The Maple Leafs winger talks about growing up in Manitoba, working for his dad, making the WHL and getting drafted into the NHL.
With Kevin Kennedy
First time I ever skated was pretty much right after I learned how to stand on my own two feet. My parents strapped on skates and flooded the front yard and that was it. I’ve seen photos of me pushing around a stool back in my hometown of High Bluff, Manitoba.
I think I got into hockey because my brother played, the neighbours all played, pretty much the whole town played. Where I’m from it’s all hockey, a little baseball I guess, but no football or basketball or anything like that.
My dad had a crop dusting business growing up and so I was kind of his hired help there. Just labor work; I fueled the planes, mixed chemicals, and he paid me pretty well. I always had some kind of job. I did a year-and-a-half stint at McDonalds when I was 15 in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. While I was in junior, I worked at a restaurant and did some bussing and serving, that kind of stuff.
My parents were always the type of people who gave me everything I needed, but not everything I wanted. If I really wanted something, my dad would always say, “well, there’s always a job here for ya.” If I wanted something, I had to work for it. It was a good life lesson.
When I was young, the Brandon Wheat Kings were like the coolest thing and if you made it to the WHL you were a local hero. That was the moon for us. Once I started seeing buddies getting drafted to the WHL, I was like “oh boy, I can take a run at this.” The NHL was so distant at that point.
I was drafted by the Kelowna Rockets in 2002 and I played with guys like Shea Weber, Blake Comeau and eventually Luke Schenn who joined the team when he was 15 and I was a 20-year old, so I kind of took him under my wing. We had a tight knit group of guys. I improved my game every year in junior and that was thanks to the Kelowna staff who never stopped pushing my development.
In particular the GM, Bruce Hamilton, always felt I would be a good player and always believed in me. I owe a lot to Bruce and also Lorne Frey, the head of scouting, they were great to me and when I was 17 I remember the coach didn’t really want to keep me on the team, but Bruce said “you’re keeping this kid.”
I was drafted by the Oilers in the ninth round and I had a slow start in that organization and eventually got picked up by the Anaheim Ducks. That’s where I got my first shot in the NHL playing for Randy Carlyle. I remember the day I got called up I was down in Des Moines, Iowa with the Ducks’ farm team. The team was dealing with a ton of injuries; we literally had the first two lines of forwards go down. So I got the opportunity to play more and I took it upon myself to take the opportunity and run with it. I started playing better and then even more guys got hurt and some got traded. I figured I’d be the next one to go, but one day during practice I saw the coach talking to the GM just off the ice. I kind of looked at him and he looked at me and I immediately thought “oh boy, this could be it.” The next night I was in the lineup in Pittsburgh.