In no other sport is it as difficult to reach the professional level as it is in hockey. There are literally thousands of prospects in the U.S., Canada and Europe and only a select few roster spaces available. Players have to fight their way up the ladder, rung by rung. The competition is fierce.
In this occasional series, Tampabaylightning.com writer Lonnie Herman profiles some of the junior players who have been selected by the Lightning in the NHL Entry Draft and are beginning the climb toward the NHL.
The town of Prince George, British Columbia, in case you happen to be looking for it, sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers, some 786 kilometers (488 miles or so) Northeast of Vancouver. It’s a bustling city of some 77,000, with the famous Trans-Canada Highway running through the center of the town. Prince George is a happy town, and, as if to prove the point, a visitor entering via automobile is greeted by “Mr. PG”, a statue made of fiberglass and sheet metal, painted to look like wood, which stands more than 26 feet tall. Don’t be frightened; there’s a loudspeaker in his nose!
Recently, the mayor has proclaimed December to be “Operation Red Nose” in Prince George, which means that anyone and everyone who needs a designated driver to get home shall have one. The first weekend resulted in 99 safe rides home.
The weather tonight in Prince George is an almost balmy 26 degrees as a crowd of almost 6,000 heads for the CN Centre, home of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars. Tonight, the Cougars take on their arch-rival, the Medicine Hat Tigers, and if the past mayhem that results when these two meet is any indication, Operation Red Nose will spring into action with more than a few rides home tonight.
The hometown Cougars are at a bit of a disadvantage tonight because as the team gathers in their locker room their current leading scorer, Dana Tyrell
, is on an airplane heading for Calgary and the tryouts for the Canadian World Junior team – a select group that will compete at the World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic.
Well and good, but why should fans in Tampa be concerned with Canadian junior hockey? Simply because Tyrell, selected by the Lightning in the second round of the ’07 draft, has been making huge strides in his development and his play is winning accolades almost weekly.
At 18 years of age, Tyrell is considered one of the best skaters in the entire Western Hockey League. A tenacious forward, he is known for his fore-checking and his ability to force turnovers by his opponents. While his burgeoning skills are appreciated, of equal consideration and importance to the Lightning is Tyrell’s acknowledged leadership skills and hockey smarts.
"He never gets outworked. He never takes a night off and he pushes himself to the max at all times," Cougars general manager DallasThompson said. "Your only hope as a team is to have that rub off on some of the other players, which I certainly think it does."
The importance of hard work is not lost on Tyrell.
"It’s one of my goals every game to be one of the hardest workers on the ice," he said. "I think it’s important. Work ethic really makes you stand out and I love competing and outworking everyone."
Outworking is certainly working for Tyrell. Through 30 games this season, he had tallied 14 goals (tied for the team lead) and was the overall point leader for the Cougars with 33.
But for now the Cougars have to take to the ice without their leading scorer, and if Tyrell is selected to the Canadian Junior World Team, (the announcements are due Friday) he’ll leave immediately with the team for Europe to prepare for the Championships which begin on December 26.
“It’s only going to be a benefit, “ Cougars head coach Drew Schoneck told the Prince George Free Press. “He’s going there to compete against the best players that major junior has to offer and certainly that’ll up his level of play.”
And any opportunity to compete against the best in his age group is a positive as far as the Lightning are concerned.
Meanwhile, the Alberta native is going all out to make this opportunity pay off.
“I’m really excited,” Tyrell said. “But I have to earn a spot. There’s going to be lots of great players there.”
If determination is a consideration, Tyrell chances shouldn’t be discounted.