We all know about the well-trodden path young hockey players whose last name isn’t Crosby take to the National Hockey League. First, have a good junior or college career, then get drafted, attend camp, get sent back to junior or the American Hockey League, work hard, turn some heads and hope for a call-up.
Simple enough, if not particularly easy.
But for those who never get drafted? It gets even harder as the odysseys of two young players, one from Toronto, the other from Winnipeg, attest.
Oren Eizenman, the Toronto native, and Jacob Micflikier, left, the Winnipegger, started the season in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) – the “AA” circuit that used to be known for bench-clearing brawls and as the last stop for players past their “best by” date.
So far this season, both skaters have impressed in the ECHL – which today is known as a development league and a feeder for the AHL and the NHL – and both were rookie selections to the league’s all-star game. Eizenman, who plays for the Fresno Falcons, was named to the National Conference team in the Jan. 23 game, but Micflikier, with the Stockton Thunder, will have to sit this one out. He was sent home to Winnipeg for a couple of weeks to recover from a broken leg and torn ligaments suffered during a call-up to the Springfield Falcons, an Edmonton Oiler affiliate located just west of Boston.
Micflikier, 23, a left-winger, got into one game, showed lots of energy on the forecheck and was practising with the team the next day when he caught his skate in a rut, fracturing his fibula and rupturing the deltoid ligament in his ankle.
He hopes to play later this season, but he’s not sure whether he’ll resume where he left off or be forced back to the ECHL and asked to prove himself all over again. Before his call-up on Dec. 27, Micflikier scored 10 goals and added 23 assists in 27 games with the Thunder, leaving him 18th in league scoring.
“I consider myself a playmaker,” he said on the line from Winnipeg. “I try to create opportunities out there and use my quickness to get to the puck and create chances for my linemates.”
At only five-foot-eight and 180 pounds, he knows he’s small by pro standards and so he’s added a little aggression to his skill set. He’ll mix it up in the corners and go to the net – a style expected of much larger players. “I’ve made that part of my game. That way, coaches won’t see my size as a liability,” he said.
In his one game with Springfield this season, he started on the second line, but also skated on the power play and was given plenty of ice time. After the game, he was told by his coaches they were impressed with his efforts, but the next day, during practice, his skate caught in a rut in front of the net.
After a visit with family in Winnipeg, he’ll return to Springfield, where the team’s medical staff will design a rehab program for him. He hopes to get into some games at the end of the season as he did last year, when he joined Springfield for nine games to close out the campaign. Micflikier, who played for four years with New Hampshire Wild Cats of the NCAA, scored three goals and added one assist in that span and impressed enough to be offered a contract with the team’s affiliate in Stockton.
Eizenman, a centre, also has an NCAA pedigree, playing with RPI Engineers for four years, while adding stints with the Israeli national team at tournament time. He was named to the all-rookie Eastern College Athletic Conference (a division in the NCAA) team and scored 99 points in 129 games for the Engineers. He was never drafted and signed a free-agent contract with Fresno, an unaffiliated ECHL franchise.
In 33 games with the Falcons, Eizenman had 19 goals and 19 assists, to place him 15th in league scoring. He was also named rookie of the month for December, during which he scored 16 points.
Contacted at his home in Fresno, Eizenman said playing in the NHL is still his goal. It’s one shared by many in the ECHL, and the league touts the fact that over the past 20 years 341 of its players have gone on to play in the NHL.
To join those illustrious alumni, Eizenman, 22, knows he has to play well and turn some heads.
Eizenman’s coach thinks quite highly of his player. Matt Thomas, who hails from Mississauga, said Eizenman is “a very good player” who surprised him a little by showing early on that he’s also “an impact player.”
“One thing that separates him from other players is that he has a very good head on his shoulder. Others come out of big-time college and think they should be an NHLer. As much as Oren thinks that’s true, he knows he has to prove himself.”
On the ice, Eizenman has lots of speed, good vision, makes accurate passes and knows what’s going on around him, Thomas said. “What separates him is that he truly understands what he needs to do to get better. He knows he has to go out and earn the opportunity” of playing in the NHL.
Thomas believes Eizenman should continue to improve and will eventually get noticed by one of the big clubs. He might even get called up early this year for a look by an AHL team.
That would suit Eizenman fine and would be a welcome stepping-stone en route to the NHL. “It’s definitely a goal for anyone playing at the ECHL or the AHL level. To work your self up and get as high as you can get,” he said.