July 10, 2012
Undrafted players hoping for shot with Jets
By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency
WINNIPEG - They don’t wear specially coloured jerseys to differentiate them from the pack, they aren’t sequestered at meal time or hidden away in their own dressing room.
But the truth is they’re not like the rest at the Winnipeg Jets development camp this week.
They are the undrafted.
While the media scrums and autograph seekers are drawn to blue-chip prospects like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, both first-round picks, the undrafted are usually ignored.
Lest you think you’ll never hear from them again, though, remember these names: Rick Rypien. Alex Burrows. Alexandre Bolduc.
All three were free agent discoveries by the Manitoba Moose who went on to play in the NHL.
Actually, you didn’t have to look further than the ice surface at the Iceplex, Tuesday, to see what an undrafted player can do with his lousy lot in life.
Playing the role of guest coach was Winnipeg’s own Mike Keane, who proved plenty of scouts wrong through a 15-year career that saw him win three Stanley Cups.
Perhaps it was no coincidence to see Keane chatting one-on-one with Norm Ezekiel, ignored on his draft day a couple years back but invited by the Jets to try out after playing with Scheifele under Dale Hawerchuk in the OHL the last two years.
Ezekiel, from Innisfil, Ont., hustled his 5-foot-8 frame into town along with six other undrafteds, proudly displaying the chip on his shoulder.
“Definitely,” the 21-year-old said. “I’m always out to prove something, every time I step on the ice, I step in the gym or even being around the rink.
“At first it can be a bit intimidating. But you see when you get on the ice that everyone’s around the same level right now.”
Ezekiel may carry the name of a prophet, but he plays more like pitbull, recording 262 minutes in penalties over his last two seasons.
Jets player development co-ordinator Jimmy Roy actually calls him a “little bulldog,” and Roy knows a thing or two about the breed, as he carried the same nasty streak as a player.
“You’re probably not going to get to see his true style of play in something like this,” Roy said, referring to the mainly non-contact camp. “He has so much heart and passion for the game.... he’s a leader on his team, he holds guys accountable, he plays hard for his teammates. He’s tough.
“Maybe he needs an opportunity.”
While Ezekiel’s opportunity will undoubtedly involve his fists, Zach O’Brien has hands that managed 50 goals and 101 points in the Quebec Junior League last season, earning a brief look on the Jets’ farm team — which happens to be in his home town.
“I guess they liked what they seen and decided to invite me here,” the St. John’s product said. “It’s definitely a big thing for me. I’ve learned a lot already.”
He also knows that fellow Newfoundlander Teddy Purcell turned his free agent tryout into an NHL career.
“That’s big inspiration for me,” O’Brien said.
Massachusetts native Nicholas Bligh gets his inspiration from Rich Peverley of the Boston Bruins.
“Use it as a little extra motivation,” Bligh said. “Just keep it in the back of your mind. It can be done.”
Bligh will take what he learns this week to Dartmouth College in the fall.
The odds, of course, are stacked like a thousand books against him and the rest of the undrafteds, even of landing a gig with one of the Jets farm teams.
“It’s definitely tougher, in terms of trying to get a spot in the organization,” Ezekiel acknowledged, “because you’ve got to take someone’s job.”
It turns out Keane didn’t offer any pearls of wisdom to Ezekiel Tuesday. Just pleasantries, for now.
“Hopefully we’ll be talking more in the future,” the kid said.
That wasn’t a prophecy. Just a dream.
One the undrafteds won’t let go easily.