by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Tyler Graovac is hard to miss.
But all 30 NHL teams did just that, bypassing Graovac 190 times until the Minnesota Wild finally selected him No. 191 overall with their last pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
“I knew when it came down to [draft weekend], I wasn’t really expected to go high,” Graovac recalled. “Getting picked seventh round by Minnesota was a little bit of a shock because I had had a lot of interviews with teams that year and Minnesota was the only one who didn’t interview me. But it’s been going great. They’ve been very patient with me.”
That patience has paid dividends, as the 21-year-old center has excelled in his second season with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Iowa Wild. Fifty-eight games into the 2014-15 campaign, Graovac has nearly doubled his offensive output from last year, leading Iowa in goals (19), points (40), power-play goals (8), and shots on goal (163). To go along with that, he’s recorded 10 multiple-point efforts on the season.
Graovac made his NHL debut with Minnesota on Dec. 29, 2014, and the three games he would spend with them became the only AHL time he’s missed with Iowa, lending credence to the workhorse ethic lauded by the Iowa coaching staff.
“Tyler’s going to be one of the leaders here if he doesn’t make the big team [next year],” said Iowa head coach John Torchetti, whose resume includes a Stanley Cup title as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. “It’s something that comes with his film work, his off-ice work in the training room, his work habits. He’s putting the time in after practice with our skating and skill coach and our assistant coaches, and those are all the little things that are going to help him be a pro and that’s what he wants to be.”
A native of Brampton, Ont., Graovac played his first game in the NHL on Canadian soil, logging more than nine minutes of ice time as the Wild edged the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 inside MTS Centre.
“You always ask guys, ‘What’s it like?’ and everyone kind of says it’s a dream. I’ve said this before, but it felt like a video game,” Graovac said. “I made it from [being] at prom on draft weekend to playing in front of thousands of people. It was very, very exciting, and a really fun time for me and for my family. Hopefully it will happen again soon.”
Graovac’s gratitude for his family’s support may not be a revelatory thought in hockey, a world of 5 a.m. practices and long car rides and 100 percent focus on that end goal. But his absolute awareness of what may have been given up in order for him to give it all jumps right off the page.
“I owe so much to my family,” he said. “My parents sacrificed a lot of their life the last 20 years to get me in the right direction. They put so much time and money into my life, and not only just my immediate family, but my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles – they all put me almost number one and ahead of their lives.
“That says a lot to me. I had my dad there in Winnipeg, and my cousin came down, and I remember saying to them after the game, almost like a ‘We made it’ type of thing. That was the best feeling for me. Even better than the game, to be honest.”
Graovac played junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, amassing 58 goals and 130 points in 228 games between Ottawa and Belleville (2009-13). He capped his final season with an impressive playoff performance for Belleville, posting 22 points in 16 playoff games, and he earned the Canadian Hockey League’s Sportsman of the Year award for 2012-13.
“He’s a quiet kid. He takes a lot of pride in his game. I think he’s starting to come out of his shell,” Torchetti said. “People expect him to be this physical, dominating player, but he’s a puck possession guy. He’s a smart guy, and he knows what to do without the puck and [how to get] into open spots. He really wants to be a consummate pro, and that’s one thing that he’s really improved upon, being consistent.”
Iowa has struggled on the ice this season, and Torchetti has leaned on first- and second-year players to step up and produce each night. For Graovac, no longer a rookie on paper, the adversity has helped his game grow even more.
“I try to go into every game thinking that I’m going to be a game-changer and do everything I can to help the team win. I want to be that guy,” he said. “Compared to last year, I was just kind of getting into the league and being a sponge and trying to adjust as quick as I can. This year, I’m just saying I’m going to take this and run with it.”
Of the 30 players drafted in 2011’s seventh round, eight have played in the NHL, with Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat leading the way with 159 games. Six, including Graovac, have made their debuts this season.
“Maybe on paper, I’m a seventh-rounder,” he said, “but in my mind, I know I’m more capable than that and I think I’ve proved that.”