In the hockey world the NHL is the pinnacle, but not everyone has the privilege to play in it.
Like anyone else in the real world, a player is an employee. But unlike the real world, as summer turns to training camp, the boss’s door is open. Show me what you can do, and we’ll let you in and close the door behind you.
Training camp serves for players coming through the ranks as an opportunity to earn a promotion and to realize a dream.
But as another NHL season is underway for the Los Angeles Kings there are a few hungry prospects left on the outside looking in.
Defenseman Kevin Gravel and forwards Adrian Kempe and Michael Mersch were some of the final cuts by the Kings who are back with the Ontario Reign at the start of the AHL season.
Of course there are many factors in the “who’s in, who’s out,” game on an NHL roster, such as performance, salary cap, contract constraints and experience, just to name a few.
But no matter the reason, the realization of pulling on a Reign sweater each game versus one that bears the Los Angeles insignia isn’t an easy one to process.
“I think it’s still a work in progress,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers on the adjustment period for his players. “It’s probably pretty devastating to them that they’re not there, knowing how close they are and the amount of time they put in in the summer to train and prepare and get themselves ready. I really haven’t said too much to them since they’ve been back. Given them some space, given them some time. I know they’re enjoying their time with their teammates.
“The good part is their work ethic never drops off. They work hard in practice, they do all the extras. But mentally I’m sure they’re still going through a few things. Now it’s the process of finding a place to live here in Ontario and coming to that realization that, yeah, my mail’s being sent to Ontario instead of El Segundo. I think when the schedule gets a little busier with more games I think it becomes easier for them to forget about that and just start playing.”
Gravel and Mersch, 24-year-olds who were roommates on the road and in Ontario a season ago, are in the same position. Former teammates Nic Dowd and Derek Forbort are instead with the parent club. If Gravel and/or Mersch appear with the Kings this season it will be by call-up, which they both earned last season when they made their NHL debuts.
“We spend a lot of time together and we’re in a pretty similar situation, both had the same goal coming into camp, both are in the same spot now,” Gravel said. “It’s not a bad thing. We can still get better as players and that’s what we’re going to do down here. I know for him he’s got a great head on his shoulders and I know he’s going to work as hard as he can to get back up top and I’m going to do my best to do the same thing.”
It’s only a matter of time for the 20-year-old Kempe, who had an impressive camp but is yet to play in a regular season NHL game. The smooth skater showed the promise that comes with being a first-round pick, this after an up-and-down full pro season in 2015-16. The expectations are higher for the Swede in season two.
“This is not a normal 20-year-old,” Stothers said. “This is an exceptional talent. And the thing with Kempe is he knows it. And that’s not a bad thing. He knows he’s good. He’s got a little bit of swagger to him, not in an annoying way, not in a cocky way, but he’s got a confidence level in his abilities. He knows he’s very close and maybe in his mind, and maybe in the mind of a lot of us, he probably with the training camp that he had, should be there. … He realizes that he’s here and the only way to get out of here is to keep playing the way he did in training camp.”
For now the wounds are still a little fresh, so what the players do next is important.
How do they handle the letdown? How do they channel their emotions in a positive way?
“You go through your exit meeting up there and you go through training camp up there, and obviously my goal is to make that team come the end of camp. It’s disappointing. I think it’s OK to be disappointed,” said Gravel, who appeared in five games with the Kings last season and is a top-four blue-liner with Ontario. “You set a goal and they even said it’s OK to be disappointed, but use it in the right way. Down here I love playing with these guys, I love being in this atmosphere down here and with this coaching staff. I’m just going to use it in the right way and continue to get better and try to be the best player I can be for this team.”
The AHL affiliate has had recent success, winning a Calder Cup championship two seasons ago, followed by a trip to the Western Conference Final, so there’s definitely plenty to play for in Ontario — battling for wins and a recall at the same time. The Reign have one game and one win to their record and will play back-to-back at home tonight against Texas and Saturday against San Jose.
Like Stothers noted, getting back to work may help them forget. Still, it’s not easy.
“It stinks, first of all, but you work hard and whatever happens, happens,” said Mersch, who went up and down with L.A. last season, appearing in 17 games, while still leading the Reign with 24 goals. “I just know that I worked hard at it. I’m looking forward to contributing and helping this team out.”
These three players are on the cusp, but for now the job must go on in Ontario.
As they wait for their time in Los Angeles to come, they’ll keep knocking on the door until the answer is “yes.”
“I just want to try to keep playing my game and I want to be one of the best players when I come back here,” said Kempe. “I just want to show everyone that I’m good enough to play up there and if I get the chance, when I get it, I’m just going to take it.”