Having an opportunity is one thing, but making the most of it is another.
That is the message Milan Lucic has for junior hockey players.
And Lucic speaks from experience, going from being undrafted as a bantam-aged player to one of the — if not the — most coveted National Hockey League free agents this past summer.
Every spring, 13- and 14-year-old hockey players sit and wait to hear if their name will be called during the Western Hockey League bantam draft. In 2003, 232 players were selected by the WHL’s 20 teams, but Lucic was not among them.
While the draft is typically the route a player takes to get to major junior hockey, it is not the only way to make it to the top level of junior hockey in North America.
After contemplating quitting the game, Lucic Decemberided to stick with it.
He began his 16-year-old season with the Pacific Junior Hockey League’s Delta Ice Hawks, but Lucic would soon jump from junior B to junior A with the BC Hockey League’s Coquitlam Express, scoring nine goals and 23 points in 50 games.
His play caught the attention of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and, after playing a couple of games at the end of the season, earned an invitation to the team’s training camp the following summer.
Thrilled for chance
“I remember being so happy that I was able to get an opportunity to play in the highest level of junior hockey in Western Canada,” he said. “I was thrilled for the opportunity.”
And while he made the team, Lucic also knew that it was up to him to make the most of the opportunity.
“Have no regrets. Put everything on the line and embrace the struggle — that was the attitude I had, doing the little things right, day in and day out,” he explained.
“He just had that confidence about him and you could tell he was trending properly. And obviously it didn’t take long for him to rise from being a prospect to a prominent player,” said Scott Bonner, who was the Giants GM at the time.
“He was a brash guy, he was a tough guy. He came in and made his mark … and fought anyone and everyone.”
According to www.hockeyfights.com, Lucic fought 21 times that first season.
He also had a modest nine goals and 19 points in 62 games as the Giants won the WHL championship trophy.
NHL teams noticed Lucic
It put Lucic on the radar of NHL teams that summer, and the Boston Bruins selected the hulking forward in the second round, 50th overall, in the NHL entry draft.
Buoyed by that confidence and a larger role in his 18-year-old season, Lucic delivered a 30-goal, 68-point campaign, to lead the Giants in scoring.
“It helped me a lot with my confidence, especially going that high. I wanted to do whatever I could to live up to the expectations of being that high of a draft pick,” he said.
“To go into my second year, after learning what I did in my first year, and then getting drafted, definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”
While the Giants would lose in game seven of the WHL finals, Vancouver — as the host team — would capture the Memorial Cup as Canada’s major junior champions. Lucic won the Stafford Smythe Memorial Award as the tournament’s most valuable player.
“Looking back at those two years, those were probably the most fun I had in hockey, being a Vancouver Giant,” Lucic recalled about his time with Vancouver.
“Being with players the same age, there were no paycheques to worry about, it was just (about) having fun and playing hard.
“Not that we don’t play for the love of the game now, but playing for the love of a game as a teenager, when you get to play at the level of the WHL is a pretty cool thing,” he explained.
A few months later, he attended his second training camp with the Bruins. His only expectation was to stay in camp a little while longer than he had the year before, and Lucic was sure he would be back for the Giants banner-raising ceremony to start the 2007-08 WHL season.
Lucic lands roster spot
Instead, he stuck with the Bruins as a 19-year-old.
Lucic, a six-foot-three, 233-pound power forward, played eight seasons with Boston and then, this past year, with the Los Angeles Kings, amassing 159 goals, 397 points and 851 penalty minutes in 647 career games. He also has another 26 goals and 64 points in 101 playoff games, all with the Bruins.
He also won the Stanley Cup in 2011, his fourth season in the league, and is preparing for his 10th NHL season.
The success doesn’t surprise Bonner.
“Milan had a pretty good plan as to how he was going to get to where he was wanted to get to,” Bonner said, citing the fact Lucic’s uncle, Dan Kesa, had played in the WHL and the NHL.
“He was an intelligent kid and he was a sponge. Whatever (former coach) Don Hay told him and advised him to do as a player, he did it. He didn’t push back. He was a real quick learner and one of those guys not afraid to go to the dirty areas.”
“In Milan’s case, he was fearless, he was huge and he was talented. It is a deadly combination.”
“Looking back now, if it wasn’t for that ’06-’07 year, and the confidence I built that year with everything I went through, I don’t think I would be here today,” Lucic said.
Lucic had his pick this summer
There is no denying Lucic has made it.
This past summer, the 28-year-old was a hot commodity as an unrestricted free agent.
While he freely admits that staying in Los Angeles was his first choice, Lucic could not come to terms with the Kings.
Thirteen teams contacted Lucic and he met with 10 of them, including his hometown Vancouver Canucks.
“I am humbled that many teams reached out,” he said, admitting the interest was more than he’d expected.
He chose the Edmonton Oilers — signing a seven year, $42 million contract — and the chance to play with Connor McDavid, as well as reunite with Peter Chiarelli, his first general manager with Boston.
“I feel like deep down I went with my heart and made the right Decemberision,” Lucic said.
Bonner is not surprised Lucic generated so much interest.
“He is a consummate winner: he has won everywhere he has played and I think that is why this summer he got the big ticket,” Bonner said.
“Edmonton needed a guy that wants to win and can show those young guys what it takes to win and daily habits are very important.”
Lucic’s priMarchy motivation is to win at least one more Stanley Cup. The Bruins made the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Living the NHL life is a dream come true, but it’s not one without sacrifice.
“A lot of people don’t realize how many things you miss out on,” he said.
A father of two young girls (ages three and 15 months), Lucic remembers having to miss his eldest daughter’s first birthday because he was on a road trip.
“You sacrifice a lot to get to live your dream and play in the NHL.
“But at the end of the day, I can’t complain; I get to live my dream,” he said.
Brian Babineau NHLI via Getty Images
Milan Lucic helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011.