Zach Miskovic was called a “little, skinny runt” as a teenager. Jake Hauswirth was always smaller than the other kids on his team. Michael Dubuc was crushed the first time draft day came and went without his name being called.
For a few hundred kids every year, their path to professional hockey starts at the draft. For those who aren’t that lucky, not being drafted is far from a death knell for their aspirations. Maybe more than in any other major sport, there are several ways for hockey players to be discovered. For some, spending a week at the Washington Capitals’ development camp has been the crack in the door they needed.
“You have to try and use every resource available to find players,” general manager George McPhee said. “There’s free agents at the NHL level, free agents at the amateur level, the draft, trades - it doesn’t hurt to sign a few young guys every year. If you sign four or five and one turns out to be a player, that’s one more than you had.
“We started back with Jeff Halpern, and that one worked out really well. We’ve actually been more aggressive in recent years.”
While fans crammed into Kettler Capitals Iceplex to see the highly touted prospects, team scouts also paid close attention to the guys who don’t get their names on the distributed rosters. These players are not just in Arlington to fill out the two teams needed to scrimmage; if they perform well enough, a contract is a possibility.
Jay Beagle was once a nonroster guy. Now he has played seven games for the Caps - including four in the postseason. Miskovic and Hauswirth were here last summer, and now they’re back with contracts in hand.
“All of those guys have been through a draft or two or three, so we’ve seen them since they were 17 years old,” said scout Steve Richmond, who is in charge of inviting most of the nonroster players. “You keep a book on them and you watch them and you say, ‘You know what? This guy is getting better. He wasn’t drafted, but he’s improving and there’s something there.’ ”
Miskovic has known Richmond since he was 14 because both are from the Chicago area. Richmond coached at the Select 17 camp, a showcase for the top American-born players in their age group, when Miskovic was a participant.
He was undrafted after three years in the United States Hockey League and three years at St. Lawrence University when Richmond invited him to Kettler last summer. Miskovic also went to Ottawa’s development camp, then proceeded to lead all NCAA defensemen with 16 goals during his senior year. Suddenly a desired commodity, Miskovic ended up signing with the Caps - a testament to how much he enjoyed the camp last year.
“He used to be a little, skinny runt, but he competed like hell,” Richmond said. “He went to college at probably 170 pounds, and now he’s over 200. He matured late and developed and got in a strength program, and now he’s a man and a prospect.”
Added Miskovic: “It is just a different path. … I was a taller, twiggy guy, and every coach just told me to keep working and keep getting bigger. I’m still doing that today.”
Hauswirth has taken a unique path to professional hockey. He grew up in a couple of small towns in Michigan and Wisconsin. He was still playing in the Tier II North American Hockey League as a 19-year-old.
After two years in the USHL and one strong week at Kettler last summer, the Caps thought Hauswirth was set to play at Northern Michigan. Already 21, he would have had only three years of eligibility left.
“He’s really raw - about as raw as you can be,” Richmond said. “We were going to track him in college, and then we got a call from his agent, who said he wasn’t going to go to college. So we said, ‘He’s a project, but we like what we see.’ If we can get him training with a real trainer and playing with people that take it seriously, we’ll see what happens. He’s got the attitude, but he’s got some work to do. It was a good gamble.”
Dubuc came to camp last year and earned a two-year contract with Hershey of the American Hockey League before spending most of the season with the ECHL’s South Carolina. This week he put on a show, potting seven goals in three scrimmages. He’ll be back for training camp and hopes to earn a spot with the Bears this season.
Beagle took the same course - earning an AHL contract before signing his NHL deal.
“I didn’t come to camp to score goals. I think they know I can do that,” said Dubuc, who scored 35 times in 49 games for the Stingrays last season. “I just tried to focus on other things, like my play away from the puck and my skating ability.”
Another camp surprise was goaltender Garrett Zemlak, once the backup of Caps prospect Braden Holtby for Saskatoon in the Western Hockey League. He spent this past season with Prince Albert in the WHL and only yielded two goals in 90 minutes this week. He outperformed draft pick Dan Dunn and fellow nonroster invitee Dustin Carlson from Ohio State, but earning a contract at his position will be tough.
“I think I had a really good week and worked hard, and I think they liked my character,” Zemlak said. “We’ll see what happens with the Capitals. …
“Hopefully I will sign a ticket sometime in the next year, but I’ve got to keep working hard, and this was a great experience for me. This really opened my eyes to what it takes to be an NHL player.”