistake out there, I’d let him know it. But it was definitely different after playing about 17 years together.”

The next year when he went off to Cornell, where even the student athletes have to be smart enough academically to get accepted, Sawada selected the very atypical major of human biology.
“I was thinking about taking their business major there, which most of the players are in, but I’d never taken a business course before, so I thought I’d just stay in what I was really interested in - biology, basically,” Sawada revealed. “I wanted to kind of get into physical therapy, or something in sports medicine. It’s basically a base to go into whatever you want. You could go on to medical school, you could go get your Masters in physiotherapy, anything, pretty much.”

It is unlikely Sawada will have to resort to utilizing his degree any time soon, as he gears up for Stars training camp in September.

He listed some of his objectives for the rest of the summer that he hoped would give him his best shot of making the club.

“I think just working at my strengths, so being in the best shape I possibly can, making sure I’m physically strong and shooting the puck, and then again, working really hard on my weaknesses - working on my first step, my explosive speed and the stick-handling,” Sawada said.

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