- What's it like being an NHL prospect? Six draftees dish on getting drafted, their first training camps and striking a balance in their lives.
From the instant they get drafted, things change in the life of an NHL prospect. There’s the rush of being drafted, attending their first training camp with the big club and, for a number of them, getting a chance to represent their home countries at the World Junior Championships.
The road to making an NHL roster is at times complex and arduous, but their fledgling careers are rarely short of exciting moments.
We got the chance to ask six NHL prospects questions about their journeys thus far. Their different paths have provided a wide array of experiences and expectations to how they view themselves as players right down to how they use things like Twitter and Facebook.
Julien Gauthier (RW, Saint John Sea Dogs / Carolina Hurricanes)
Vitaly Abramov (RW/LW, Gatineau Olympiques / Columbus Blue Jackets)
Olli Juolevi (D, London Knight / Vancouver Canucks)
Vili Saarijärvi (D, Mississauga Steelheads / Detroit Red Wings)
Nathan Bastian (RW, Mississauga Steelheads / New Jersey Devils)
Troy Terry (C/RW, University of Denver / Anaheim Ducks)
Sports Illustrated: What went through your head when you got drafted?
Julien Gauthier (pick No. 21, 2016 draft): It was the best feeling of my life. Everything you've done since you're a kid comes in mind at that moment. I would relive it every day and thank everyone who has helped me in my young career.
Vitaly Abramov (No. 65, 2016): I was really happy, proud and honored that I've been drafted in the league and that I became a part of the Blue Jackets organization.
Olli Juolevi (No. 5, 2016): It was a great day and when you finally got to know which team is going to draft you. It's exciting and a really happy day.
Vili Saarijärvi (No. 73, 2015): Everything came pretty quickly and I was little bit surprised because I didn't really have talks with Detroit personally. It was kind of funny, too, because I was telling my agent that I had it on my mind that my teammate Brent Gates Jr. from Green Bay was going to go on that pick but it turned to be me, so it was cool!
Nathan Bastian (No. 41, 2016): Not much at all (laughs). Took me about 10 minutes to click in Mikey [Steelheads teammate Michael McLeod] was drafted by the same team.
Troy Terry (No. 148, 2015): A combination of relief and excitement. The draft created a weird dynamic for me as at that time, I thought I could have been drafted anywhere from the fourth round to not being drafted at all. When the Ducks selected me, I was beyond excited to be a part of such a top class organization. Of all the teams I had interviewed with leading up to the draft they were one of my favorites for a number of reasons.
SI: How do you view yourself as a player? What areas of your game are you working on as you try to make a name for yourself in your organization?
Gauthier: I see myself as a big guy who can skate, score goals and play physical! I need to work on being a better two way player to be more efficient all over the ice.
Abramov: I am a type of player who can make plays on the high speed rush and work hard. I am an offensive forward who can make a difference. I need to improve my D-zone plays. I feel that I have improved a lot, but I still keep working on these aspects of my game.
Juolevi: I'm a good puck mover and I can make good passes. I have to improve my defensive game if I want to play in NHL.
Saarijärvi: I see myself as an offensive defenseman and I think biggest thing where I have to get better is defensive zone and getting stronger.
Bastian: A two-way forward that can play center or the wing. Good along the wall, protecting the puck, love to make plays. Like anyone I need to get stronger. Need to play a hard game if I want to be a pro.
Terry: I think versatility would be at the top of the list of how I view myself. I am a playmaker that can score but I also pride myself on being a reliable forward in all three zones. I believe how you play without the puck is one the most important aspects of the game so I continue to work on the details of hockey. I feel like my defensive game is an area I continue to focus on for improvement so I can be just as valuable on the penalty skill as on the power play and even strength. I also continue to work on earning a role as a leader on whatever team I play for.
SI: Which current or former NHLers do you look up to most? How have they influenced your game?
Gauthier: Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk. Two big guys who can skate and score goals they are really dangerous in the offensive zone and use their body to their advantage.
Abramov: My two favorite players are Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov. I like Bure's speed and Fedorov's vision. If I choose from current player, I would choose Evgeni Kuznetsov. We are from the same city and I looked at his game a lot when I was growing up.
Juolevi: When I was younger I use to watch Teemu Selanne because he was the best Finnish player. Right now I like to watch Oliver Ekman-Larsson and try to watch his offensive game.
Saarijärvi: Selanne. When I was younger I used to play forward and I loved watching him score goals so I wanted to be like him and score lots of goals but I turned out to be a defenseman. I think my offensive skills has come from playing forward.
Bastian: I like Mark Scheifele a lot. Big right shot guy from Kitchener, Ontario like myself.
Terry: Joe Sakic. Ever since I was about 7 years old and I first started playing ice hockey. He was a leader, great teammate, and a skilled two-way forward. A current NHLer who I look up to a lot, and try to model my game after is Claude Giroux. He is a great leader and playmaker, but Joe is the reason I have worn #19 since I was very young. I was around Joe a lot during the lockout year, when he coached a team I was on with his son Mitchell. He had so much class away from the rink and showed so much patience with fans that wanted pictures and autographs. Setting a good example for young hockey players that might be looking up to you is a very important part of the game and Joe was great with fans. It is important to always remember to give back and that is something Joe exemplified.
SI: How big is social media among your teammates and fellow junior/college players? How are you using it, and do your teams/leagues have restrictions on anything?
Gauthier: I just use it to post pictures sometimes but mostly to watch memes and see what my friends are doing.
Abramov: Of course we follow social media. Check what our teammates and coaches say, check what other teams talk about. But it's not necessarily the first place where we take will take and find information about our team.
Juolevi: Some guys are using it more but I don't really use my own. I like to follow it for sport results mostly.
Saarijärvi: I think it's pretty big and I don't know many teammates or friends who doesn't use social media. I use pretty popular social media apps including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. My current team uses those platforms too just like CHL and OHL.
Bastian: I think social media is pretty big, unfortunately most of it tends to be negative. Myself, I know [McLeod and I] joke about being Mikey’s social media advisor, but we don't tweet much about anything. I tend to retweet the odd thing but for the most part I just read a whole bunch of stuff.
Terry: I wouldn’t say there are necessarily restrictions beyond the advice to be smart and don’t say or do anything that might reflect badly on yourself, your teammates or your team. I think teams and coaches are more conscious of social media than ever and I think a few guys have lost scholarships over it. Playing for the NTDP and wearing a jersey with USA on the front helped me remember that what I said and did didn’t just reflect on me but my country. NTDP gave us some great training on how to conduct ourselves including the use of social media.
SI: What was it like attending your first pro training camp? What lessons did you take away?
Gauthier: It was an awesome experience. You can see there's a big difference between junior and pro. Everyone is really good and it’s a really fast pace in practice and games.
Abramov: It was a great experience for me. It helps me this season a lot in junior. The game is much faster and more physical. You should make decisions faster, you have less scoring chances than in junior, you need to have a composure.
Juolevi: It was really cool to be able to practice with those great players and to see how hard you have to work every day to be a good player in the NHL.
Saarijärvi: I think it was huge to see all those pro guys and being around them at the camp. It was something that I won't forget for sure. Biggest lesson I took from there was that there are so many guys competing with you and there aren’t many open spots so nothing comes for free.
Bastian: [It was] so cool to be at my first pro camp and getting in some preseason games. It’s crazy to go from being a superfan to a teammate that quick. I took a lot away a lot of stuff from the camp. I have a long way to go if I want to be like the older guys.
Terry: It was a little intimidating at first but everyone was great and I relaxed quickly. I think my biggest takeaway was how hard the pros work every day to get better, and it taught me how to be a pro. Being a part of the organization for that week just gives me more motivation to work to become an everyday player for the Anaheim Ducks.
SI: What have been your top moments in your career so far?
Gauthier: The World Juniors this year have been awesome for me and my team. We had a lot of fun and these are memories that will last forever.
Abramov: When I won a Championship with Russia at the Under 16s. Also, when we won U-17 in Sarnia with a Russian national U-17 team. My first season in the QMJHL being nominated for Rookie of the Year. And of course, the NHL draft and my first NHL camp.
Juolevi: Last year winning WJC in my hometown and of course winning the Memorial Cup with The London Knights was amazing and getting drafted after that.
Saarijärvi: Being drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and winning World Juniors at home in Finland.
Bastian: Being at the NHL draft with my family. I think it's a pretty obvious answer but when you first walk in and see the atmosphere and everything its pretty cool. On top of that being drafted and seeing guys like McLeod and Nylander get picked on day one. Something I will never forget.
Terry: I have been very fortunate because there have been so many. Playing in the National Championship Tournament as a U16 AAA player, winning the IIHF World U18 Gold Medal in Switzerland, getting drafted by Anaheim and making it to the Frozen Four last season were all definitely highlights but I’d have to say winning the WJC Gold Medal in January has to be my No. 1 so far. It was an amazing experience that I shared with an amazing group of guys that will be bonded together forever by that journey. Many of my teammates were also on the U18 gold medal team which made it even more special to have won two together. I took great pride in representing my country every chance I have had, and to be able to win such a major tournament wearing the red, white and blue was pretty special.
SI: How do you balance the life of an NHL prospect with that of a junior/college player? What is your daily routine, and what are the obstacles you have to get through?
Gauthier: I always have the same routine. Waking up early, going to the gym, then school and then afternoon practice! I tried to eat as well as I can and sleep early.
Abramov: I have seen at the NHL training camp how professional players are and how hard they work and it's impressive. I have changed my attitude. I continue to work hard and I began to concentrate more on the little details which can make me a better player. I am always in touch with the Blue Jackets. They help me and give some advice to help become a NHL player.
Juolevi: You just have to work hard and enjoy, And understand that you are a pro and you have to concentrate on your hockey career.
Saarijärvi: I think we have great support from billet families so when we get home from rink we get away from hockey for little bit and I think it's a good thing not to think about playing always. My daily routines are pretty similar. Everyday I go to the rink in the morning for a skate or workout and then we practice in the afternoon and then we have some free time but most of the time it's best time to rest. When we are traveling a lot and practicing we miss some time with family and friends but when we get to see them we have to enjoy it.
Bastian: My teammates help make the rink my favorite place to be. Not many obstacles when you just get up and go to the rink every morning. When things are going really well I think it's important to not get too high and when things are on the other end of it to not get too low. When I am too hard on myself and get frustrated that's when I run into some trouble.
Terry: To be honest I don’t have to balance much between what I need to do to make it to the pros and what I need to do to be the best college hockey player I can be. My biggest focus right now is just on getting stronger and bigger so I can handle the bigger players and the grind of playing a long pro season with a lot more games. We have one of the best strength guys in the country at Denver in Matt Shaw and he has been great with keeping me on a good path toward that goal. One of the biggest challenges with my daily routine is balancing my schoolwork with the work we need to put in on and off the ice to be prepared to compete every week. It is tough to be good at both but I think it is a great learning experience on many levels that will pay off down the road.