Whalers Mitchell Heard Plays at Leafs Rookie Tournament Against All Odds

Whalers Mitchell Heard Plays at Leafs Rookie Tournament Against All Odds

Even if a hockey player goes undrafted, that's no reason to give up on an NHL career.

For a major junior or college hockey player with aspirations of playing in the NHL to be passed over in the draft is an absolutely crushing experience.

For an instant those players think it is the end of the line - the dream is over.

The fact is for most that is true. But not for all of them.

NHL history is riddled with players that were not drafted, but went on to enjoy amazing NHL careers. In 2010 just one player was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame: Dino Ciccarelli. The Sarnia, Ont., native was never drafted yet he went on to score 606 goals and 1,200 points in 1,232 NHL games. Not bad, eh?

How about Martin St. Louis? He was never drafted despite putting up big numbers at the University of Vermont and yet he was the 2004 Hart Trophy winner as the NHL's most valuable player. Two teams (Ottawa and Calgary) gave up on him before he blossomed in Tampa Bay, but St. Louis never gave up on the dream.

"I was pretty naïve about the whole thing," St. Louis said. "I was young and I really thought they would keep whoever was playing the best. I thought I had a great camp, but I didn't get a contract. I was a roster filler, but I didn't know it at the time. If you are an undrafted and signed player, they will take a look at you. If you are an undrafted and unsigned player, I don't think you get the same chance. My hopes (back then) were to play in the NHL, but knowing what I know now, wow, the odds aren't good."

Mitchell Heard knows the pain of being passed over in the draft. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound centre scored 20 goals and 50 points in 66 games with Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League last season, but when the 30 NHL team gathered in Minnesota for a couple of days to tend to the future, it was as though Heard's hockey career was history. There were 211 players picked and Heard was not one of them.

But unlike many others, he was extended an olive branch by the Toronto Maple Leafs. They invited the Bowmanville, Ont., native to their July prospects camp and with this unexpected gift, the kid did enough to impress the Leafs brass to invite him to their rookie camp in neighboring Oshawa.

Will Heard make the Maple Leafs this season? Not a chance. That doesn't matter. A door was opened for him and he intends to do everything in his power to take advantage of his golden - er, blue and white - opportunity.

"There's really no pressure on me," Heard said Saturday morning following Toronto's pre-game skate. The Maple Leafs rookies are in a four-day tournament against freshmen from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators and Chicago Blackhawks.

"I'm just here to do my best and hopefully make an impression on the big man upstairs."

That would be Brian Burke; not God.

"I don't plan on doing anything different from what I normally do," the baby-faced Heard continued. "I'm big on faceoffs so I'll try to win as many as I can."

Heard's numbers were decent, but not overwhelming last season. Still, Maple Leaf scouts liked his tenacity. He plays with grit something that is very important in the eyes of the big man upstairs. It was Heard's aggressiveness that inspired the Leafs to invite him to their rookie camp. A year ago 6-foot-4, 208 pound defenceman Andrew Crescenzi of the Kitchener Rangers attended the Leafs rookie camp under similar circumstances as Heard, having been passed over in the draft, but played well enough to earn a contract. It can happen.

"Heard is in a similar position," said Jim Hughes, Toronto's director of player development. "He's got the same chance. He'll be watched; he'll be evaluated. If we sign him, then it's almost like our organization got an extra draft pick."

The odds of making it to the NHL as an undrafted player aren't great. For many that have the good fortune to be invited to a training camp, it will be the highlight of their careers. It doesn't have to be the end of the road, though.

Among those currently playing in the NHL, Sean Avery, Niklas Backstrom, Jason Blake, Dan Boyle, Mathieu Darche, Mark Giordano, Mike Green, Andy McDonald and Toronto's Tyler Bozak, among many others, made it to 'the show' as walk-ons. Many retired players did it too. Curtis Joseph, who had a wonderful NHL career in net, was not drafted. Neither was Joey Mullen who won three Stanley Cups.

For that matter, Wayne Gretzky was not drafted into the NHL, but that was a different set of circumstances. He played in the WHA at 17 years old and was a member of the Edmonton Oilers when they, along with three other teams, joined the rival NHL.

One of my favourites was Doug Evans who made the Peterborough Petes as a walk-on and became their all-time leading scorer. He wasn't drafted into the NHL, but at just 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, scored 48 goals and 135 points with 502 penalty minutes in 355 games with St. Louis, Winnipeg and Philadelphia.

St. Louis beat all the odds. First of all he was never drafted. On top of that, he's small and we all know how NHL teams feel about those guys. St. Louis attended to training camp with the Ottawa Senators (boy, did they miss the boat!) after his university career ended and had great expectations.

Now the veteran has some advice for the likes of Heard and other undrafted players attending NHL training camps.

"Don't lose your confidence," he said. "For me, I felt I played along side of first round, second round, third round picks... whatever. Those guys were supposed to be better than me, but I didn't feel they were. Don't let your confidence go down because somebody was drafted and you weren't. Teams make mistakes. Some guys flourish early and they aren't in the league anymore. Some guys flourish later. I always had the attitude of, 'Screw you. I'm going to keep on banging on your door until you let me in.'"

Coming from a guy who has won the Hart Trophy, the Stanley Cup, the NHL scoring championship and an Olympic gold medal, those are solid words of advice.

Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, who will coach in the NHL one day soon, was a 10th round pick of the Washington Capitals (208th overall) in 1985 and was a long shot to make it to the NHL. Like St. Louis, he persisted and was lucky enough to play 120 games with the Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers and Islanders, and Calgary Flames.

Eakins acknowledged the fact some undrafted players really are roster fillers at rookie camp, but insisted that doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of the road. He said Heard was the most impressive player at the prospects camp in July and that's why he's still with the Leafs in September.

"Mitchell has a low panic level and he really thinks the game well," Eakins said. "He's a well rounded player; somebody who can play on the power play, the penalty kill and a regular shift.

"Besides, how short-sighted would we be as an organization if an undrafted player came to our camp, out-played our draft picks and yet we let him go? We'd never get better if we did that."

Heard was thrilled to hear Eakins evaluation of his play, but cautioned, "It's a confidence builder, for sure, but you can't let it go to your head. You still have top go out and do something to earn a contract."

That is the kind of attitude you'd think Brian Burke is looking for.

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