Why NHL rookie tournaments matter, from ex-players who look back at them with gratitude

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Whether it’s taking place in Traverse City, in Buffalo, in Las Vegas, or in the Okanagan, it’s easy to downplay what a prospect tournament really means for the players competing in them.
Big picture, no NHL jobs are won or lost at a rookie tournament. And everyone knows — regardless of how a prospect performs at the tournament — that the recent first-round picks are going to get the longest looks when NHL main camps open.
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When the best player on the planet, Connor McDavid, made his unofficial Edmonton Oilers debut at the Penticton Young Stars tournament in 2015, for example, he played a small handful of shifts in the first period before he got caught by a big hit thrown by a Vancouver Canucks prospect. McDavid wasn’t injured, but the Oilers had seen enough. Understandably.
It goes without saying that McDavid’s truncated run at Young Stars meant nothing in the grand scheme of his Hall of Fame career.
For the mere mortals, however, particularly for some of the less heralded stars, or invitees, or under-the-radar, undrafted free-agent prospects who will fill out the rookie tournament rosters across North America this upcoming weekend, performing well can serve as a significant launching pad.
It’s a chance, more than anything.
A chance to make a big first impression in a competitive environment.
A chance to get acclimated to a new organization ahead of NHL main camp.
A chance for young aspiring professional players to go into the potentially overwhelming environment of an NHL training camp — often for the first time in their career — feeling good about their game.
“Looking back at it, that tournament was super important to me,” recalled former NHL goaltender Eddie Lack, who attended the Penticton Young Stars tournament in 2011 after signing with Vancouver as an undrafted European free-agent goaltender. “Being able to play as well as I did, I think, gave me an opportunity to play a few extra weeks with the NHL team at training camp. A lot of guys get sent down right away after camp, before AHL camp starts, but I was up there until the day before the first game of the season. That tournament gave me some confidence, and showed me a path to get to that level.”
Eddie Lack playing for the Young Stars Tournament in 2010. (Marissa Baecker / Getty Images)
That’s the whole point of the exercise, of course. It’s a major reason why the original architect of the Traverse tournament, Oilers general manager Ken Holland, pushed hard behind the scenes to reinstate the tournament in Penticton after taking over hockey operations in Edmonton.
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“It was a really important tournament for me,” said former NHL agitator Antoine Roussel, who also attended Canucks camp in 2011 as an undrafted free agent fresh off of a challenging season split between the AHL and the ECHL in the Boston Bruins organization. “Really, it helped me feel good about myself before going to the main camp. When you’re a rookie and you play some games before getting into main camp, it helps you feel good about your game, about the environment, about yourself. When you’re a veteran there’s stuff, and it’s not stuff you take for granted, but you’re used to it. It’s just the way it is in the NHL.
“When you’re a young guy and you come in, there’s a lot. It’s different. You come in early and you get to talk to trainers, and they’re there, and they help you out. You get used to, a little bit, what it means to be a full-time NHLer and what you need to do.
“A rookie camp, a rookie tournament like that, it helps a young guy be ready to just take off. I know it did for me.”
Roussel’s experience as an invitee at the Penticton Young Stars tournament, fresh off of a challenging first professional campaign, set him on the path to building an NHL career that spanned more than 600 NHL games played and netted him over $20 million in estimated career earnings, according to CapFriendly.com.
And it almost didn’t happen. As Roussel recalled, he was a backup option on Vancouver’s prospect camp roster and got the call only because of an injury.
“I didn’t have anything going on,” Roussel said of his prospects that fateful summer. “Nothing. Then at the end of the summer, my agent calls me and says ‘Somebody got injured, blah blah blah,’ and I got invited to go to Penticton with the Canucks.”
Hockey is a game of bounces, and sometimes the business side of the game matches that on-ice reality. Hockey so often comes down to making the most of the luck that breaks your way.
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“I ended up going there and I knew what I was getting into,” Roussel said. “I had the pro year and I knew what I had to do to make room for myself and be noticed. My whole goal was to be noticed whenever I was on the ice. So I was the biggest pest I could be. There’s too many guys, so if you just do the little things, you’re stuck. I had to go above and beyond.
“That first game, I think, I ended up fighting Micheal Ferland and I don’t even think I gave Ferly a choice. I just double-cross-checked him, knowing that ‘OK, he’s going to fight’ and right away he turns around just ‘Boom, boom, boom,’” Roussel recalled, laughing about a Penticton Young Stars tilt with his eventual Canucks teammate.
“I also scored a goal, and that was huge for me. The year before I only scored one goal in the AHL and that was so hard for me mentally. You have no idea how hard that was.
“I played the first game, I played the second game, and the third game they scratched me. So I was really worried, wondering what was going on, but they told me right away that I’d done good enough and was going to go on to the main camp.”
With that strong first impression made, Roussel earned the invite to Canucks main camp. The club, coming off of a Stanley Cup Final appearance, even elevated him from the third group during the course of training camp. He appeared in multiple preseason games, lasting far longer than an undrafted free agent rookie camp invitee typically would.
“By that third preseason game, and this is when other guys are getting cut, cut, cut, I started to think ‘Oh man, this is getting fun, let’s see if I can push it,’” Roussel said.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get a contract with the Canucks, I wasn’t ready for that at all. But I’d done enough. I went to Chicago, to American League camp, signed there, and after an ankle injury early in the season … my game hit another level. For me, the year before taught me not to focus too much on points, but just to focus on playing better.
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“I ended up being a full-time player. I was just playing good. Mac-T (Craig MacTavish) just wouldn’t take me out of the lineup … And I’m sure that’s why I got the contract with the Dallas Stars. That was it — the next year, I was in the show.”
Roussel’s experience isn’t typical, but it’s a reminder that even the most unlikely and remarkable NHL story usually has a humble beginning.
So even though these prospect tournaments typically feature a scrambly structural environment on the ice, and off-ice team building is often as significant a point of emphasis for players, coaches and hockey operations staff alike, there are real, if subtle, stakes to these prospect tournaments. And there’s almost always something that occurs that actually matters down the line, even if it might take you a few years to recognize it.
“You have to prepare for those tournament games like it’s a real game,” said Lack, reflecting on what the Penticton Young Stars tournament meant for him. “You want to play like you’re playing for points in the regular season. We see it every year too with first-round draft picks that come into a camp environment and they think it’s going to be easy, but it’s not. You have to look at this week as full speed ahead, right from the start. This isn’t a warmup — when this tournament starts, you need to think of it as the start of your season.”
(Top photo of Antoine Rousse: Derek Cain / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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