by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
From the moment they first step on the ice, every kid playing hockey has, at one point, dreamed a dream of throwing on the jersey of their hometown NHL team. They can lead their youth or amateur program in goals, or post shutout after shutout, but the harsh reality is that a very small percentage of players actually make it to the pro levels of the sport. But as always, there are exceptions to every rule.
Joey Hishon is one of those exceptions.
Naming Colorado Avalanche legend Joe Sakic as one of his favorite players growing up, Hishon donned the burgundy and blue at the end of last season during an emergency recall in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It was a Wednesday, and I was told I’d be playing on Thursday in Minnesota,” Hishon recalled. “It happened really quick, which I think was good for me because I didn’t really have too much time to overthink it. I just kind of got thrown into the fire. It was a lot of fun.”
The 23-year-old native of Stratford, Ont., had been skating with the black aces, and eventually made his NHL debut in Game 4 of the Avalanche’s series against the Minnesota Wild. He netted his first career NHL point three games later, recording the primary assist on a Jamie McGinn goal in an eventual 5-4 overtime loss to the Wild in Game 7.
One of the final cuts from this season’s training camp in Colorado, Hishon spent the majority of the preseason skating between Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and winger Alex Tanguay. The opportunity to center that line, however briefly, was something that has continued to carry Hishon into his current season with Colorado’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters.
“It’s so easy to play when you’re playing with guys like that,” Hishon said. “Any time you’re open, you get the puck, and any time you have the puck and you think you’re in trouble, they’re open. They’re always in the right spot. For me to get that experience in training camp was amazing.”
After suffering a concussion during the 2011 Memorial Cup tournament, Hishon, who was selected 17th overall by Colorado in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, was sidelined from the game for 22 months. He skated in nine games with Lake Erie at the end of the 2012-13 season, finally making his professional debut on March 19, 2013, and returned for a full season in 2013-14, scoring 10 goals and 24 points despite missing 26 more games due to injury.
Understandably describing those months away as the “hardest time of [his] life,” Hishon learned early what some players may learn late: Stay focused and stay hungry, because the game can be taken from you in an instant.
“I think after everything that happened, and also with the opportunity he had at the end of last season, [it] gives him a taste of what it takes,” said Monsters head coach Dean Chynoweth. “He knew he still had a lot of work ahead of him, and he set that in motion in the summer with training differently than he had in the previous years. Hopefully that will be good in the end in the sense of him getting what he wants.”
This year’s training camp earned Hishon nothing but praise and potential in the eyes of Colorado, something that can help boost any young player, though he is wary.
“It’s good to hear all that stuff, but you can’t become complacent and let it get to your head,” he said. “You’ve always have to be working hard.”
Chynoweth notes Hishon’s offensive prowess, especially his creativeness with the puck, and his ability to see the ice at a different level than many of his peers. But like any young player trying to crack the NHL, his development in the AHL becomes key.
“He still needs to work on his game like most of the guys at this level,” said Chynoweth. “The big difference when you get to the next level is whether you can play defense. Joey’s aware of that [and] it’s an area of his game that he’s had to work at and continues to work at.”
At 5-foot-10, Hishon stands on the smaller side of pro hockey players, and knows that being hard to play against defensively is a big part of his game that he needs to bring to every practice and to every game.
“I think it has a lot to do with my intensity and my compete level,” he said. “That’s something that always has to be up, and when I’m playing well and playing well defensively, I’m playing hard and competing hard. Because I’m a smaller guy, being tough to play against and being very competitive is important.”
Like most players who get the chance to play professionally, the biggest change from juniors or college to pro goes beyond the size and speed of the players, and beyond the level of hockey IQ. For many, if not all, the consistency of the veterans is something that will be commented on time and time again. There are no off days in professional hockey, no chance to lay back and maybe not skate as hard one day for whatever reason.
Hishon’s brief time with Colorado last year only reinforced what he already knew, adding fuel to a fire that starting burning years ago at an early morning practice in a darkened Ontario rink.
“It’s definitely something I’ve always dreamed of doing and wanted to do, but it’s a very hard league to make, and even harder league to stick in,” he said. “It definitely takes a lot of work but it was worth it for the three games I played, and that’s my goal: To get back there permanently.”