Training camp labors of a half-dozen players with California ties results in preseason action
There was no press release.
No grand announcement or much – if any – media attention. Just a sheet of paper on the wall with names on it.
For six players with ties to California, that was all they needed to see. They got a chance to live out every hockey player’s dream and skate in an NHL game for the first time during training camp.
Some waited longer than others for the opportunity.
Miles Koules attended NHL training camps the past four years with three different franchises. For others, be they recent signings from the NCAA ranks (Collin Delia, Tyler Moy and Austin Ortega) or recent draft picks from Major Junior (Sasha Chmelevski and Kailer Yamamoto), the thrill was the same.
“The first game I played in had more prospects in it (and) the second was with the full NHL team – that was cool,” said Koules, who twice played for the Columbus Blue Jackets against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sept. 19 and 23. “The fact we won made it really special.”
In between, Delia, who signed with Chicago this summer, played a period for the Blackhawks against the Detroit Red Wings on Sept. 21 and did not allow a goal on eight shots. He had dressed for a preseason game in Boston, close to where he played collegiately for Merrimack College, but didn’t get in.
A goaltending coach dangled the carrot that Delia might play a period against Detroit, but he wasn’t counting on it.
“I was just approaching every day as a new challenge,” said Delia, whose youth hockey stops included OC Hockey Club, California Stars, California Titans, Anaheim Jr. Ducks and Yorba Linda Blackhawks. “After the rigor of camp, I knew I could compete at that level. When I finally got in that game, everything grew quiet.
“I was so focused on the puck, so engaged. The focus you chase when you’re a goalie is so elusive, but I found it. It had to do with how I prepared.”
Delia did, however, have an a-ha moment.
“When I pulled on that jersey, I thought back to one of the first teams I played for as a kid – the Yorba Linda Blackhawks – it was pretty amazing,” he said. “Now I’m pulling it on for real in front of 20,000 people with the likes of Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.”
Just one day before, Ortega put on the jersey of the NHL team closest to where he grew up in North San Diego County – the Anaheim Ducks. Because the preseason game was in Anaheim, several family members and friends were able to attend.
“I was hoping that I would be able to get in a game,” said Ortega, who finished a standout career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in March before signing with the Ducks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. “A lot of guys weren’t able to do that.
“It was definitely a special experience, and it would have been regardless of what NHL rink it happened it. But it was more special because it was close to home and a rink I grew up going to games to.”
Chmelevski (a 2017 San Jose Sharks draft pick) and Moy (a 2015 Nashville Predators pick who graduated from Harvard in the spring) each got into a game on Sept. 19.
The opportunity to play in NHL games was confirmation to Koules that his changing approach was paying dividends after two years in Washington Capitals camp and last year with the Los Angeles Kings.
Koules, who played for LA Hockey Club as a youth, has bounced between the ECHL and the AHL the past three seasons after a standout career with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He got a chance with Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Cleveland midway through last season, but was injured seven games into that stint.
That set the stage for this season. He spent the final two months of last season working out – and hanging out with teammates – in Cleveland. He signed an AHL contract with the team and went to Columbus this summer to work out.
“Guys were great,” he said. “The injury was unfortunate, but having that time to work out and spend time with the guys gave me a base. Being in Columbus for over a month before camp, being with the NHL team the whole time made camp feel so comfortable and organic. It also showed me I might have a bit more of a chance. That got me the most ready I’ve ever been for a camp.”
Koules was way down the Blue Jackets’ depth chart, and being in camp on an AHL deal didn’t exactly provide incentive for the team to give him a long look. Yet, he stayed after it, playing well in scrimmages and well enough in one preseason game to get a second.
“I’ve been to different training camps, and there are different fits for everyone,” he said. “This one ended up being a good fit. The GM and coach understand what I can bring to the table.
“There were times in the past where you work hard and do well but it goes unnoticed. I had a sense the things I was doing were getting noticed.”
Those things have changed over the years, Koules said. His skill level got him so much attention when he was young that he went to the U.S. National Team Development Program and became a recruiting target for the WHL and several NCAA powers. He thought that would be his meal ticket.
“I tried to show off, and I had some great moments and some bad ones,” he said. “My approached has changed through growing and being more mature. I bring hard work first, and let the skill come out second. It has helped my game.
“That aspect of adding grit and more of a blue-collar aspect to my game has got me to Cleveland. Before I figured that out, that’s why I got sent to the ECHL to start seasons.
“When I was younger, I had to have a top-six role. Now I can play on a second line or a fourth line, and it will help me get in the lineup more. Not everyone is going to be Alex Ovechkin. You either learn that aspect or you stop climbing.”
The players’ climbs are encouraging in different ways. Thought to be headed back to Spokane (WHL), Yamamoto’s ascent got fast tracked after a lights-out preseason. He had seven points (including a team-high five goals) in six preseason games for Edmonton. The showing made such a strong impression that the former L.A. Jr. King made the Oilers and played in three of their first four games, picking up his first NHL point in the process.
Several other players participated in their first NHL training camps, including forward Ivan Lodnia (Minnesota Wild), defenseman Scott Savage (Blue Jackets) and goaltender Tomas Sholl (Kings).
All will tell you that the NHL is a level all its own.
“You see that level they play at and it shows you have to work that much harder if you want to be there,” Ortega said. “Training camp is pretty serious, a lot more intense.”
Delia had the same takeaway: “The amount of time, dedication and effort they make to hone their craft is amazing. To be around that energy and that type of environment makes you want to do your best.”
Photos: Koules/Columbus Blue Jackets; Ortega/Scott Dinn/San Jose Sharks; Chmelevski/San Jose Sharks
— Chris Bayee
(Oct. 25, 2017)