by Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat
Every hockey player dreams of it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Pee Wee, Junior B or Major Junior, everyone wants to hear their name announced on draft day.
It doesn’t happen for everyone though, as Heat defenseman Kayle Doetzel found out after not being selected during his draft eligibility years.
“The first year is tough,” Doetzel said. “Thoughts creep into your head about ‘maybe I’m not good enough’ or ‘maybe this is the end for me’. You don’t see your name on Central Scouting and you have to tell yourself ‘ok I’ve got work to do’.”
Similar to Doetzel, Heat forward Ryan Lomberg watched drafts go by without his name called, and while disappointed, knew there was work he needed to put in to achieve his dream.
“I remember the very second after the draft ended,” Lomberg said. “I knew I didn’t get selected and right then I put my foot down and was going to do something about it.”
“I was going to work as hard as I could to get noticed.”
Work. A similar thought that both players had during their “aha moment”. However, that wasn’t the only common words used when describing what needed to come next.
Both players would describe their next step using words and phrases like “motivation”, “support system” and “something to prove”.
With Lomberg he didn’t have to wait too long in order to have an opportunity as he would sign an American Hockey League deal with the Stockton Heat on September 4, 2015 after attending the Calgary Flames Developmental Camp that summer.
As for Doetzel, he began last summer with a tryout offer from the Edmonton Oilers and played through their camp and through to the Penticton Young Stars Classic, an annual tournament pitting prospects and tryout players of the Flames, Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.
Doetzel was told it’d be an uphill battle making the Oilers AHL team in Bakersfield based on the number of defenseman they already had and eventually would be released in hopes of snatching up another opportunity.
He’d join the Stockton Heat camp and ink his first pro deal with the club on October 5, but he learned quickly that if he wanted to stay, he’d have to go back to the thoughts he had on his final day of draft eligibility.
Work to do.
“I used not being drafted as a motivation for me,” Doetzel said. “Looking at players that were drafted and then looking at myself, I felt with my work ethic, and if I put my head to it, I could make it. Now, every day when I come to practice I feel like I still have something to prove.”
The feeling of continuously having to prove themselves is something that Heat Head Coach Ryan Huska has seen in his near 700 games coaching in the Western Hockey League and the AHL.
“I think you have to continually prove to people that you not only belong but that you can excel and that you deserve an NHL contract,” Huska explains. “I think that feeling gets ingrained in a guy because they continue to have to prove to everyone they belong, and that they can contribute.”
“I think that’s probably why you see these guys that are always coming to the rink everyday feeling like this has to be a great day to continue to get my chance.”
And he’s seen it first-hand. Flames forward Garnet Hathawaygrew up as an undrafted player through Coach Huska in Adirondack and in Stockton.
Huska watched Hathaway earn his NHL contract with the Flames on April 13, 2015 after a 36-point season with the Adirondack Flames in 2014-15.
He saw him earn his first call-up and NHL game on February 29, 2016. He has also seen that he may never be seeing Garnet in Stockton again after Hathaway has spent the majority of this season on the Flames roster.
But he stills sees Hathaway’s impact on guys like Lomberg and Doetzel.
“I see in both, similar traits to that of Garnet and the one that stands out to me is that they bring the same every night,” Huska said. “I think because they’re on edge where they always feel they have to fight for their lives, that they come prepared and ready to be consistent with the effort they bring to the table.”
It’s not only similar traits that Huska sees, but also sees the value of Hathaway’s situation as motivation for the undrafted Doetzel and Lomberg.
“They see a guy who’s been in a similar situation by putting in the work your dreams can come true,” Huska said. “These guys see that Garnet took an AHL deal to start with but found a way to earn an NHL contract in the same organization and it gives them the added motivation, and I think more importantly, a belief that by doing things the right way your parent team will take notice and eventually earn yourself something more than an American League contract.”
Lomberg knows he was lucky to see Hathaway in the locker room for parts of the last two seasons. Not only did he take away the good habits of taking care of yourself on and off the ice, how hard you have to work in practice and in games, but also describes Hathaway, just in his second full season pro, as a player he could confide in.
“I can’t say enough good things about Garnet as a teammate,” Lomberg said. “He’d say to me ‘kid you work so hard, everyone knows that, just like me a couple years back, you’ll put things together ’. He was definitely a great help and an inspiration on what to work towards.”
While Doetzel played just a little under a month with Hathaway, he still looks up to the path the NHL forward has carved as an undrafted player.
“All he did every day was try to outwork the next guy,” Doetzel says of Hathaway. “Even watching him play in Calgary – every shift he’s getting in a scrum, making a hit or causing a turnover. He’s one of the guys you look up to as an undrafted player that gets a shot at the NHL and runs with it.”
But for Doetzel he knew that Calgary also has been known to look at the talent pool for players not selected in the draft. You don’t even have to look hard either as Flames captain Mark Giordano carved out quite the career beginning as an undrafted player who grew up in the Flames AHL affiliates.
“I knew about Giordano and that he was the undrafted captain with Calgary,” Doetzel said. “He’s definitely one of the guys that gives me motivation to keep doing my thing. Knowing that Calgary will bring in an undrafted player and have faith in them definitely helped make my decision easier.”
Anything or anyone, to help the team win.
“I think Calgary has the approach that if a player can help our team win, he’s a player we’re interested in,” Coach Huska said. “If they see a player on an AHL deal whose consistent with their work and they see a spot missing in their group that the player can fill, then I think they have time for these guys. If they see value in a player as to him being able to help the lineup down the road, they will be given an opportunity regardless of their contract situation.”
That’s a great thing about the Hathaway situation is that guys have seen that and it gives them the belief they can do that too.”
That’s now the goal for both Lomberg and Doetzel going forward.
“At the start of the year my goal was to make an impact every night and I want to earn an NHL contract,” Lomberg said. “I want the coaches thinking less about me being in or out of the lineup and instead think what’s he going to do for us tonight.”
For the pair of undrafted prospects, that’s what they’ve brought. Since receiving an opportunity through an early season injury, Doetzel has become a real fixture on the blueline, playing in all but one game for the Heat since October 28. He brings such a solid defensive game that the undrafted rookie has found himself as one of the main players Huska turns to when it’s time to kill penalties.
“I have a lot of respect for him because he plays like he’s been a pro for years, comes with a great approach and hasn’t taken a single day off all year,” Lomberg says of his teammate Doetzel. “I couldn’t have any more respect for what he’s done this year.”
As for Lomberg, he’s been a reliable force that can insert near anywhere in the lineup. He’s tied ninth in the team in points, but he’s also stuck to playing his gritty, agitating style all year to the point that other teams, and other teams fans have taken notice.
“I grew up idolizing the smaller agitating guy that’s not afraid of anyone, and if he’s got the choice he’s probably picking a bigger guy than he should,” Lomberg said. “That’s what I love and live for. When the opposing fans are getting on me that means I’m doing everything right. I love that. It fires me up even more.”
What will fire his coach up is if he sees yet another undrafted player earns his first NHL deal.
“We’re all pulling for him,” Huska said. “We hope he ends up with an NHL contract when this year is done.”
In the mold of so many before them across the NHL, but particularly in Calgary, the pair of Ryan Lomberg and Kayle Doetzel are constant reminders that building a championship caliber team doesn’t just stop after the draft.
Even though the pair still wish they heard their name called way back during their eligibility years, if an NHL contract is on the horizon for them, hearing a name called in an arena full of tables, executives and media just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Instead their name called by the public-address announcer, relaying a goal back to the pulsating crowd at the Scotiabank Saddledome will be what both players hope is in their future by virtue of their hard work, determination and motivation they’ve picked up along the way.