#AHLOTB: Blue-collar Elson paying his dues

by Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat Archive

After any hockey game, the first thing fans want to do is navigate to the AHL’s website, click on the scores and check out the scoresheets.

Whether it be following your favorite team or just trying to identify tomorrow’s NHL stars by virtue of who’s scoring the most, the scoresheets don’t lie.

But do they tell the whole story?

Well, if you’re perusing the scoresheets of the Stockton Heat, one name might not necessarily be on it always — despite being one of the most exciting prospects for the Calgary Flames. That name is Turner Elson.

Elson plays a gritty, two-way game where his role on the Heat is that of a defensively responsible forward with tremendous offensive upside. He plays in all situations for the Heat, but in particular, he excels while the Heat are down a man.

It’s not always easy, but for Elson, his blue-collar game is what has always defined his career.

“I think my biggest contribution is playing hard defensively, playing hard on top lines, getting my nose dirty and getting hits; that’s what I believe I have to do every night,” Elson said. “Playing hard and being responsible in my own zone has always been my game ever since my junior days. As a guy who wasn’t drafted in junior, I was a walk-on as a 17-year-old and I had to battle just to even get on the team.”

That team Elson refers to was the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels, a team he began with in the 2009-10 season. The man who had to work hard to earn his opportunity suited up in 253 games for the Rebels, registering 151 points with a plus-46 rating. Despite being a “walk-on” Elson also served as a captain and alternate captain during his stay.

While he was passed up in the draft every year of eligibility, on Sept. 22, 2011, Elson signed a deal with the Calgary Flames, the organization he’s been with ever since, and one day, the NHL team he hopes to be a part of.

But just as he had to claw for his opportunity in junior hockey, his pro career would start the same way.

During his first full season of pro hockey in 2013-14, Elson would split his time in the AHL and ECHL, suiting up for the Abbotsford Heat and the Alaska Aces that season. In fact, Elson would be a big contributor on that Aces team that would win the Kelly Cup in 2014, an honor that continues to motivate Turner to this day.

“You see how amazing the feeling is winning a [championship] and how much work it took,” Elson explains. “To have that win under my belt makes me want the Calder Cup even more.”

Since his Kelly Cup victory, Elson has been exclusively in the AHL, playing in 59 games for the Adirondack Flames last season. After the move out west to Stockton this season, he’s played in all but one game for the Heat thus far in 2015-16.

His leadership qualities were noticed immediately by head coach Ryan Huska and his Heat coaching staff, as they handed Elson an “A” to wear on his jersey. But that wasn’t the only thing that Huska has seen from the hard working forward; Elson’s adaptability has made him a valuable commodity for the Heat.

“He is extremely versatile,” Huska said. “The skill set that he does have is underrated, but he also is a smart enough player to recognize where he is in the lineup and what’s required of him on any given night. He’s turned himself into a leader and continues to get better each day and that’s what we want to continue to see him to do.”

While Elson has found himself picking up the points recently, scoring two goals and adding two assists in his last three games, he still believes that he needs to be a strong two-way forward in order to help his team win games and eventually help make his dream come true.

“I’ve never really been a big point guy,” Elson said. “You always want to contribute in every facet of the game with goals, assists, fights, or something like that, but if I don’t go the rest of the year with a point, and I do the things I need to do out there, that is what will get me to the next level. If I’m going up to the next level being on the third or fourth line, I need to be able to play gritty, hard and play against top guys. That’s what I plan for everyday when I come to the rink, to play against the opposing team’s top guys and make their job tough.”

A team player in the truest form of the phrase, Elson — like the hundreds of other pros that play this type of role — goes unnoticed on those scoresheets all the time. But to the trained hockey eye, the value that these players bring to the team are immensely under-appreciated.

An example of this can be found from a teammate of Elson’s last year, Micheal Ferland. Ferland, whose path in pro also took him through the ECHL, made his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames last season after proving at the AHL level his willingness to play physical and defensively responsible.

During the Flames’ Stanley Cup Playoff run last spring, Ferland was a huge contributor in the opening-round win over the Vancouver Canucks, and for Elson, he paid attention.

“It really motivated me seeing Ferland do so well last year,” Elson explained. “He’s a great teammate and great guy and proved that there’s so many different ways to make it to the NHL. You don’t have to be a point guy and you don’t have to be a guy who just blocks shots. There are so many areas of the game that can get you to the NHL and that’s what makes it exciting when you see guys like him make it. I’d love to do what he does for Calgary.”

For Stockton fans who’ve already seen players like Markus Granlund, Derek Grant and Jakub Nakladal get the call to Calgary, seeing a blue-collar guy — who plays a lot like the way the people of his new city go about their everyday life — make his dream come true and follow in the footsteps of so many before him would be validation of the hard work and effort Elson’s put in.

One such teammate who believes Elson is on his way to greatness is Heat captain Aaron Johnson, who’s a 291-game NHL veteran.

“As a guy that’s been there, it’s the work ethic that gets you to the next level,” Johnson said. “Whether you have the skill or not, a lot of the time they’re looking for a guy that is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the next level. Turner has proven that he’s one of those guys. You can see it in game situations, he’s a guy that would dive in front of a puck or fight someone if needed. He’ll do it not just for himself to get to the next level, but also for his team.”

Everyone loves the underdog story, and Turner Elson’s path demonstrates how hard work can be rewarded and how he hopes that eventually the reward comes in the form of his NHL debut.

But it’s not only the work he puts in that makes Elson a likable guy on the ice. The young man has his head on straight and knows how lucky he is to have even the chance to play pro hockey.

“Every day I come to the rink, I feel blessed that I’m in pro hockey in the American Hockey League,” Elson said. “I want to just work hard to stay here and keep pushing to try and get to the next level. The NHL is every kid’s dream so I don’t know how you can’t have the motor going every time you step on the ice.”

An under-appreciated role player, someone who might not be on the scoresheet every night, does just that: gives it his all, every shift. The work ethic, skill and attitude are there. All Elson is waiting for is that opportunity.

But as the Flames organizational philosophy goes, “Always earned, never given.” For Elson, that opportunity could be earned sooner rather than later.