Late bloomers take longer road to NHL

KEN WIEBE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:29 PM ET

While many of the players advancing to the elite level -- and ultimately the pros -- are products of the AAA programs, it's not the only way to make it.

Two Stanley Cup winners from the past three seasons -- Dustin Penner of Winkler and Darren Helm of St. Andrews -- didn't even make their respective Manitoba Junior Hockey League clubs.

Helm eventually made his way to the Western Hockey League after a season in the Keystone Junior B League with the Selkirk Fishermen, but Penner took the long road that began with him playing high school hockey with the Garden Valley Zodiacs.

Penner's circuitous path included a season at Minot State University-Bottineau and a season with the Maine Black Bears before he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Anaheim Ducks.

This season, Penner has been one of the NHL's most pleasant surprises.

The point is that there are still opportunities for late bloomers to succeed at the next level.

"Absolutely, any route you take you can make it and there's no route you take that is going to guarantee anything," said Tom Thompson, who is an assistant general manager with the Minnesota Wild. "We're more concerned with how you play than where you play. It's not just going to be through the structure, you have to be looking for the guy that has the ability to advance."

Goalie Chet Pickard, a first round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2008 and reigning Western Hockey League goalie of the year, didn't make Team Western as a 17-year-old but was the backup goalie for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship two years later.

It's clear different players develop at a different pace.

"A lot of things come down to genetics and you might be a late bloomer or grow a little bit later -- it all comes down to the commitment of that player," said Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods. "Sometimes kids get labels, as an A1 or a AA player or whatever it may be. Players can interpret that in a number of ways. The kid that is maybe not playing at the elite level right now needs to enjoy what he's getting out of the game and those opportunities might come along down the road. Jarome Iginla wasn't taken in the bantam draft and it worked out pretty well for him.

"You have to use some of those examples as motivation."


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