When the University of Massachusetts-Amherst hockey season concluded on March 13th with Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher in attendance, Casey Wellman’s relaxed lifestyle was about to shift into high gear.
Wellman’s life was about to change, because unlike many of the stud 18-year-olds that get drafted and prepare for the next level, Wellman wasn’t on the radar screen of most NHL clubs when he was draft eligible.
“I was never really expecting to get drafted,” he admitted. “I was around 18 years old at the time and probably around 140 pounds, I was a small guy and hadn’t really developed as a player yet so I wasn’t really disappointed at all.”
Wellman now stands at six feet and 173 pounds, and his size and speed caught the attention of a reported 21 different NHL clubs who were eager to sign the free agent forward.
On his decision, Wellman said, “I picked Minnesota because Mr. Fletcher the GM, a great guy, came out, visited my family and made it seem like he really wanted me.”
Once his college season came to an end in the Hockey East playoffs, Wellman met with his parents and his agent.
“I had all the teams broken down, and which ones had shown the most interest. He told me to sleep on it, and I could make a decision when I really wanted to. The next day, I was talking to my mom and my dad we decided Minnesota would be the best place for me to go, both short-term and long-term.”
Once signed with the Wild, life for Wellman took on a frantic pace, although his luggage took it’s own sweet time with the trip from Massachusetts. He quickly arrived in Minnesota the next day without his hastily packed luggage.
“It got here the next day, right before we were going to go on the road, so that was good. I knew there was a Macy’s right down the road from the hotel so I went there and grabbed some extras just in case.”
Arriving in Minnesota on March 16th, there was no time to waste. With several injuries to Wild regulars, Wellman was preparing as if he’d be playing for an NHL team immediately.
“We were waiting to see if some guys were going to play in the game. I literally flew in and they [brought me into the locker room] and said, ‘Get dressed. You have to go out and skate because you might be playing tonight.’ So I got out there, and then I went out for pregame warm-ups and then it ended up that I didn’t play.”
But he did participate in pregame warmups, wearing his new number – 17.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know it was 17. My girlfriend actually told me I was number 17 before I even knew. I think what happened was when I was going to UMass I asked if I could have number 70 and the equipment guy there said, ‘How about we give you number 7 and you can pretend there’s a zero.’ And I think when I was coming here, he emailed them and said I like number 70. They weren’t going to give me 70, but they wanted to give me something with a 7 in it, so I got 17.”
Wellman’s debut would wait, but a moment in the spotlight would not. When Wellman was scratched from the lineup, he sat in between his parents in the stands. Completely at random, Wellman’s mother, Jodi was featured on the Wild’s Scoreboard Smooch Cam – only she was paired up with Justin Falk
’s father, sitting to her immediate left. Startled and mildly embarrassed, Jodi had to lean over Casey, sitting to her right, to give Casey’s dad, Brad a smooch.
“Yeah, it was pretty funny,” he said with a chuckle. “And then of course I had to between them. I got a DVD of it in my stall the next morning, so that was awesome.”
Four days later, after a couple more skates with his new club, number 17 made his long-awaited NHL debut in Columbus, a night he described as “unbelievable.”
“I’ve been dreaming about that night since I was three and a half, so it was awesome,” he explained. “The first period, there was obviously some nerves but the guys told me just to be confident. After the first few shifts I started to feel more at ease and I started trying to contribute to the game.”
That contribution did not take long, as Wellman recorded his first NHL point with an assist on a Chuck Kobasew goal early in the second period. He now had his first item for his NHL trophy case to mark the occasion.
“Yeah, I have the puck,” he said. “They grabbed it right after and put a little sticker on it that says it was my first point, so it was awesome.”
With the game winding down and the Wild trailing by one, Wellman found himself getting the call for the important late shift.
“I wasn’t really expecting that, but when (Head Coach Todd Richards) put me out there, I tried to do what I could to help the team. Unfortunately it didn’t really turn out to be the best night for us. But I was happy that I got put out there, and that the coach had enough trust in me that I could do that.”
Looking back on that night, Wellman cites a pair of “Welcome to the NHL Moments,” including his first-ever NHL goal being stolen away just as his shot was about to cross the goal line.
“Lining up against Rick Nash on the face off, and getting kind of robbed by R.J. Umberger on the goal line my first game. Both of those situations were kind of my welcome moments.”
In college, that puck probably ends up in the net, but it’s just one of many adjustments that Wellman will be getting used to. Another is the size of the home crowd he’ll be playing in front of.
Wellman has gone from playing in front of 5,300 fans at UMass (in a 8600 seat arena) to a sold out Xcel Energy Center in the span of eight days.
“The fans at UMass were awesome. We would get tons of students each game, and they have all the chants they form, but playing in front of 18,000 here is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. They get loud here, and it’s awesome. It can definitely rev you up.”
When asked if he had any goals for the remainder of the season, Wellman replied, “Just to gain experience and use these nine games left to get better as a player and try to contribute as much as possible.” How about scoring a goal? “Yes, I would love to score a goal!” something he would have already accomplished if not for being robbed by R. J. Umberger.
And when the Wild season ends, most of Wellman’s new teammates will part ways for some rest and relaxation before a summer filled with workouts. Wellman will be hitting the books.
“I do plan on finishing my degree. When we’re done here I’m going to go back to UMass. I’ve already discussed everything with my teachers, and they’ve been good. They’re going to let me finish up this year so I can get credits for my last semester and then after that I’m going to try and chip away at the courses I need to finish and get my degree.”
After the two weeks Wellman has just experienced, college doesn’t sound all that tough.