I was about 3-years old when my parents decided they wanted me to play hockey. I started out with a “learn to skate” in a small ice arena in Aurora, Illinois. I was able to catch on quick and skate better then most of my class. The better I got, the more time my parents invested in me and the game of hockey. My parents started a construction business about the same time leading us to spend many long days and nights at the ice arenas.
As I progressed, going from team to team and ice arena to ice arena, they started to see the potential and the love for the game I had. There were a lot of politics but my parents focused on my development and did their best to put me into a position to play my best. I had many coaches that taught me a lot and some that did not believe in me but my parents were always there to pick me up and keep the love of the game alive.
When I finally made it to the AAA level there came much more dedication and travel. I remember traveling to Detroit, Michigan at least once a month and sometimes more to play against the top players in the region. We had several tournaments in Canada to continue the journey to being the best I could be. There was a lot of travel and dedication from my parents as well as myself, missing many days of school and many school activities. The kids in grade school did not understand my path in hockey since they all played basketball and football but I never let it get to me since I knew the end-goal of playing professional hockey.
After playing AAA hockey for years I reached the age to start trying out for the Team USA state and regional camps. I was passed up and never made it out of the state-level camps. I lost a lot of confidence not making teams I knew I was good enough to be on. Then one summer we met a coach named Tim Mattila. He changed my way of thought and gave me the confidence to play at the highest level. I may have not have made it through USA camps or the top teams I knew I was ready for but I kept pushing myself and honing my skills. I would shoot pucks in my basement everyday and stickhandle for at least 15 minutes a day at home. While all my friends were out riding bikes and going to birthday parties, I would train. I dedicated myself then to prove everyone wrong.
After grade school, I was lucky enough to enroll in the prestigious Shattuck St. Marys. I left home at age 14 to live 400 miles away in Minnesota. I made the top team for my age group but did not perform as I wanted since I hit my growing spurt. I was always off balance and struggled to skate and perform as I could before. I ended up growing five inches in one year. Despite not performing well my first season there, I returned for a second season. I had a rough start in tryouts and did not make the top team as I expected. I struggled mentally whether I still wanted to play or not. I was put down by other teammates on higher teams that I had just played with the year before and I had many long conversations with Tim Matila and my parents back home about quitting or coming home.
Fortunately, I ended up sticking with it and used it as time to get used to my body. I trained every day to get my game back. It was an extremely hard year mentally as well, finding out my parents were getting a divorce while I was 400 miles away. This was the year that I tell people made me. It was one of the worst years of hockey for me, I was the most depressed and wanted to give it all up. At the end of the school year I returned home and would not return to Shattuck.
When I returned home, my life was a disaster figuring out which parent I was living with, what I was going to do for hockey and even how to pay for it. I spent a lot of time training in Rockford, Illinois to get my game back. Tim Matila believed in me, though, did not charge me for hockey training and let me stay at his home while I was there. They became like family to me and helped push me to keep my career going. I tried out for Team Illinois Midget Major AAA team that summer and I was lucky enough to make the team, but not as a top defenseman. I ended up starting the season off really well and making a name for myself. I had a few agencies looking at me and became the team’s top defenseman. I was also lucky enough to get a call from Team USA U17 with an offer to go to Slovakia for a World Tournament. This was the day all the midnight drives home from the rink and 6 AM wake-ups for school the next morning made it all worth it.
I accepted Team USA’s offer and went to Slovakia to represent my country in a tournament I never thought I would have found myself in. I had a great tournament and received top defenseman honors. But after the tournament, I was back home and at a public school where no one knew about me while playing for Team Illinois. We ended up losing in the semifinals and the season was over. At the end of that season at the National Championship I swept all but one category in the skills competition as a defenseman. This was when everything I worked for, the sleepless nights and all the sacrifices as a high school kid came together.
I was offered to play the rest of the season with Team USA U17 team and continue to play for Team USA U18 team. After being passed up time after time for these teams in tryouts, I was then offered a spot. It just shows, even if you are turned down over and over you can still make it as I did. I ended up playing the U17 season out before going on to play the entire year for the U18 team, ultimately winning a World Championship with Team USA in 2005-06. There was no greater feeling. With so much sacrifice from family and friends to make it, it was worth every second standing in an ice arena in Sweden holding our flag and knowing I was a part of a team with the best players in the world with guys like Patrick Kane and Erik Johnson.
Later that year, I ended up being selected at the 2006 NHL Draft, 52nd overall, by the Colorado Avalanche that summer. I was also committed to the University of Wisconsin on a full ride. I played one game with Wisconsin before I chose to leave for the Ontario Hockey League with the Saginaw Spirit. I had a great first season and got traded to the Belleville Bulls. There, my defensive partner for the season was P.K. Subban. We made it to the semifinals of the Memorial Cup for the CHL and after the season I signed a professional contract with the Avalanche.
I started off my professional career with the Avalanche but was sent to their American Hockey League team in Cleveland, Ohio. I had a great rookie season with them and had a lot of potential but I was traded again over the off-season to the New York Rangers. I went to the main camp but once again was sent down to their AHL team in Hartford, Connecticut.
This is when my body started to give out. I had a concussion during the middle of the season and started to have back problems. I went to a spinal doctor and he suggested I have spinal surgery. I declined the surgery and kept playing. I was then traded to the Anaheim Ducks where I was sent to their AHL team in Syracuse, New York. There my body injuries finally caught up to me. I had to have knee surgery and after the rehab from that my spine started going again. After that season I decided it was time to retire from the game I loved. You can come back from mental battles with the game but not the physical.
Written by Nigel Williams
Special to the HockeyClan
Main Image: Team USA 2005-06 World Championship Team from Sweden. (Courtesy of Nigel Williams)