Ex-Knights carve out careers in NHL

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

They were traded for each other.

And while they were great Ontario Hockey League players, many observers felt they never would play in the National Hockey League.

Chris Kelly and Dennis Wideman have beaten the odds. Kelly plays for one of the best hockey teams in the NHL. He's a fourth-line player who kills penalties and does whatever he has to to help the Ottawa Senators.

Wideman plays for one of the worst teams in the NHL. He plays a great deal, including on the power play, and is a regular member of the St. Louis Blues' shootout team.

In January 2001, the two were involved in the first major deal pulled off by Mark and Dale Hunter, the relatively new owners of the London Knights. While it didn't look like it at the time, this deal would be the foundation for the Knights' revival.

The Knights sent their two best players -- Kelly and 19-year-old defenceman Dan Jancevski-- to the Sudbury Wolves for 17-year-old defenceman Wideman and what would turn out to be a third-round pick in the 2001 draft.

Wideman went on to quarterback the power play and finish second in voting for the league's best defenceman.

As for that third-round pick, the Knights selected defenceman Kyle Quincey, was eventually was traded to the Mississauga IceDogs for current Knight Rob Schremp.

Wideman and Kelly sit at different ends of the spectrum. Both have worked hard at forging a pro career.

Wideman is playing in a city whose once proud hockey franchise is struggling to survive.

"It sucks losing, but for a young guy, there's no better opportunity to show you can play," Wideman said.

And that's what Wideman's been doing. In 39 games, he's scored seven goals and added 12 assists. He's averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time. He's one-for-three in shootouts.

"When I got the call to play, I knew I would only be up for one or two games," Wideman said.

"I was moving the puck well the first couple of games. One game led to the next game and then the next game and the game after that.

"My expectations weren't to come in here and play a lot and play on the power play. I was as surprised as anyone."

Even though Wideman was one of the best defenceman in the OHL, he wasn't drafted until he was 19.

Buffalo made him a late-round draft, then didn't sign him. He signed with the Blues as a free agent, but concerns about his defensive ability made him an iffy pro prospect.

He no longer takes that part of the game for granted because he realizes that's what will keep him in the NHL.

"The game up here is a lot faster and guys a lot stronger," he said. "When you make a mistake, you have to be accountable for it. It's not like you make a mistake, someone scores and it's, 'Oh well.' If you make too many of those mistakes, you aren't around for long. When you're young, they give you a little leeway, but if you keep making those mistakes, they say you aren't a reliable player. You get labelled with that, it could be the end of your career pretty quick."

Wideman is making the most of his experience and St. Louis is giving him lots of chances to see what he can do.

"If we were a winning team, and it's 2-2 with four minutes left, like it is in the game in Detroit, there's no way I would be on the ice," he said. "In November, if we were winning or tied, I wouldn't see the ice for the last 10 minutes, nor did I expect to. But now, the young guys are getting a chance to show what they can do earlier."

Kelly is at the other end of the spectrum. He's on that winning team. Trying to make the Ottawa Senators, a team many picked as Stanley Cup favourites, was a long shot. He prepared by spending four years in the American Hockey League with Grand Rapids and Binghamton, working hard on his shortcomings.

Kelly went about the business of becoming a pro quietly. The knock against him has always been size and his lack of foot speed.

"I had a pretty good junior career. Then I went to Grand Rapids and thought it would be a pretty easy turnaround," he said. "But I got hurt my first year and when I came back, it was a big learning experience playing against men. I had a pretty tough go. That first year was a big learning year.

"(Ottawa) was a tough team to crack. They let me know that there was an opportunity to make the club as a fourth-line guy. That was my objective, to make that fourth line, kill some penalties and do anything to help the team."

In 52 games, Kelly has four goals and adding nine assists, but it's the plus-12 figure that keeps him in the NHL.

"They know what they are going to get every night from me," Kelly said. "I'm a solid two-way player. There would have been no chance to have made the jump from junior to the NHL. I just wasn't physically mature enough or mentally mature enough. Those years in the minors were well worth it.

"And to become a pro, you have to work on it. I was up here all summer with the Ottawa strength coach, in the rink every day, and coaches notice little things like that."

Now he's playing his heart out in a hockey-crazed town.

"It's a little different than being in the U.S.," he said. "Here it's all hockey, hockey, hockey. It's hockey-crazy like London."

Kelly and Wideman were forced to take different roads, but they wound up where they always wanted to be.


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