Seated just a few feet to his left in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room is Darcy Tucker, a rugged winger like Ondrus who has blossomed into one of the team’s top offensive players later in his career. It’s been a long road for Tucker, who often had to fill the role of a fourth line energy player while trying to become a regular with the Montreal Canadiens 10 years ago.
“I did whatever I could do to stay in the league . . . when I first came in,” Tucker said Tuesday before the Leafs played the Ottawa Senators. “The first priority is to make it to the National Hockey League.”
Ondrus, undrafted after being deemed undersized, knows that well.
After finishing his junior career with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, he had few options and enrolled at the University of Alberta. However, Ondrus didn’t get the chance to attend many classes before the Leafs signed him to an AHL tryout.
Three years later he seems to be on the verge of breaking through to the NHL.
“You train your whole life to get a chance like this,” said Ondrus, a 24-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta. “When you look back on it, there were a lot of guys (in junior) that were just as good as you or maybe even a little better.
“I’m fortunate enough to be here. I just want to stick here as long as I can.”
It speaks to how fragile the life of a professional hockey player can be. Those who get a taste of the big time simply want to hold onto it as long as possible.
Tucker, whose resume features nearly 700 NHL games, has done a better job than most. Like Ondrus, he grew up in Alberta and played in the WHL.
And like Ondrus, there were questions about his size – Tucker is generously listed at five foot 10 while Ondrus is said to be six foot.
They’ve had to make up for that by excelling in other areas, which is something Ondrus has learned by watching Tucker.
“If I can take anything from him, it’s his work ethic,” said Ondrus. “I want to copy that.”
He might also want to eventually follow Tucker’s career path.
The pesky winger showed a more complete game last season when he had a career-high 28 goals. Tucker has backed it up by scoring another seven in Toronto’s first nine games this season.
He is one of the team’s clear leaders and just happens to be in the final year of a contract that is paying him US$1.6 million this season.
Carlos Sosa, Tucker’s agent, took in the Leafs morning skate Tuesday and sat alongside GM John Ferguson. They’re trying to negotiate a new deal to keep Tucker with the team he has played for since February 2000.
“I’m not only a big fan of the team, I’m also very lucky to play with the hockey club,” said Tucker. “Hopefully that can continue to happen.”
Ondrus, making $450,000, is thinking the same thing.
You can count coach Paul Maurice among those who believe it can happen. While Ondrus was recovering from a bruised knee early in the season, Maurice was asked if he thought the young forward had what it took to be a full-time NHLer.
“Yes, I’ve got no doubt,” he replied flatly.
Ondrus is a physical player and a good skater. He doesn’t get many minutes while playing on the fourth line with Bates Battaglia and John Pohl so he has to be ready to go whenever he is called upon.
The unit knows its role well.
“I think when we get out there we have to get on the forecheck,” said Ondrus. “We’re going to finish our checks and drive the net.
“I think our role is providing energy and some extra jump on the ice.”
Ondrus claims to have trained himself to be able to summon energy every time he is on the ice even when he has to wait a long time between shifts.
It’s more difficult than it sounds and it might be one small reason why he’s been able to advance to this level.
Defenceman Ian White, who played with Ondrus in Swift Current as well as the AHL, doesn’t think there’s much secret to his friend’s success.
“He never gives up and that’s what coaches want,” said White. “No one deserves to be where he is more than Benny.
“He’s worked real hard to get to this level – harder than a lot of guys have to.”