If there is one time of year when the NHL becomes a platform for stories of profound personal interest, the Entry Draft is that time. From the inspirational, brave and underdog style champion of the world tales to the heart warming and outright tragic, the Entry Draft is a narrative that runs a full gamut of emotions. Yet beyond the glitz of those first five or ten picks, many of these stories fall from the limelight to be caught in a small hold web of local interest articles and small time city newspapers.
Last weekend 211 young kids’ dreams became, at least a partial reality, 211 stories of their ascent through the sport we love and 211 talents still with much work to tap their vast potential. But at least for the next few weeks, for those that do make it and more so for those that don’t, now is a time to revel in the stories that saw their names go up on the draft board on Friday and Saturday. Here are five short stories of kids making the NHL draft.
When Daultan Leveille’s name was slotted in at 29 next to the logo of the Atlanta Thrashers, many an onlooker would have been forgiven for missing the significance. However, the drafting of Daultan Leveille signaled a historic day, not only for the young French-Canadian, but for the Junior B league from which he hailed.
For the entirety of its 33 year existence, the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League never saw one of its luminaries make a draft day board. Sure Nathan Horton spent a single season in the GHJHL as a fifteen year old before stepping up to major junior in the OHL and Krzysztof Oliwa spent his draft year in the GHJHL, but neither player was a product of the Ontario Junior B.
Conceived in 1974, the league serviced small town junior hockey teams situated in both the inner and outer “Golden Horseshoe,” Canada’s most densely populated urban agglomerate that horseshoes around the west side of Lake Ontario. The St. Catharines Falcons were the only team to play every season from 1974-75 through 2006-07 winning 15 titles on the way including 4 on the bounce between 1975 and 1979. Despite this the scouts never came, at best Junior B was an outsiders chance and the league, the Falcons and its players went unheeded, a minor miracle when you consider the breadth of scouting in the tight hockey world.
When the 2006-07 season concluded, the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League had ran its course as a sovereign entity. With disputes raging over the quality of hockey in Southern Ontario’s junior B leagues in comparison to the tier II junior A’s of the Greater Toronto Area and the subsequent player raiding that would happen with junior B leagues losing their players minus any compensation. The decision was made at a meeting of all the Ontario Junior B general managers to merge the Western Ontario Hockey League, Mid-Western Junior Hockey League and the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League into one amalgam to provide a united front against player pilfering. The subsequent product was the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, complete with three divisions that outlined the original three leagues. The consensus was to run an interlocking league season with the divisions and scheduling running in a similar vein to the NHL, technically this would signal the end of the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League as anything more significant than a conference.
However with Daultan Leveille suiting up for his sophomore year at the historic Junior B Falcons in the Golden Horeshoe division and the league ready to get under way, the separate management of the Mid-Western division, a relic of the original three league system, resigned. With no effective management it was deemed that the Mid-Western division could not run an interlocking schedule, thus branding each division a separate league playing, as they had done previously, for the Sutherland Cup. The GHJHL had earned a stay of execution.
Leveille, a rookie out straight out of high school, would undoubtedly have been good enough for Junior A, if not Major Junior, but the native of St. Catharines never wanted to leave home and the people he grew up with. Level headed and realistic, Leveille, who jumped from 89th to 47th in the North American skater ratings, had put his education and friends ahead of his career, opting to continue to Michigan State University, rather than go into Major Junior, and graduate with the school and the people it all began with.
Leveille himself admitted that at the start of the season he didn’t even think about the NHL, but when Central Scouting released their mid term rankings Leveille was shocked to see his name at 89. Aware that scouts had somehow found him and taken an interest, Leveille pushed on and worked to finish the season with 29 goals and 27 assists for 56 points. Not hugely remarkable numbers in junior B, what set Leveille out from the pack was his skating ability and not only his ability but his speed, one scout was quoted as saying:
“Very fast skater, perhaps the fastest in the 2008 draft class”
Topped of with excellent offensive awareness and instinct, Leveille took his game to a new level to chase his dream in the playoffs scoring 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points in just 16 games.
Despite this, Leveille still found he ranked a mere 47th in the final rankings, partly owing to the level of the play, partly owing to his svelte 5’11” and 163 pound frame.
Nevertheless with his place at Michigan State confirmed few expected to see his name out on Friday night. Few others that is than Leveille who attended the first round more in hope than expectation. But when his name was called out by the Atlanta Thrashers, Leveille realized a lifelong dream and broke the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey Leagues NHL draft duck in its final true year.
Headed to the NCAA for an excellent program with the Spartans, Leveille has a long way to go before he can become the third GHJHL alumni and first genuine draftee to play in the NHL. First he has to prove he can play at a greater level than Junior B, a prospect Leveille takes in his quietly confident demeanor, then he has to work on his size. To be picked out in the first round is just the start, but with skating speed surpassing all others, Leveille is perhaps just 25 pounds short of NHL ready.
Where would any article on draft oddities be without a feature on the last draftee, the perennial pub quiz trivia man.
The strange thing is in recent years there has been a fantastic amount of interest in the bottom picks partly owing to our morbid curiosity on a destined “dud.”Whilst not the real headline act, everybody wants to know the story of the final pick as if going into the draft there were only 211 17-20 year olds in the world playing hockey.
Bottom-line, Jesper Samuelsson has achieved something that most of us could never even conceive of dreaming about, being drafted into the NHL, by the championship team and furthermore a team with a storied history of drafting Europeans late in the day and finding proverbial “diamonds in the rough.”
Where would the Red Wings be without Russian, Pavel Datsyuk selected in the sixth round 171st overall or Swedes Tomas Holmstrom (10th round 257th overall) and Henrik Zetterberg taken in the 7th round, 210th overall.
Owning a place on the draft board, a space down from where H. Zetterberg appeared in 1999, Jesper Samuelsson has more than just his Swedish heritage in common with Hank. Born in the Swedish capital Stockholm, Samuelsson is a product of the Timra IK club and their junior setup, the same setup in which Henrik Zetterberg matured. Furthermore at 5’11” and 178 pounds, Samuelsson shares the same build as Zetterberg when he was first drafted into the organization, small, stringy and fairly weak looking.
Such a summary of the twice passed up 20 year old would be missing the point, Samuelsson’s selection was born from the advice of arguably hockey’s greatest scout Hakan Andersson, Detroit’s head of European scouting and the finder of nearly all Detroit’s European obscurities.
A team leader in scoring at Christmas, Samuelsson was blighted by the arrival of a new coach who failed to utilize the talents of the playmaking center causing his late year production to drop. Andersson, having seen the youngster in the early half of the season, noted that his numbers were despite his line mates rather than helped by them, his fast passing hands often duping his slower paced colleagues.
“There were times he’d (Samuelsson) make plays and his winger wasn’t even close to being ready for the puck. He’d be looking somewhere else with his stick up in the air and there was the puck, in front of him, and the net was wide open.”
The head scout was of the opinion that Jesper Samuelsson was gifted with great hockey intelligence and a telepathic ability to find open players, perhaps a good winger short of thirty more points in division 1. Still an extraordinarily raw talent, with good hands and reasonable skating, Samuelsson is keyed in at a low level of competition for a draftee. Worse still, with a stature hardly suited to an NHL center man prospect, Samuelsson was recently diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Having fought with intense training regimes, the Swede was finding he would put on muscle and bulk for a little while, then his stomach would go bad causing him to lose weight and ice time. Nevertheless with a good prognosis and the future guidance of a Detroit Red Wings dietitian at Prospect camp, Samuelsson will be well on his way to recovering his peak fitness which will be a boon having finished his final year with the Timra juniors.
Heading up to the Swedish elite division, the Eliteserien, will be the biggest jump in Samuelsson’s career, as many perceive the quality gulf amongst the largest in European systems. Zetterberg managed to post 46 points in 47 games in his first year in the Timra pro team and it will be interesting to see how Samuelsson fairs when paired with more competent teammates.
At this point it would be worth remembering that Zetterberg served 2 full seasons in Timra never averaging more than a point a game. In fact his production dropped in his second season before being brought into the Red Wings lineup.
Andersson summarizes Samuelsson potential as a little more than solid player who has the intelligence to take him to another level, to compete with the tempo and strength of the Eliteserien and beyond.
A complete unknown to this point, Samuelsson would not be the first Red Wing to jump from curiosity to star on the advice of Hakan Andersson.
The OHL was the toast of the Draft 2008 in terms of a feeder league for juniors. With 47 players selected overall including 11 in the first round, the OHL ousted its nearest rival in draft steaks, the WHL, by a full 9 selections.
There is little wonder when you look at the pedigree coming out of the league, Stamkos, Doughty, Bogosian and Pietrangelo went 1-4 in the overall selections and with Tavares expected to top the draft next year the future looks bright for the Ontario Hockey League.
Indeed Stamkos posted a more than handy 58 goals and 47 assists for 105 points in 61 appearances last year with the Sarnia Sting, whilst the underling, Tavares, who missed out on this years draft by a mere 5 days of birth, tallied 40 goals and 78 assists for 118 points for the Oshawa Generals. Undoubtedly exceptional numbers and yet both were eclipsed, at least in the overall points column, by one man.
Justin Azevedo was the second oldest draftee from the OHL ranks, passed up twice for drafting having become eligible in 2006, Azevedo headed into the 2008 draft completely unranked by Central Scouting outside of the top 210 North American Skaters. Uninspiring you would think for a player who finished up his junior career with 43 goals and 81 assists for 124 points in 67 games with the Kitchener Rangers.
Paired alongside Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk, both younger and both drafted in 2007, the Kitchener Rangers top line were unstoppable in the regular season winning the Hamilton Spectator Trophy, before dominating in the playoffs and winning the J. Ross Robertson going all the way to the Memorial Cup Final, but the success was predominated by a single figure, Azevedo.
Collecting the Red Tilson Trophy for the OHL’s most outstanding player, he added the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the OHL’s scoring leader, the Ed Chynoweth Trophy as the Memorial Cup top scorer, the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award for the most outstanding player in the OHL playoffs as well as the CHL Player of the Year and CHL Top Scorer Award. With a single season hardware collection like that how was it that Azevedo had been passed up twice, only to be finally selected in 2008 153rd overall by the Los Angeles Kings?
For Central Scouting and GM’s alike there is one word “size,” listed anywhere between five foot six and five foot eight. When the NHL completed their draft Azevedo went down listed slap bang in the middle, five foot seven, the shortest player drafted and a factor that has underpinned his entire career and overshadowed the numbers and accolades the West Lorne, Ontario native has put up in recent years.
In fact Azevedo’s whole hockey makeup is something of a quandary; described as “small” and “knock-kneed,” he is generally seen as a fairly slow, poor skater with a weak shot, hardly the attributes of a five foot seven CHL player of the Year. However aside from his two noted strengths, superb acceleration and puck handling, Azevedo is distinguished by a tremendous work ethic, intelligence and heart that has helped him become a modest team leader and overcome his physical disadvantages.
When asked about his prospects coming into his final year of eligibility, Azevedo answered:
“I think you’ve got to prove yourself no matter where you go. I am a smaller guy and I’ve been trying to prove to everybody that I can play at a higher level my whole life growing up. It’s nothing new to me”
Azevedo is clearly blessed with a maturity beyond his years and a raw offensive awareness that his small stocky frame belies. Unfazed by the constant questions over his size and his draft status, Azevedo lists five foot nine and undrafted Martin St.Louis as the hockey player he most looks up too.
Still the naysayers believe that Azevedo does not possess the physicality, albeit a 183 pound frame, to take the punishment of the NHL, a belief fuelled by Justin Azevedo’s time at the Atlanta Thrashers Prospect Camp in 2007 that he described as “disappointing.” Some point to his high draft stock linemates as the secret to his success or the strength of the Kitchener Rangers as a whole, yet Azevedo continued producing when his star teammates succumbed to long term injuries and was the most consistent offensive leader on an fantastic team. The small Hispanic hockey player has been defying the odds his entire career, too finally see an NHL team take a chance with him must have felt like a great payoff for the season he had and provided a clear goal and target for a young man who has made a career out of reaching his goals, a potential surprise from the Kings draft school of 2008? Azevedo recognizes there is work to be done on his skating and shooting along with his two way play but his foot is well and truly on the NHL ladder.
From the shortest player in the draft, too the tallest and you would be forgiven for thinking that would be 6’7” 12th overall selection Tyler Myers. But you would be wrong. Look down into the depths of the fourth round and a relatively unknown name has quite an extraordinary attribute. 6’8” and 193 pounds, Jason Missiaen is one of those players that sneak up on you, albeit in this case, metaphorically. A backup goaltender for the Peterborough Petes, Missiaen is a super massive talent and just 18 years old.
With his knees on the ice, Missiaen’s shoulders reach the height of the crossbar and subsequently trying to go high on him is a matter of impossibility designed for an age of NHL goal/goalie tinkering. Despite this, Missiaen never set out to play in goal.
“I started playing hockey when I was eight years old, but the problem was that my mom insisted that I wear the most protection possible and that’s how I became a goalie.”
Whilst hardly the stuff of legends, the Chatham, Ontario native’s fantastic growth in stature was timed astutely with his rise through the ranks of junior hockey. But in recent years his development stalled when he jumped to Major Junior with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, a team already ‘minded by Colorado Avalanche prospect and 2007 draftee Trevor Cann in a lineup exuding mediocrity.
In two years Missiaen played just 30 games, winning nine, losing fifteen and playing in one tied decision. His continued ranking in the Central Scouting evaluations seemed as much to do with his height as his propensity to face rubber. Whilst his save percentage rose from a rather meager .879 in his rookie year (1-7-0) to .911 (8-8-1) in 2007-08,’ Missiaen’s lack of game time was highlighting his drop in the top prospects charts, culminating in his name featuring as one of three top fallers in the OHL prospects come March 08.’As part of Missiaen’s summary, the write up concluded that he went to the ice too quickly negating his size whilst struggling to find pucks in and around his feet, meanwhile his large gait made him ungainly and awkward around the net with the sum total being sporadic inconsistency.
Missiaen saw his draft stock fall to 23rd in North American Goaltenders with a strong likelihood that less than 23 goalies would be called from North America and Europe combined. Considering skipping the draft altogether in light of his ranking, Missiaen was taken 116th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, the 12th goaltender of the draft, the 10th from North America and the first goalie drafted by Montreal since Carey Price in 2005. His selection came just two picks after his friend and fellow Chatham native T.J. Brodie was taken by Calgary and the Chatham party was still celebrating Brodie’s selection when Missiaen’s name was called out.
Although it later immerged that Montreal had shown some prior interest at the combine, they clearly hadn’t grasped the size of Missiaen, who upon reaching the stage was handed a Canadiens jersey that barely reached his belt buckle.
Missiaen’s draft seemed to follow in a trend of big, lanky goaltenders; whilst short goalies in the vein of Pang and Brathwiate appear to be a dying breed with size foregoing agility. Playing a hybrid style, Missiaen is no slouch with his legs and feet but with an inclination to hit the ice you would hope so. Expected to challenge Cann for the number one slot next year, Missiaen may see out his full junior eligibility before moving up too the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal’s AHL affiliate. It’s always a long game for goaltending prospects with so few big league jobs going, but you get the feeling Missiaen has been brought into the organization with a view to utilizing his size, subsequently if he can work on his all round game he has a very real shot at the NHL.
Perhaps the most emotive story to immerge from the draft was the seemingly innocuous selection of David Carle, selected in round 7, 203rd overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, however too many it was the finest moment in Ottawa last weekend.
The younger brother of San Jose’s Matt Carle, David was expected to go before the end of the third round in the weeks leading up to draft day having been touted by his brother as the better player and ranked in the top 60 skaters by Central Scouting. A defenseman like Matt, David was short on the accolades of the Hobey Baker winning older sibling, but still noted as a compact and solid defender with a fine mix of speed, presence and size.
Alaskan born Carle was invited to the draft combine having already excepted a sports scholarship to the University of Denver where Matt played. The notoriously grueling event for the top 75 ranked North American players is designed to test the junior prospects physicality, strength, endurance and general athleticism alongside their ability to play hockey whilst networking with GM’s, coaches and scouts in attendance.
With 98% of all players who attend the combine being drafted, David Carle arrived at the event having missed his graduation with the hockey world at his skates, but whilst receiving a mandatory EKG an abnormality was found in the electrical activity of his heart under sustained physical stress. Subsequently referred to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for further testing, Carle was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle which can cause sudden, fatal, cardiac arrest attributed to “Sudden Death Syndrome” in young athletes.
In an instant a promising career was ended and on receiving the news Carle said:
“I just lost it and had a good cry. ... The doctor came in, and I was pretty shell-shocked at first. After a few hours passed, you can step back and evaluate it, and move forward. I’m really quite fortunate they were able to find it. I’ve still got a long life ahead of me. I have a lot to look forward to and a lot of opportunities ahead of me”Amazingly mature for the former Shattuck-Saint Mary’s blueliner, an 18 year old just deprived of his life’s dream. But such a write up would be glib, Carle retains the hope of future opportunities and was later informed that the University of Denver would honor his scholarship allowing the youngster to move on from his NHL disappointment and work towards new goals supported by a top class education. Denver coach George Gwozdecky, a friend of the Carle’s from his time working with Matt, has even extended the scholarship to allow David too work with the Pioneers hockey team in some capacity.
With that act of good faith at a desperate time in a youngster’s life, the story could end on a little high; however David Carle’s story doesn’t end there.
The day prior to the draft, David Carle had to take the rending step of informing all 30 NHL organizations that he would not be available, removing his name from draft consideration and retiring from hockey. After all the work he had put in to get this far, Carle was sure never to get the recognition and as pick 202 rolled by and the draft winded down, the Tampa Bay Lightning stepped up to make their final selection.
Carle had come to the event in support of his Shattuck teammates David Toews and Derek Stepan who were shoe-ins for the draft and had long been selected when D.Carle slid up onto the board and Tampa announced they would be taking the young man as their final draftee at the behest of owner Oren Kroules, whose son attends Shattuck-Saint Mary’s.
After the event Kroules phoned the taken aback draftee.
“The owner called me and just kind of explained to me why they did it. He just told me that I worked too hard, that I worked my entire life to be drafted, and he didn’t really see why I shouldn’t be. (He said) that I deserved it, and he wanted that to always be by my name.”
Kroules, who has made a name for himself as one of the leagues off-the-wall owners, said he wanted the organization to be seen as making the right decisions and that Carle’s selection was a mutual agreement amongst the organization. Nevertheless with the money and business that surrounds the NHL; to surrender a prospect to honor the work and effort of a youngster and allow him to partly accomplish his goals is a beautiful and savvy gesture which is bound to sway the neutral.
An undeniably classy move that will in some small way soften the tremendous blow Carle has taken so calmly, he can now move on assured that his name will forever be in NHL record books.