The current Dallas Star talks about growing up playing in Mooretown Arena, the most influential coaches he's had, making the OHL and, finally, getting his first taste of NHL action.
With Kevin Kennedy
Played my first hockey at Mooretown Arena, which is in my hometown, about 45 minutes south of Sarnia, Ontario. I’m the youngest of three boys and my older brothers were all playing hockey so I just figured it was the thing to do. I just tried to do whatever they did.
My dad coached my older two brothers, but he was never my coach. They were only a year apart in age so they just played on the same team, so it made sense for him to coach that team. He helped out on a couple of my teams, but I think he liked not being the head coach. When you have one of your parents as the coach there always seems to be more drama and politics and he kind of liked being on the sidelines for my team.
There were two coaches that really helped me when I was younger, Billy Smith and Derek Dimuzio. I had great junior coaches as well, like Craig Hartsburg, but those were the two when I was growing up that really had a good impression on me.
After winning our league, I remember going to the All-Ontario Championship in Ottawa when we were in peewee. That was the first time I’d gone on a big hockey road trip and I remember everybody car-pooled up and we stayed there for a week. It’s still a big part of my hockey memories.
What I really appreciated as a kid was my parents’ approach to sports. They never made me play hockey all year round and they’d let me take the summers off and play something different. A lot of kids I knew got burned out playing 12 months of the year and I remember that when September would roll around I’d be super pumped to lace up the skates again.
My only real job before turning pro was roofing houses. It’s not a fun job. You make good money, but it’s tough work and it really makes me appreciate what I do now.
I got drafted to the IceDogs and moved to Mississauga when I was in grade 11. I billeted with a great family there, John and Carol, and I still keep in touch with them. They had a son who was a year older than me so I kind of had a brother while I was there. We’re still very close. They just made the experience easy for me. It’s not easy moving away from home at that age. I actually had two great billets. I got traded to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario and had great billets there as well. They make it so much better. It can really change your experience.
I never really thought the NHL was a possibility until I actually got here. After my first year of junior, I tore my ACL and got traded and didn’t get picked my first time through the draft. I ended up getting drafted late my second time through the draft and then I had a great camp in Pittsburgh. They signed me and sent me back to junior. I played one more season there and then went to join the AHL team for the playoffs.
We lost that year in the Calder Cup final, but it was a great introduction to pro hockey. The next year I got called up for the first time. We had just got back from Christmas break and we had a Boxing Day practice back in Wilkes-Barre. That night, I found out at 9 p.m. that I was playing the next day in New Jersey. It was an afternoon game so I called my parents and they drove all night to New Jersey from Sarnia. They followed the team back to Pittsburgh and were able to watch two more games while I was up.
I remember I was awful in the faceoff dot that first game. I was like 0-10. I was up against Bobby Holik and John Madden all game and it was brutal. On the bright side, I got in to 14 games that season and was able to stay with the team through the playoffs, all the way to the Stanley Cup.