Byron’s bet by no means a risk

Peter Bottini

by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat

Blaine Byron surely couldn’t have predicted the road his professional hockey journey ended up taking.

Like so many others born in Canada before him – and like many more to follow –- the game of hockey is one of the only things that has run Byron’s life.

“(Hockey’s) pretty much all I know,” he said. “It’s what drives me.”

The Thunderbirds’ rookie center had never envisioned college as a path on this lifelong dream of professional stardom – that is, until his selection by the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL. At the time, the squad featured the likes of current NHL standouts Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Strome.

“I knew I wasn’t necessarily going to play,” Byron recalled upon his selection to the IceDogs. “Before that, I had never really thought about college hockey or had it in my mind to be going that route.”

But with some urging from family, the positives of college quickly began to show themselves.

“My parents really liked the idea of me going to school, playing at a high level and getting my education,” he said. “I went on some visits and that’s when I fell in love with the college atmosphere.”

Never one to look for the spotlight, Byron came away from visits in Boston wanting something with less of a city feel. Eight hours from his hometown of Manotick, Ontario, that perfect fit came at the University of Maine.

“When I visited (UMaine), I fell in love with the smaller-town feel,” Byron said, citing current Vancouver Canuck Ben Hutton as a key confidante during his decision-making. Hutton and Byron played together for both the Kemptville 73’s of the CCHL and the Black Bears.

Although his collegiate teams weren’t near the top of the Hockey East standings, Byron excelled on an individual basis, becoming a point-a-game player by his senior season and getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013 along the way.

“If I just look back from my first year to my fourth year (at Maine), I got bigger and stronger, and the way my game developed as a whole was huge,” he said.

During his final year, Byron reached the 40-point plateau and caught the eye of NHL teams. As his year drew to a close, he faced a decision reserved normally for the most elite of college prospects: sign an entry-level deal with the Penguins or test free agency. In Byron’s instance, the latter presented a greater chance of reaching his ultimate goal.

“I looked at it as a situation where you want to give yourself the best opportunity to play in the NHL,” he said. “You know you only have so many chances. Pittsburgh is such a great organization and you know they’ve had so many guys coming up (from college and the AHL) – I just didn’t know if the opportunity was there all the time. I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to play in the NHL.”

With Byron on the open market and drawing similar attention to that of Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher, the 22-year-old saw another unique option before him, one that Chris Johnston of Sportsnet described as a “bet on himself.”

Rather than sign an NHL deal, Byron opted for an AHL contract with the Springfield Thunderbirds, thanks in large part to fellow Ottawan MacKenzie Weegar.

“(Weegar) had nothing but good things to say about the coaching staff here and how they helped his game,” said Byron.

Byron’s hope is that his game can take a leap similar to the one Weegar’s took in 2016-17. The Thunderbirds’ All-Star defenseman put up AHL career highs in nearly every category and parlayed his efforts into a full-time spot with the Florida Panthers this season.

In the meantime, Byron is very forthright about where he stands.

“It makes it a little tougher on myself (to have an AHL vs. NHL deal), but I knew I wasn’t NHL-ready coming into this year,” he said. “Florida was still going to give me the opportunity to come to training camp, so it would have been pretty much the same (circumstances) as if I had an (NHL) entry level deal.”

Now six games and three points into his AHL career, the man who drew interest from a swarm of NHL teams feels he has a much greater understanding of the challenges that come with this latest developmental step.

“Guys are bigger, faster, and harder on pucks. I find the D-men are really good with their gaps and their sticks, keeping you to the outside,” he said.

Like anyone else, Byron wants team results first, but could not hold back a smile of relief when asked about his first AHL goal he scored en route to a 7-4 Springfield victory.

““I thought I had a bunch of chances in the earlier games but just couldn’t find that first one… hopefully getting that first one out of the way, lots more will come now.”

If a true theme can be taken from Byron’s hockey journey, it’s that sometimes the road less traveled can be the one that leads to success.