As Bryan Rust skated slowly towards me, everything slowed down….
It’s kind of how I have treated my hockey journey. I would recommend that the average player should not rush their development.
I grew up in the hockey hotbed of Toronto, in the suburb of Oakville. I started skating when I was 2 ½ and started playing organized hockey when I was 5. I was a pretty small kid. My dad put me in power skating once a week, with a bunch of my friends, and that really helped me develop my skating. Looking back now, I figure with games, practices, tournaments, and power skating I was on the ice about 100 times per year. There was nothing I would rather be doing. I had a passion for the game early and I have never lost it.
I played for the Oakville Rangers for most of my minor hockey career, except for two years when I was 9 and 10 and went to the Greater Toronto Hockey League, where I played against players such as Tyler Seguin, Jeffrey Skinner and Devante Smith-Pelly. Being one of the smallest players, I had to develop my hands and hockey IQ. That would benefit me greatly later on but I also always enjoyed the physical part of the game despite my size.
We went to 4 or 5 tournaments a year and, as many of you readers can remember from your hockey childhood, those were the most fun. Playing mini sticks in the hotel hallways and burning holes in your sweat pant knees is every minor hockey players fondest memory. We went to Detroit, Montreal, Sudbury, among other cities. I played in summer tournaments with an American team, the Tri-State Stars under Mark Lotito, the New Jersey Hitman coach who lived in Staten Island. Those were a blast because we played in the popular Chowder Cup in Boston and he got American players from all over the place and I couldn’t understand their accents.
The OHL drafts 300 15 year olds from Ontario to play in their league. Despite the fact I think I had the skills to play in the OHL, at 5’6, 133 lbs., I was not drafted. Honestly, I really wasn’t too disappointed as right around that time, my hockey team went on a trip to visit Clarkson University. Wow, was I impressed. Growing up in Toronto, the popular path was major junior and I didn’t really follow College hockey a ton but I came back from that weekend determined to play Division I College hockey. It was my type of game. Players were flying all over the ice, showing great skating, passing, and shooting skills but what hit me the most was that the arena was electric. That was a very monumental weekend for me.
I always had the mindset that there was no rush to play at the next level. A lot of players, I believe, make that mistake. After my Minor Midget year, a lot of guys were scrambling to get on Provincial Tier II teams, either to set themselves up to get a scholarship, or to get bigger and stronger to play in the OHL. I spoke to a couple of teams, but I just figured I would get more ice time and development if I played Midget for a year. I was still small and, at 16, I didn’t think it would help playing against 20 year olds all the time. It turned out to be a good decision and I played with two players that had come back from OHL camps and we had a great year. The Oakville Midget Rangers were 2nd in the Province and I was an AP player (meaning I was able to play 10 games with them in a season) with the Tier II Georgetown Raiders under coach James Richmond. It meant I could practice with the team as well, so that year, I was probably on the ice 6 times per week and practicing with 20 year olds, while playing with players my own age.
I was hoping to catch on with the Georgetown Raiders the next year, and fortunately Coach Richmond asked me to play on the team full time.
And then something miraculous happened. I grew almost 3 ½ inches that summer! When I went to the Raider training camp in August, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t the smallest player on the ice anymore.
We went to an exhibition tournament in Vermont called the Woodchuck Tournament and that’s where I first met Jerry Forton, the Asst. Coach at UMass Lowell. I went for a visit in the fall, and after doing some homework, I figured Hockey East would be a good spot for me. In January of that year, UMass Lowell gave me a commitment. They said they didn’t want me until what would be 1 year after high school. While some players insist on being a natural freshman, I, once again, decided that it would be in my best interest to have another year of development before I played in such a prestigious conference like Hockey East so I played another year of Tier II in Georgetown.
The fall of the next year, in 2010 (I was 18 then), I got to play in the World Junior Challenge in Penticton, British Columbia. It was an honor to be able to put on the Team Canada jersey and play international hockey. It was there that I first met the western scouts for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They simply gave me their business cards and said I had played well during the tournament. When the June 2011 draft came up, I figured in my second year of eligibility I would not be drafted. So I went to my summer job at a local nursery and around 2pm during a break, my phone started buzzing like crazy. I had been drafted #209, 7th round, to the Pittsburgh Penguins! It was surreal as I had never been on any “Prospect Player list” ever. Not on the OHL potential draft list. Not on any NHL potential draft list.
The next fall, I went to UMass Lowell. It was tough going so far from home, but I knew it was the place for me. The team had struggled the year before so the rookies got a chance to play and in key situations. I was put on a line with my roommate, Terrence Wallin, and we had a really successful first year. We made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993, made it in all three of my years at school and were lucky enough to win two Hockey East Championships. After my second year, I thought about turning pro but, once again, I really believed I needed another year of college and another year to get bigger and stronger under the tutelage of strength coach, Devan McConnell. Coach Norm Bazin gave me lots of opportunity to play various roles.
After my third year, I signed with Pittsburgh and spent some time in Wilkes Barre before being called up by the Pittsburgh Penguins, a lifelong dream.
I really believe that by never rushing myself to get to the next level greatly helped me in my overall development.
So when Bryan Rust skated slowly towards me and handed me the Stanley Cup in Nashville…I was ready…..