For thousands of 17-year-old kids, the NHL Draft turns young hockey players into hopeless romantics, dreamers who make sacrifices for a reward that at best guarantees nothing. The draft is all about ‘living the dream’.
But not all do.
For the majority of draft hopefuls, there are no guarantees of a top selection.
For a pair of Ottawa 67’s draft eligible forwards, opportunity only takes one so far.
Less than two months after his 17th birthday, and four games into his second season with the London Knights, center Drake Rymsha was traded to the Ottawa 67s.
Then injuries hit.
“Getting hurt, I couldn’t control that,” said Rymsha after his first game in three months after he broke his leg in his 14th game with his new team.
But despite being ranked 143rd among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s midterm ranking after losing most of his season to injury, players like Rymsha don’t let the dream fade.
“You just have to control the things you can control and hope for the best,” he said.
Teammate Travis Barron, ranked 60th in North America on the midterm ranking and outside of Future Considerations’ February ranking for the 2016 NHL Draft, has no guarantee, either.
So when Barron was forced to miss eight games due to injuries this season, it wasn’t easy.
“It sucks watching your team and just sitting in the stands — it’s no fun being up there,” Barron said. “It’s all mental, sitting in the stands thinking ‘I wish I was playing.’ It drags you down but you have to stay positive with it.”
Without hockey, the uncertainty of it all creeps in.
“It’s been a long year,” Barron said. “It’s a lot of mental thinking, a lot of thinking about this draft, just watching it on TV and seeing all the talk about high picks.”
Barron had to revert to Rymsha’s familiar mantra when he was out.
“Just control what you can control,” Barron echoed. “I’m anxious and that’s the problem, I need to take it day-by-day.”
The uncertainty doesn’t end after being drafted though.
Dylan Sikura, a sixth round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, went through the process.
His story, he admitted, is “a little different than the average 16 or 17-year-old kid.”
“Going into the NHL Draft I wasn’t on any lists or anything, so it was as much surprise as relief,” said Sikura, who played Junior A with the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Aurora Tigers in his draft year. “There are always some doubts, not being on any watch lists I doubted it.”
Now he’s studying criminal justice at Northeastern University, still uncertain if he’ll ever make it.
The validation that comes with being selected quickly fades for many players.
“I remember the OHL draft, going back to high school the next day, some of the guys who went late or didn’t get drafted it was the end of the world for them,” Sikura recalled. “Looking back now you realize how little that means for your future.”
The NHL’s version isn’t the endgame, either though.
“They always say ‘the hard work starts now, getting drafted is one thing but getting there is another story,’” Sikura said.
Troy Stevens, now a skill development coach who has worked with Paul Statsny, Kyle Okposo, Zach Parise, Ryan McDonagh and others, bypassed his junior and senior high school years in Minnesota to try and play in the United States Hockey League.
“Not a lot of kids in Minnesota at the time were leaving any high school eligible years to play junior hockey,” he said, noting that top high school players would play in the USHL before or after the high school season.
After making the USHL’s St. Paul Vulcans, Stevens was taken off of the roster for a game by head coach and general manager Mike Guentzel, only to be picked up by a different team.
“When you’re a 16-year-old you don’t know how the league works and you don’t understand and you can be a bit naïve,” Stevens said. “(Guentzel) said it was his mistake, and ‘we want you here but your rights belong to this other team so we’ll try and make a trade’ but I had also stayed past the cutoff date to go back to high school because I had been reassured I’d play the whole season.”
By then, the window to return to high school hockey had passed Stevens by.
And instead of a traditional draft process, the USHL had protected areas assigned to teams where they could draw from different high schools.
In order to reacquire Stevens, Guentzel suggested he switch schools in order to become ‘kind of a free agent’ in the right area again.
“It wasn’t a big deal to me so I switched schools,” Stevens remembered. “Then I got a call from the league president saying I was banned from the Vulcans for life and my rights still belong to the other team and have a good day and he hung up.”
Then it was over.
Stevens returned to high school and finished out his junior and senior years before progressing to two years in the USHL with the Rochester Mustangs, two years in college, and eight years as a journeyman pro spent primarily in the ECHL.
Now he uses his story to help guide other young NHL hopefuls with the tough decisions they face.
“It was difficult,” Stevens said, adding that he encourages players to write down the positives and the negatives for all of their decisions. “It’s not easy, it’s very stressful.”
And there are regrets.
“I was a bit naïve in terms of how contracts were, I left college two years early to play pro because that was my goal as a kid and to have the opportunity was very exciting for me,” Stevens said.
He recommends young players seek out advice from agents and advisors while staying cautious.
“You just have to do your best to navigate your way through,” he said, with the same mentality Rymsha and Barron endorsed.