Perseverance pays off for Van Guilder

by Jason Karnosky || AHL On The Beat Archive

When Milwaukee Admirals forward Mark Van Guilder grew up playing hockey in Roseville, Minn., he, like many kids, dreamed of one day playing in the National Hockey League.

Yet at age 30, after six years of competing primarily in the American Hockey League, Van Guilder could have been forgiven for thinking that day might never come.

However, on March 30, Van Guilder’s hopes became a reality when the forward took the ice as a Nashville Predators rookie in a game against the Washington Capitals.

“I never really thought that, yeah, I’m going to play in the NHL,” Van Guilder said. “It was always a dream of mine, but until last year, it really was just a dream. It wasn’t really until the end of last season that I realized that this really was so close.”

Van Guilder’s long odyssey through the professional ranks began in the spring of 2008 after achieving what was the greatest moment of his career to date. The then-senior forward had just finished captaining a Notre Dame squad that advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four and the national championship game for the first time in the illustrious school’s history.

The following year, Van Guilder went from the front page of the hockey world to the back after failing to make Milwaukee out of training camp. Dressing for his first ECHL game with the Cincinnati Cyclones, the NHL seemed light-years away.

“I felt so far away that whole season in the Coast,” Van Guilder said. “Playing in the NHL did not even seem like a possibility. It’s been a very slow climb to get from there (to now).”

Yet Van Guilder persevered, earning five games of AHL experience with the Admirals (plus three with Hamilton) while leading the Cyclones with 26 goals and 70 points in 2008-09. The next year he became a more permanent fixture in Milwaukee, dressing in 28 games for the Admirals — plus seven playoff games.

Van Guilder earned valuable playoff experience that season in the ECHL, catching on with the Cyclones during the second round versus Charlotte. He scored two goals in Cincinnati’s 2-1 Game 7 victory over the Checkers and later helped the Cyclones capture a Kelly Cup title.

In 2010-11 Milwaukee finally brought on Van Guilder on as a full-time player, and the move paid dividends as the Admirals finished first in the Western Conference. In Game 6 of his team’s first-round clash with Texas, MVG became his team’s MVP by scoring a double-overtime goal to knock out the Stars.

“The game-winning goal Van Guilder scored in Game Six was not the only one he’s ever scored in his career,” said Lane Lambert, then coach of Milwaukee and now an assistant coach in Nashville. “(Mark) can be counted on when the chips are down.”

Van Guilder progressed from 10 goals and 17 points in 2010-11 to 12 goals and 27 points in 2011-12.

“I fit well with Lane when he was coaching here,” Van Guilder said. “From him I found out what I needed to do to stay here another year. Once you figure out how to play well defensively at this level and earn the trust of your coaches, your confidence builds. When you have that confidence, like I’ve had the previous few years, you can just show up to the rink, have fun and play the game.”

In 2012-13 the confident forward started to get noticed by the Nashville brass. That season Van Guilder set AHL career highs in goals (14), assists (18), points (32) and plus/minus (+15). As important as Van Guilder seemed to be in Milwaukee, he had become an invaluable asset for the Predators organization as a whole, even to the point that Nashville could not afford to recall him for risk of losing him via waivers.

“I thought Mark deserved to get called up down the stretch last year, but we did not have him on a two-way NHL contract,” Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton said. “We did not want to risk losing him because of his value to us and how highly we think of him.”

In the offseason Fenton worked with Van Guilder to rectify that situation, inking him to his first NHL contract, a two-year, two-way deal — an unusual thing for a 29-year-old. Fenton sweetened the pot by telling Van Guilder that if he kept developing, a Predators recall would surely be in his future.

“I talked to his agent last year about signing him to a two-way NHL contract that would keep him around for a couple of years,” Fenton said. “I told him that if he played the same way and showed the same character and determination that he plays with in Milwaukee, he would get games in the NHL.”

Van Guilder did exactly that, playing in every situation with the Admirals. He proved to be a valuable mentor for young prospects like Colton Sissons and Miikka Salomaki, while regularly providing needed offense. He enjoyed a five-game point streak from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3, and then scored four goals in six games during a key stretch in March as Milwaukee reeled off four wins and points in five contests.

It was at that point that Van Guilder got the news he had been waiting for. Admirals coach Dean Evason personally told the veteran in front of his teammates in the Milwaukee dressing room that he was heading up to Nashville.

“It’s so wonderful to see a guy like that be rewarded for what he’s done,” Evason said. “This group, when we told him in the locker room, was ecstatic. He’s a big part of our hockey team.”

Admirals captain Scott Ford, another veteran still trying to earn his first NHL promotion, appreciated his deserving friend’s accomplishment.

“For Mark to get that opportunity was just awesome,” Ford said. “I had goose bumps and some of us got a little bit teary-eyed. Everybody gave him some applause and was excited for him. It’s just exciting, a day he will never forget and hopefully it will be day that I could have.”

Nerves were flowing throughout the day as Van Guilder found his spot in the Predators’ dressing room. But seeing all of the familiar faces of guys he had played with in previous seasons with Milwaukee, plus recent teammates Calle Jarnkrok and Sissons, calmed him down some.

“It’s awesome and he’s worked so hard for a long time,” Sissons told reporters that night. “He was a great mentor for me in Milwaukee. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met and come across in the game so I was really happy for him.”

Despite his nerves Van Guilder’s debut could not have gone off much better. He logged 8:27 of ice time (including 45 seconds of penalty-kill time) on a respectable 14 shifts in Nashville’s dramatic 4-3 shootout victory over the Washington Capitals.

“It was a lot of fun and a great experience,” Van Guilder said. “The guys there, a lot of them I had played with in Milwaukee, they were awesome and made me feel so comfortable. I was actually kind of nervous for the game, but it was good having the guys there that I knew from Milwaukee. That helped me relax a little bit.”

Nashville’s veteran captain Shea Weber, who also worked his way up to Nashville through Milwaukee, appreciated seeing Van Guilder in a Predators roster.

“That situation was (so) special,” Weber told reporters. “He’s a guy that’s been in the minors for a long time and battled and been through a lot. For him to get a chance, it’s something he’ll never forget. Those are the situations where you like to see people succeed.”

The next day Van Guilder was reassigned to Milwaukee, but he returned to the club with a lifetime of memories.

“I think almost every guy that I had played with on the team had either talked to me or texted me congratulations before I even got there,” Van Guilder said. “When I walked in Gabriel Bourque gave me a big hug, and of all of the guys were just so excited for me. They told me I had earned it, so it was pretty special.”

The next step for Van Guilder, who has 14 goals and 28 points in 67 games with Milwaukee this season, is earning another opportunity with the Predators and making the NHL a more permanent home.

“Fortunately, he’s been able to play in an NHL game,” Fenton said. “I hope it is just the tip of the iceberg for his career.”

No one will be more determined to make that happen than Van Guilder, who appreciates what his accomplishment means to his fellow teammates in the AHL.

“I think my story might help guys around here that are struggling a little bit, are not happy with the ice time they are getting or are dealing with going up and down [from the ECHL],” Van Guilder said. “If you stick with it and just keep working, eventually good things will happen.”

Good things have certainly happened for MVG, Milwaukee’s MVP.