Lain’s path to NHL has people talking

by Mark Caswell Jr. || AHL On The Beat Archive

In the middle of a travel nightmare that included a game getting pushed back an entire day, Utica Comets forward Kellan Lain got the call that dreams are made of.

Stranded in Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, Comets head coach Travis Green called Lain over and delivered the news of a lifetime. Green told Lain that he would be headed to Phoenix to join the Vancouver Canucks, while his Comets teammates would be headed back to Utica.

What Lain did not know at the time was this was just step one in what would turn out to be a call-up for the record books.

Lain’s ride to the American Hockey League, and ultimately the National Hockey League, seemed like it would be an unfulfilled dream after being cut by three Midget AAA teams in Ontario — due partially to a lack of size.

“Hockey was not fun for me at that time,” recalls Lain. “I was at a point in my career where I felt I was at the end. That this was it for me.”

He decided that he would play a year of high school hockey with his buddies at T.A. Blakelock in his native Oakville, Ont., for fun. A good team, a well-timed growth spurt, and a new-found love for the game put Lain back on course for a pro hockey career.

After a successful high school season, Lain joined the Junior A Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. During his second season there he received a scholarship from Lake Superior State University, a Division I school in Michigan.

After receiving the scholarship offer, Lain encountered another challenge in his career when, during a playoff game, he slit his wrist open on a goaltender’s skate.

“I fell after we scored and my wrist landed directly on the goalie’s skate cutting open several tendons, a nerve and an artery,” Lain described. “It was a very scary moment. I was scared for my life; I remember thinking, ‘I may bleed out here.’ Oakville Hospital did a tremendous job fixing me up.”

An intense nine-month rehab saw progress at the five-month mark when movement returned to his hand. Lake Superior State stood by their scholarship offer, and 12 months after the injury, Lain was a Laker.

Lain played three seasons at Lake Superior State, racking up 39 points (21 goals, 18 assists) and 210 penalty minutes in 108 games while showing off dazzling face-off abilities and a physical, in-your-face style of play. Combined with an intimidating 6-foot-6-inch frame, Lain demanded interest from several National Hockey League teams.

Ultimately, Lain signed a one-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, and played 13 games with the Chicago Wolves to finish the 2012-13 season. Despite not recording a point, Lain was re-signed to a two-year deal and headed into the Canucks’ 2013-14 training camp as a possible fourth-line center.

Despite positive feedback from Vancouver head coach John Tortorella, the Canucks felt Lain was better served playing big minutes with their new AHL affiliate, the brand-new Utica Comets, alongside fellow Oakville native Brandon DeFazio.

In Utica, Lain’s physical game has not gone unnoticed, and has quickly become a fan favorite. Comets home games are peppered with Lain jerseys — mostly the #19 he wears in Utica, with several #54 Canucks jerseys popping up as well. Lain scored his first professional goal in Abbotsford against the Heat, 19 games into the season, and even added a second goal that game en route to a 4-3 overtime win for the Comets on Nov. 30.

Fast forward a few weeks, after 35 games and 11 points (seven goals, four assists) with Utica, to when Green informed Lain that he would be joining the parent club in Phoenix.

“Your emotions run the gamut,” Lain explained. “Excited, nervous, thankful. You think about everything you’ve done that got you to this point.”

Lain called his parents the first chance he had. “It was a total surprise. I worked hard, and hoped for the best,” he said about whether he expected the call-up.

Lain joined the Canucks in Phoenix for their game vs. the Coyotes on Jan. 16, but would not play. His first taste of the National Hockey League came on Jan. 18 in an unforgettable game against the Calgary Flames.

“You sense something is going to happen,” Lain said, “[but] I don’t think anybody expected a five-on-five line brawl.”

In his first National Hockey League game, Lain was slated to take the opening faceoff, until veteran Kevin Bieksa pulled him from the dot and took it himself.

“That’s just Bieksa being a leader,” Lain said. “Knowing it was my first shift, [he] didn’t want me in that position.”

As soon as the puck dropped, gloves and sticks went flying as everyone on the ice squared off with their counterpart.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is wild!’” recalled Lain. “I was kind of looking to go with one of the Flames’ defensemen, but they went a different way.”

It’s at that point Lain and Kevin Westgarth crossed paths and dropped gloves. When the dust settled, Kellan Lain was the talk of the hockey world: Just two seconds into his NHL debut, Lain had set an NHL record for the fastest fight — and ejection — to start a career.

Lain’s wild ride in the NHL was not done just yet. Three days later, on his first NHL shot, he scored his first NHL goal against Edmonton Oilers’ Ben Scrivens.

“The puck bounced out and I just tapped home the rebound. I remember thinking, ‘No way. No way that just happened,’” remembers Lain. “It was exciting, I was excited. So many emotions ran through my mind again. You work so hard for that, and to get it, there are just no words to describe it.”

On Feb. 9, the Vancouver Canucks sent four players back to Utica, including Lain, just before the NHL’s Olympic break set in. Since his return the Comets have gone 2-1-1-0 while remaining in the hunt for a Calder Cup playoff position. And while Lain’s goal is ultimately to return to the NHL, he is enjoying his time in Utica.

“We have a close-knit group of guys here,” he said. “It’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day. The community support has been tremendous. When the fans get going it gets incredibly loud, it makes it fun to play.

“All the points matter right now. Every game for us is a playoff game, and that’s our goal. To get to the playoffs.”

As Lain enjoys his time in Utica, he has taken note of his time in Vancouver, and is honing what got him the call-up in the first place.

“It’s remarkable how good every single player is up there,” he said. “It’s a big step up, everything is precise. You learn how to prepare. You see the intensity in the preparation, and you focus on the little things.”

Amidst all of Lain’s early success, it’s easy to forget that the 24-year-old center is still a rookie. Lain’s time in Utica may not be long, and Comets fans should be sure to enjoy him — and his intense style of play — while they can.