Rob Schremp knows all about growing pains.
His pride took a terrible beating when two previous attempts to crack the Edmonton Oilers lineup ended in one-way tickets to London and Wilkes-Barre.
There were a handful of very public spankings in the AHL last season, where the head coach had to paddle a few childish habits out of the first-year pro.
And then there was off-season knee surgery, which just stole three months from the most important summer of his career.
He's endured enough heartache in the last two years to write a country song, but he's not singing any hurtin' tunes at this year's training camp.
And why would he? The knee is fine, the spankings got his attention and being cut from two previous camps only made him older, wiser and hungrier.
On a team that desperately needs some fresh young talent to step up and show it can play, that's welcome news.
"I'm coming here to make the team and play for the Oilers," said the 21-year-old centre. "Take a spot and stay here. I don't want to be in the minors any more than anyone else does. My goal is to stick."
That's always been the goal, it just wasn't a very realistic one the first two times around. He wasn't ready.
Now he's closer, and the lowest scoring team in the NHL has never been more receptive to the idea of letting him stay.
"I have no misgivings at all about starting the season with a lot of young guys ... Schremp, (Andrew) Cogliano, (Sam) Gagne, (Robert) Nilsson, all those guys are right in the mix," said head coach Craig MacTavish, who doesn't see any reason to give last year's players the inside track, given their 25th-place finish. "We don't have any interest in status quo. We have to be open-minded in terms of how we're going to improve our team."
It looks like he means it. They don't put training camp fodder on a line with Ales Hemsky, which is where Schremp is skating for the first few days of scrimmages.
"You try and play him with guys who highlight his ability and try and create some chemistry," said MacTavish. "We're hopeful those two could do that. At least take a look at that for the first couple of days. He'll get an opportunity. We need the offence."
That's welcome news for a player who's always had a flair for creativity, but will never be the most well-rounded guy on the ice. Clearly, this is Schremp's best chance to make it. He's hoping this is where all those painful lessons pay off.
"There's huge opportunity for us young guys, we have to take advantage of it,"he said, adding a year in minor pro did him a world of good.
"I think so, yeah. I touched up on the things I always needed to touch up on: My defensive game, being a team player, learning how to use your linemates. I did that in the last year in Wilkes-Barre."
He admits it hasn't always been an easy road, but the ones that take you some place special seldom are.
"It took a while," he said. "It was pretty tough, getting smacked in the face a bunch of times (by Wilkes-Barre coach Todd Richards). Ten games in a row I got benched, and seven games in a row I was a healthy scratch. It was like, 'OK I get the (flipping) message.'
"But it's professional hockey. It's not like peewees where your mom bitches at the coach. I picked it up more and more towards the end, playing good professional hockey and kind of getting rid of the bad habits. I feel like I'm a lot better player now."
Schremp knows he's close, but would rather focus on the next step than the finish line.
"I have to earn what I get. I learned that lesson last year and that's where my head's at now. Play my game and hopefully I stick. But I feel like I can play at this level and compete and put up points."
NO DEAL: THE OILERS LEARNED YESTERDAY THAT THEY WON'T BE ABLE TO SIGN Vitaly Karamnov, the training camp walk-on who was projected to be first-round pick in this year's draft.
The Russian centre was passed over on draft day because he told everyone he was under contract back in the Motherland. Then he showed up in North America.
Edmonton invited him to camp, thinking they had a free shot at blue-chip player. It was too good to be true. The NHL said yesterday Karamnov has to re-enter the draft next year and can't be signed by anyone. He'll play with the Everett Silvertips this season.