Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

It gives a whole new meaning to summer camp

Among the many shiny, happy ways I am filling the dark days of the off season is keeping track of all the cool things the Portland Winterhawks are up to this summer. For those drafted by the NHL, it means development camp and media interviews and what not. For a select few, it will mean an additional trip to the World Junior development camps. Younger players like Josh Hanson, Brendan Leipsic and Derrick Pouliot have already secured a spot or will be vying for a chance to play in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which involves the chance to travel to the Europe and represent their country in an international competition. I’m happy for them, but I must admit that keeping track of the Rose City’s rising stars made me wonder what the heck I was doing at their age and why didn’t it involve playing hockey and/or a $900,000 entry level contract? Because not everyone is meant to become an overnight sensation at 18 and not everyone gets to hear their name called on draft day. Which made me realize that the road to adulthood is not unlike the road to the NHL. Well, except maybe the NHL pays better.

I think it might have something to do with this: I grew up in Arizona, where you can’t go to outdoor summer camp because you’ll burst into flames. And there certainly weren’t any hockey rinks that actually functioned long enough to play on a junior hockey team for any substantial period of time. And mind, this was in the dark ages before the Phoenix Coyotes came to town. Summer happened in shopping malls, grocery stores, movies and pretty much anything else with air conditioning. But you could go outside at night, where the prime form of recreational activity in exciting downtown Tucson in the 70s was miniature golf. Those were my choices: watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the special kids’ matinee or putting a little golf ball into a giant windmill with a club that was taller than me. Not exactly the place to breed an NHL future. But at least I grew up to be taller than a golf club.

But really, it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going that matters: A good majority of the Winterhawks’ roster is keeping busy with one form of training camp or another this summer. Along with it, they are doing interviews, training to get stronger or faster for the upcoming season and occasionally, pursuing the recreational activity of their choice. If it happens to be Nino Niederreiter, recreational activity involves a little bit of everything. If they are Joe Morrow and Sven Bartschi then it’s off to the big time for development camps in Pittsburgh and Calgary and then on to World Junior development camps. Also off to NHL development camp were Mac Carruth (drafted 181st overall by Chicago in 2010) and my player to watch, Taylor Peters (currently an undrafted free agent who was invited to spend quality time this summer with the Minnesota Wild). Other future NHL draftees to keep an eye on are Josh Hanson, who just made the US Team for the Ivan Hlinka tournament, and Derrick Pouliot and Brendan Leipsic, who will be vying for a spot on Team Canada roster in the same tournament. Traveling the world and playing hockey at 18 is any hockey fan’s dream and the boys are living it. Which made me wonder:

What in the heck was I doing at their age?: In a sign of things to come, I was working the counter at a video store that was next to what is now the Winterhawks’ Skating Center. It was the summer of 1986, so there were still beta tapes for rent and everyone paid in cash. I think our manager even had an 8-track player in his car. I was getting ready for college and all the things I thought I would learn there. Little did I know all the important things I would learn about life were happening in a hockey rink somewhere far away. Which brings me to these choice tidbits for thought:

Late blooms produce prettier flowers: So, alas, my teen days were not the things young athletes’ dreams were made of. But some people are meant to bloom later in life. And some hockey players are meant to put forth their best games later in their careers. Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and Dwayne Roloson are just a few examples of what my father used to tell me when I was younger and which I didn’t get until I was in my forties: “life starts at 40.” So does really kick-ass hockey.

Everyone has to pay their dues: The young players who are signing entry-level contracts are going forth into young adulthood by making more money in one year than many of us ever will in our whole lifetimes. But everyone has to pay their dues, whether it’s in their youth or later. Many of those young boys come from families where their parents worked two jobs to pay for their hockey futures. Some, like Jaden Schwartz, have already struggled with tragedy and hardship at a young age. It’s natural to be more than a little jealous of teenagers signing astronomical deals with major sports teams. But when you hear the stories behind their six figure deals, it makes you realize that in many cases the boys have already earned them.

Every hit single has a B side: The NHL’s hip young hockey things are off signing deals and traveling everywhere and what not at a young age, but that also means that they have to grow up fast,and they had to spend a great deal of their youth living away from their families. Which might explain why some young athletes go barreling into the NHL with positively no idea of how to spend their money wisely or behave like professionals who know what a privilege it is to do what you love every day. Whether we learn later in life or we learn it in youth, you never appreciate something until you lose it. Or in this day and age, until someone uses an iPhone, Twitter or YouTube to permanently record your acts of total stupidity so you have to apologize for them in a well-rehearsed, pre-written press conference/media statement.

You never know where it will all end up: Cam Neely started out as a rookie in Portland, where he led the team to their first-ever Memorial Cup in 1983, but he never won a Stanley Cup while playing in the NHL. Flash forward to 2011, and for the first time ever he lifted the Cup when the Boston Bruins won. Dan Bylsma wasn’t exactly the Sidney Crosby of his day when he played in the NHL, but we all know what happened when he got behind Pittsburgh’s bench in 2009. You can start small and end up big. You can be the rookie on everyone’s draft list and never win the Cup. Or just take a really long time to do it. Just like life, you cannot predict where it will end up and how it will all turn out when you are 18 and signing those big fancy deals. And one thing is for sure: it never turns out like you think it will. It’s like the line in that Joni Mitchell song “Circle Game”...dreams usually lose their grandeur coming true. But that’s no excuse to abandon hope. Just be prepared for a few pit stops and potholes along the way.

Up next on 7/20: The ongoing attempt to learn about the collective bargaining agreement, notably the cap floor, salary cap and one or two-way deals. Emphasis on attempt, but I’m pretty sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com