Herbert takes next step toward NHL dream

by Scott Stuccio || AHL On The Beat Archive

If you grow up in the State of Hockey, you most likely have siblings or family members who once played the game.

Hershey Bears forward Caleb Herbert didn’t. The 22-year-old didn’t even have immediate encouragement of his own parents when he chose to participate in the sport he loves.

Now, the native of Bloomington, Minn., is one step away from realizing his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

Fresh off of his professional debut on Wednesday, Herbert talked about the long road to getting to where he is today — playing with the American Hockey League’s eldest and most storied franchise.

“My dad was really against it,” Herbert related. “He did not want to be a hockey dad, didn’t want to go down that path. I was begging to try out for hockey and my mom said to him, ‘Well, you’re going to have to break the news to him if you’re going to tell him he can’t play.’ When it came down to it, he didn’t have the heart to tell me no. And now here I am, and my parents are great supporters.”

Herbert has one uncle who played hockey. His father played soccer, and his grandfather was a long-time baseball coach. Above all, Herbert credits his grandfather for his success and inspiration.

“He passed away during my senior year of high school,” he remembered. “So he’s been my motivation for me, kind of keeping him in my thoughts when I’m out there on the ice. He was a great guy.”

Having hit his hockey groove in high school, Herbert pursued college. With NCAA perennial powerhouses Minnesota, St. Cloud State and North Dakota nearby, he decided to travel north of Bloomington to attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“I just thought it was the right fit for me to go a few hours north even though the closest to me was the main university (U. of Minnesota),” Herbert added. “They told me that I was going to get a lot of ice time and that I would have a great opportunity there.”

A business finance major at Minnesota-Duluth, Herbert did get the ice time and the opportunity he was promised. In three seasons from 2011-2014, he racked up 89 points (32 goals and 57 assists) in 112 career games. He was recently named to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Academic All-Conference Team, and was an All-Academic Team member in his sophomore year of 2012-13.

And his family was always there to cheer him on, being just two hours “up the shore,” as Herbert put it. His numbers added up nicely despite a partially bumpy ride.

“My freshman year was great, my sophomore year was a little bit of a slump personally and team-wise, and this past year was great with a lot of young talent. And we did beat some great teams. We beat the Gophers, we beat Notre Dame and some of those top-notch teams that are still in it. It was a fun experience because the teammates and the guys that Duluth recruits are all wonderful guys. The staff from top to bottom, I can’t say enough about them and the program. My decision to go there was probably the best decision I made.”

While there, he knew that scouts were watching him — scouts from teams throughout the National Hockey League. The Washington Capitals were deciding on Herbert before he even got to college, but he knew that they would be watching their 2010 fifth-round choice all along. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Herbert was either going to be at Los Angeles’s Staples Center or glued to the NHL Draft on television that year. Or was he?

“I decided not to go, just because I wasn’t sure if I’d be picked or not,” he remembered. “I was actually sitting at work, working at a toll booth at a beach and I got a phone call from my agent saying that I got picked by the Washington Capitals. It was an awesome day. I had time to sit there at work and just take it all in. My parents came to visit me and they brought me a Washington Capitals hat. It was definitely a great day and one I’ll remember forever.”

Much like other players finishing out their junior year of college — Hershey Bears teammate and fellow Minnesotan Nate Schmidt, for example -– the decision to forgo his senior year confronted Herbert. As academically talented as he is, it took numerous days of pondering and long confiding talks to finally reach his decision. And much like these other players, the fruits of the decision really won’t be seen for a long time.

Entering the weekend, Herbert has four practices and one AHL game under his belt. But the Bears have not seen a Capitals forward prospect jump in and contribute as quickly as Herbert did in quite a while. Against the Portland Pirates in his professional debut on Wednesday, Herbert dropped his first AHL assist and goal onto the scoresheet and skated off with the game’s first-star honor in a 3-2 Hershey victory.

If the near future holds more games like this, Herbert’s decision to leave college — and perhaps finish someday — is a genuinely smart one.

“I thought it was the right time to leave,” Herbert recalled. “I thought my game rounded out enough and I matured enough to take that next step. I also thought I was leaving on a good note. The coaches were on my side, my family members and teammates were on my side, and I couldn’t be happier now with where I’m at.”

The Hershey Bears can’t be happier, either. After a few development camps and three solid years of collegiate play, Herbert is fitting right in to try to help his team push into the postseason.

“When I found out I was going to be in the lineup this week, my head was just spinning and I couldn’t really find time to nap that day,” he said. “I was just running on adrenaline out there. But once you get out there and you get warmups under your belt, it’s the same game. I’d like to call it a little bit of puck luck on my first goal but I played with two great linemates and they really made the transition easy for me.”

Whether it be a little bit of puck luck, a lot of family support, or both, Caleb Herbert has begun his walk to the highest level in a very positive way.