NAHL.com exclusive by Alex Kyrias
It was an exciting and memorable Day 2 for the North American Hockey League (NAHL) at the 2012 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft held at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA. For the first time in three years, a player(s) from the North American Hockey League (NAHL) were selected in the annual draft.
On Saturday, it turned out to be two players, Corpus Christi IceRays goaltender Anthony Stolarz and Odessa Jackalopes goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Three NAHL alumni were also selected in the draft.
As the first picks in the morning opened, the anticipation built for Stolarz and his family who were all camped out and eagerly awaiting about 12 rows up in the lower bowl of the Consol Center. About 100 feet away on the floor of the arena sat the table of the Philadelphia Flyers, who in Round 2 (45th overall) decided to select Stolarz with their pick. When his name was called, he stood up, hugged his dad, then his mom and finally his four brothers and headed to the floor to put on the Philadelphia Flyers jersey and hat for the first time.
“Getting drafted truly was a dream come true for me. All those hours going to the rink, all those shots I faced, all those extra hours I put in… it all seemed completely worth it when I heard my name called,” said Stolarz to NAHL.com. “I had a lot of butterflies going in my stomach, but as soon as I heard the words ‘from the Corpus Christi IceRays…’ they all went away. It was special to share this day with my mom, my dad, my four brothers and IceRays General Manager Pat Dunn.”
Stolarz selection in the 2nd round (45th overall) was the highest an NAHL player (non-US National Team member) has gone in the draft since 2001, when then Chicago Freeze goaltender Jason Bacashihua was selected in the 1st round (26th overall) by the Dallas Stars. The highest ever NHL Draft pick that played in the NAHL the season leading up the draft was the US National Team’s Eric Johnson, who went #1 overall in 2006 when the US National Team still played in the NAHL.
Stolarz said that despite growing up in New Jersey as a Devils fan, he is now 100% happy to be a Flyers draft pick and fan. “They have such a great tradition in Philadelphia with the Flyers and I feel very honored to have been selected by them. It is one of the closest locations to my hometown, so hopefully one day I will be wearing the Flyers uniform and playing in the NHL, but today was a big step,” said Stolarz.
Corpus Christi General Manager and Governor Pat Dunn, who was on hand in Pittsburgh to see Stolarz get drafted, said that it is a special day for he and the rest of the IceRays organization. “What we witnessed today makes it all worthwhile,” said Dunn. “Anthony’s story is such a great one and it is a great day for him, his family, the IceRays organization and the NAHL. It reaffirms that we as a league are doing the right thing for these players to develop them and give them an opportunity like Anthony enjoyed today.”
“My hope is that more players from the NAHL get the looks and the opportunities I did, because there is a lot of talent in the league,” said Stolarz. “I played against a lot of good players this past season and the league is continuing to get better, so I am proud to have played in the NAHL and to have been one of the representatives for the league at the NHL Draft.”
The other current NAHL name called in the NHL Draft was that of Odessa Jackalopes goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Although Hellebuyck didn’t get the pre-draft coverage that Stolarz did, there was plenty of reason to think that he was going to get selected. Then, in the 5th round of the draft, the Winnipeg Jets selected Hellebuyck #130 overall.
Hellebuyck, who didn't attend the draft remarked, “I was literally speechless when it happened, because I was texting with one of my teammates and watching the draft on TV. They went to commercial and during that time I got a text that congratulated me on being a Jet. They came back from commercial and there was my name on the screen.” said Hellebuyck on Saturday.
“It’s surreal…I’ve had a mile-wide smile on my face since the pick, it’s still on and I can’t get it off.” Hellebuyck, who received serious interest from, by his estimation, seven to ten NHL teams leading up to the draft, says he had a feeling Winnipeg would end up topping his list of suitors. “A did a lot of interviews with teams, but the Jets really upped their interest in the past few days,” said Hellebuyck, “I had a pretty good inkling it’d be them.”
A Commerce, Michigan native, Hellebuyck was dominant in the South Division in his lone NAHL campaign, leading the league in appearances (53), minutes played (3,084) and total saves (1695) in 2011-12 and, according to Hellebuyck, it’s that heavy workload that allowed him to blossom as a person and a player. “Playing all those games in one year is exactly what I needed,” said Hellebuyck, “The Jackalopes really gave me a chance…they set me up for success and with the amazing coaching and the support and work of the professional staff…thanks to them, I really couldn’t fail.”
Hellebuyck was coming off his first season in the NAHL in which he won both the NAHL Goaltender and Rookie of the Year awards, as he led the Jackalopes to a playoff berth in the South Division. During the season, he also committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Odessa General Manager Joe Clark stated… “We are very proud of Connor because he worked extremely hard this season and is very passionate about playing the position of goaltender. It is a big and exciting day for the Jackalopes organization, the South Division and the NAHL. It makes being a part of junior hockey worthwhile. Our fans in Odessa should feel very proud.”
Three other players, who once played in the NAHL, were also selected in Day 2 of the NHL Draft.
Current Cornell forward John McCarron, who spent a small portion of the 2008-09 season with the then Motor City Machine of the NAHL, was selected in the 6th round (#153 overall) by the Edmonton Oilers.
Paul LaDue, who was an NAHL All-Rookie 2nd Team selection in 2010-11 while playing for the NAHL’s Alexandria Blizzard, was selected in the 6th round (#181 overall) by the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings.
Finally, Colton Hargrove, who played a small portion of the 2009-10 season with the St. Louis Bandits, was selected in the 7th round (#205 overall) by the Boston Bruins.