The Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman talks about growing up in Alaska, going to the University of Denver and his NHL draft experience.
With Kevin Kennedy
My parents made me take skating lessons long before I ever played any kind of organized hockey. I remember being out there with a skating coach for those first couple years and the rink was in a mall back in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. I played there for a couple years before I got into competitive hockey.
I have some great memories from minor hockey tournaments and I remember one in particular was called the Silver Stick. I was in the Myte age group and we had to win a local tournament around Christmas time in order to get in to it. The main tournament was in Michigan somewhere, I think just outside of Detroit and that was our first big road trip as a team and for me as a hockey player. I think we were only about seven or eight years old and I remember Nate Thompson and Joey Crabb were also on the team. It was a good little team and it’s kind of funny that we all made it to the NHL.
Any time I was on a hockey trip from when I was eight until I left home around 15, they were always a big deal. Being in Alaska, a lot of our trips were by airplane, which was awesome, and you get to miss school which is was also a bonus when you were a kid.
I didn’t really do anything else besides hockey because I think when the off-season came for me, it was also the off-season for my parents. I had buddies who played soccer and baseball, but I never really got in to those sports and being in Alaska the summers were so short anyway. We had a cabin on a lake and I pretty much spent my summers going on fishing trips and messing around in the water. Eventually I was playing in tournaments in the summer and playing hockey year round.
When I wasn’t playing hockey or in school, I worked for my dad. He owned six or seven KFC franchises and so I worked in the main warehouse from the time I was about eight or nine years old until I left home, that’s what I did for work and I helped pay for my hockey equipment.
Every year I remember we’d get a new hockey stick and I specifically remember those Gretzky Easton aluminums. The first time I got one of those it felt like a piece of steel and I was a little guy and couldn’t flex it at all. That’s one thing that sticks out for me.
I was fortunate enough to get invited to play with the US national program when I was 15 and I went and played there for a couple years. After that, I had one year left in high school so I went and played for a season in the in the USHL in Omaha and then went on to the University of Denver before getting drafted by the San Jose Sharks.
Playing in the national program you get a lot of exposure so I had a good idea that I would be going to a school with a good hockey program. I wanted to play in the WCHA because I knew there were two schools in that division based in Alaska so I could go home and play in front of my friends and family, so I chose the University of Denver.
On draft day, I was actually there in the building because my family advisor, now my agent, had set up some meetings with a few teams. He was on the phone all day with GMs trying to get a sense of where I was going to go and he told us I’d probably go somewhere in the first three rounds. I had a bunch of buddies who were there also so we had some fun and I ended up going in the second round. I went in to it thinking that if I just got drafted it would be great and it was a real shock to go in the second round.
In my junior year in Denver, my season ended pretty quickly and we didn’t make the national tournament so I decided to leave school and sign my contract. I had a week off since my last game and you already don’t play a ton of games in college so I think I practiced with the team for a good week. Then one day one of the players came down with the flu and I ended up getting into the lineup. I still have the game sheet from that night.
We were up 4-1 and I ended up getting out there in the dying seconds and I scored a goal and from then on I was in and out of the lineup until the end of the season when I was pretty much in full time. My partner in that game was Kyle Mclaren, which was great because I’m a smaller more offensive guy and he was a physical defensive veteran.
That game was a real eye opener. Even to this day, I don’t take any game for granted. Any given night you get to play in front of 20,000 people and do what you love for a living. It’s a dream come true. I’ve played over 500 games now and they’re all special.