Kings’ prospects relish getting the call

by Griffin Spencer || AHL On The Beat Archive 

The Los Angeles Kings possess one of the top-rated farm systems throughout the National Hockey League, and it is a testament to the Manchester Monarchs for their ability to develop NHL-ready prospects.

These prospects look for that call from the Kings saying that their dreams will come true and they will play in the NHL.

Monarchs right wing John Zeiler was a fifth-round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes that came to the Kings organization after signing a one-year AHL contract with Manchester on Sept. 16, 2006.

During Zeiler’s rookie season, he was on the road with the Monarchs in Rochester when he received news from director of hockey operations Hubie McDonough that he will remember for the rest of his life.

“The coaches told me to go talk to Hubie and he told me that I was called up to the Kings and they were going to sign me to an NHL contract,” explained Zeiler.

Given the fact he was with the Monarchs on an AHL contract, a fax containing an NHL contract had to be transmitted to Rochester and signed on the spot to facilitate the call-up.

“It was obviously a dream come true,” explained Zeiler, who immediately called his parents to share the good news with them. “You want [the call-up] to happen but you never know when it’s going to happen, or if it’s going to happen. It’s just about getting that opportunity. There are players out there who never get that chance.”

Zeiler, immediately after signing an NHL contract, rode on the team bus to Toronto where he boarded a plane for Los Angeles. He recalls sitting on the plane anxiously awaiting his arrival in the big leagues.

“I got there and there was a game that night. I remember walking down the tunnel. As soon as you get in the locker room and talk to the guys, they make you feel at home. It made it a lot easier,” said Zeiler.

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Zeiler played in his first NHL game that night, skating on a line alongside Kings left wing Raitis Ivanans and current Carolina Hurricanes right wing Tom Kostopoulos. Playing the Anaheim Ducks (who would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2007), Zeiler laid a hit on Ducks defenseman Sean O’Donnell. It was then that Zeiler realized the magnitude of his first game in the NHL.

“I remember thinking, geez, this is all I’ve got to do up here!” explained Zeiler. “After that, I kept on playing and felt comfortable. The guys made me feel comfortable. I felt the energy from the guys, giving me feedback about my game, and it was a great experience.”

Zeiler concluded his first season of professional hockey by getting his first call-up and scoring his first NHL goal against Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.

Zeiler’s story is one of many Los Angeles Kings prospects that have had the pleasure of making their NHL debut with the Kings. Monarchs right wing Kevin Westgarth has a story that follows along similar lines.

“I got a call from [Monarchs assistant coach Scott] Pellerin. He let me know I was going up. My teammates and I were eating lunch. I was a little lost for a few minutes, but it was fun to celebrate with them,” said Westgarth, who went on to place calls to his parents, girlfriend and his brother.

Westgarth, unlike Zeiler, did not have much time to ponder his impending NHL debut.

“I only had a few hours to get ready so it’s always a bit surreal. Once you get to the airport, you get some time to relax, so I made a few more phone calls including my college coach,” said Westgarth.

Monarchs goaltender Jonathan Bernier has also seen time with Los Angeles at the NHL level in his career. Bernier, a first-round draft pick (11th overall) by the Kings in 2006, made his National Hockey League debut at the young age of 19. Since then, he has been called up one other time during last season, but did not see playing time.

“You always think you’re so far but you’re really just one call away. Last year when I got called up, I didn’t know if I was going to play but I was just so excited to move up,” said Bernier. “It was an awesome feeling. [Last year] I was only in Los Angeles for a week, but it was worth it.”

Bernier was contacted by Monarchs head coach Mark Morris and was informed of his call-up, but did not actually receive the phone call initially because his telephone was off.

“I was kind of in a rush but it’s kind of weird when you get that phone call and you get a bit nervous,” explained Bernier.

His first NHL experience came in the Kings’ season-opening series in London, England, also a memory that he will never forget.

“It was quite something, playing my first NHL game. I played against the Ducks, who won the Stanley Cup the season before, and it was really awesome to play over in London. After a couple games back in Los Angeles, I got sent down to Lewiston (QMJHL), but that whole experience was something that I will never forget,” explained Bernier.

Aside from the obvious anxiety and nerves that first-time call-ups have to experience, Bernier offers an interesting viewpoint that he drew upon during his time in the NHL.

“You get that phone call and you get a bit nervous, but after that, it’s still the same puck, same net, same hockey; everything is the same,” explained Bernier, who will undoubtedly see more time at the NHL level along with his talented cast of teammates currently playing in Manchester.