Growing up on the go: Rookie journeys from juniors to NHL

by | Special to

Relax, kid, you got the job.

With those six words, a rough translation from coachspeak, five teenagers -- Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, Alex Burmistrov and Cam Fowler -- learned last week the dreaded bus rides and minimal meal money of junior hockey would be replaced by first-class travel and the generous per diems of the NHL.

Jeff Skinner is tied with Eric Staal as Carolina's leading scorers. (US Presswire)  
Jeff Skinner is tied with Eric Staal as Carolina's leading scorers. (US Presswire)  
"It's a big step from the gas money you get in the [Ontario Hockey League]," said Fowler, selected 12th overall by the Anaheim Ducks. "It sets into your mind you're being paid to play the sport that you love and that it's a business, too. People expect a lot out of you."

People expected a lot out of Hall and Seguin, the top two picks in the 2010 draft. It was almost a foregone conclusion they would spend the entire season with the Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins. As the season unfolded, however, the decisions did not appear as clear-cut for Skinner, Burmistrov and Fowler.

But with all five 18-year-olds having passed the 10-game mark, they're pretty much in the NHL to stay. Now they've been tasked with finding permanent housing.

Hall is roommates with fellow freshman Jordan Eberle in an apartment where he learned that putting together furniture from IKEA was almost as daunting as beating an NHL goaltender -- a feat he accomplished in his eighth game.

"It's a lot different living on your own," Hall admitted. "I've never lived on my own for the past three seasons, I've lived with billets."

Just this week, Seguin accomplished a major goal by escaping the confines of his hotel room, mastering the labyrinthine streets of Boston and finding an apartment in a building where a couple of teammates also live.

Like Seguin, Skinner started his career in Europe with a couple of games in Finland. And thanks to the quirks of the Carolina Hurricanes' schedule, he didn't actually play a home game until the final week of October.

"Our schedule has been pretty crazy," Skinner’s roommate, Justin Peters, said. "We haven't had much time at the apartment, maybe only had a couple of meals there. We really haven't had a chance to get settled in yet."

Burmistrov, taken eighth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers, took a somewhat backward approach to his housing situation. Still struggling a bit with English despite a season with the OHL's Barrie Colts, he spent October with Nik Antropov and his family, quickly bonding with his teammate's young son. He's in the process of moving into a hotel and is awaiting the arrival of his mother from Russia.

"She going to try to make me good food," he joked.

Fowler's menu is taken care of. The puck-moving defenseman recently moved in with the family of retired Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer, who works with the team as a consultant.

"As an 18-, 19-year-old kid, I definitely don't have as much experience in the kitchen as some of these other guys, so I think it's good to always have a home-cooked meal," Fowler said. "I had some steak before [a recent] game and that was delicious. Better than room service in the hotel."

The Ducks have Cam Fowler learning from retired standout Scott Niedermayer. (US Presswire)  
The Ducks have Cam Fowler learning from retired standout Scott Niedermayer. (US Presswire)  
"I'm sure the transition from junior hockey to the NHL has been a big one for Cam. And we don't think there's a better ambassador to teach him than a Scott Niedermayer," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "His wife and family and their children would definitely provide that home atmosphere for him, and we think that's a huge positive."

While Burmistrov has left the Antropov household, his boyish enthusiasm has won over his teammates, who've all but adopted the speedy center.

"Everybody likes him because of his bubbly attitude," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "He was playing with [Ben] Eager and [Chris] Thorburn and somebody tried to go after him and they just jumped in and settled that issue very quickly. And that's what we need ... the support that we have, the support that makes you a team."

Hall has gotten support from Oilers first-year captain Shawn Horcoff, who's already had the two-time Memorial Cup champion over for dinner a few times. That helps explain why Hall has checks sitting around his apartment he hasn't gotten around to cashing.

"I don't really care about the money, I just love to play. I'm fortunate to play in the best league in the world. I'm happy to be here," he said, channeling Nuke LaLoosh.

Not surprisingly, it's an attitude shared by all five rookies.

Skinner's "Welcome to the NHL" moment came early, at his first practice with Hurricanes veterans like Eric Staal and Cam Ward.

"I don't think I'd ever been more nervous to pass to a teammate than those days," he said.

Hall, meanwhile, has encountered the flipside of fame and experienced his "underwear moment." Growing up in Calgary, he bumped into defenseman Robyn Regehr at a local department store. The image of the Flames defenseman shopping for underwear left him awestruck.

"I was a big-time fan at one time and that was pretty cool," Hall recalled. "I'm sure there's been a couple moments where I've met some people and been in a little bit of an awkward position. That just comes with the territory."

Alex Burmistrov is very popular with his teammates and coaching staff. (Getty Images)  
Alex Burmistrov is very popular with his teammates and coaching staff. (Getty Images)  
Fowler's NHL initiation came off the ice. Anaheim holds an annual "Dux in Tux" charity event, where the veterans call the team's youngest member up on stage to speak to the crowd. He'd heard whispers about the tradition but was caught largely unprepared.

"I took a speech course in high school, but that was about it," he said. "They didn't give me anything to talk about, so I rambled on about things."

Rambling on is the last thing the Thrashers expect from Burmistrov.

"I don't think it's hit him yet," Antropov said. "He's going to go to different cities, so it's always something new for him. He's a good guy, he's not cocky or anything. He's just observing and taking it slow."

Like many 18-year-olds, Burmistrov enjoys playing video games. Instructed to buy a specific hand-held game, he obliged. He can't remember which one, he just bought it, plays it and regularly beats his teammates. And when he does, he cranes his head over or around his seat on the plane or bus and offers a sheepish "sorry."

Before the season, Seguin was a guest at the Toronto launch of NHL 11, a game that this year features players with junior hockey experience. He admits his game needs improvement.

"It's definitely pretty cool," the Brampton, Ont., native said. "It's even more cool for my buddies back home to play as me and text me about it."

Fowler admitted it was "almost surreal" to see himself portrayed in the game. He's also been more successful than Seguin, thanks to a definite strategy.

"Every time I play, I try to be a little selfish. I don't pass the puck to anyone," he explained. "I try to get my points up, maybe win an MVP."

While Fowler tries to win some cyber hardware, there's a good chance that he or Seguin or Hall or Skinner or Burmistrov takes home the actual Calder Trophy.


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