Scoring on the Rebound

NHL Stars Used The Sting Of Early Rejection To Fuel Their Rise To The Top
Jess Myers

After being one of the last cuts on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, Herb Brooks played in two Olympics and coached in two more.After being one of the last cuts on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, Herb Brooks played in two Olympics and coached in two more.

The drive from St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota to Blake Wheeler’s boyhood home in the

Charlie Coyle

Miss: Didn't make the cut for Massachusetts select team

Rebound: Playing in his fourth season with Minnesota Wild

Twin Cities takes about an hour in normal traffic. But on one particular summer afternoon, when the Winnipeg Jets star forward was just 17, the drive seemingly took forever.

A standout youth and high school hockey player, Wheeler had attended USA Hockey’s Select 17 Festival, and after a few on-ice sessions, did not see his name on the list of players invited to one of the all-star teams.

“That was the biggest kick in the gut. I didn’t make the final 52 in Minnesota,” Wheeler recalled after a recent Jets’ practice. “At that point you’re 17, you’re not making that team, and wondering if playing college hockey is realistic? That’s the thought that starts going through your head.”

Wheeler’s father, in addition to driving that quiet car home, tried to be the voice of reason and encouragement to a young player who could see his hockey dreams evaporating before his eyes.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘Look, this doesn’t have to be devastating. Just keep doing what you’re doing and maybe you need to do a little bit more to get yourself to the next level,’” Wheeler said.

“That’s what I did. Twelve months later I got drafted fifth overall in the NHL, so it’s the ultimate example of you’re not as bad as people think you are, or as good as people think you are. You’re somewhere in the middle.”

Among the American hockey players currently toiling in the NHL, there are multiple stories of players who stood out from the time they first stepped onto the ice, making the top teams all the way through their development path, before ending up in “the show” and playing for a healthy paycheck.

Ryan Kesler

Miss: Cut from every team as a 13-year-old

Established himself as elite power forward in the NHL

There are just as many stories like Whee­ler’s, of the talent that may have been hidden to scouts and coaches as a tyke or a teen.

As a youth hockey player in suburban Detroit, Ryan Kesler was barely a teenager when his hockey career had seemingly thudded to a halt. The Anaheim Ducks’ alternate captain recalled being 13 and getting cut “by every team I tried out for.” It was one of the toughest moments of his life, prompting his father to take over as coach of a team, and offer his son some sage advice.

“He always told me ‘you can either quit and prove all these people right, that you weren’t good enough to play on their team, or you can keep going,’” Kesler said. “You might not be the best player on the team, but you can always improve and always prove people wrong. That’s what I did. It was probably the best advice that my dad’s ever given me.”

According to a prominent sports psychologist, those painful moments of trying, and failing, to make a team can actually be hugely beneficial over the course of time in the development of a young athlete.

“You benefit from encountering adversity and encountering some obstacles. Adversity at the right time, for the right reason and for the right person is actually good for you,” said Peter Haberl, one of the top team sports psychologists for the United States Olympic Committee.

“Not getting to play the last minute of a game, or on the power play, or on the top line, can actually be the best thing that happens to you. It’s much better for your growth and development if it’s not smooth sailing all the time.”

Blake Wheeler

Miss: Didn't make the USA Hockey Select 17 Festival All-Star team

Rebound: The 5th overall pick in 2004
NHL Draft

It’s all about mindset, said Haberl, who played pro hockey in Europe for a decade and worked with the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team on their run to the 1998 Olympic gold medal.

“One key to success is to cultivate a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset,” Haberl said, in a phone interview from Rio de Janeiro where he is helping to prep American athletes for the coming Olympic Summer Games.

“Some players facing adversity take that as an indication of their talent. That’s an example of a fixed mindset. Others take it as an indication that they need to work harder and improve their skill, rather than thinking, ‘I’m not good enough.’”

It was that mindset way back in 1960 that helped hockey legend Herb Brooks, when he was the last player cut from the American team that captured the nation’s first hockey gold medal a few weeks after Brooks was sent home. He went on to play in two other Olympics, and coach Team USA in two more, earning gold and silver medals behind the bench.

Prior to the 1980 Olympics, Brooks needed to make one final cut and sent Ralph Cox home from the team that would perform the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y. Cox, in an interview with SportsNet, recalled how Brooks fought back tears when announcing his decision.

“It was obviously a crushing moment for me as an athlete,” said Cox, who played pro hockey in Europe for several years before launching a successful real estate business.

“I remember when I left thinking this was it for me, my life would never be the same…It really forced me to think about myself and the world around me in a good way.”

Charlie Coyle had expectations of playing on the top Massachusetts select team for a prestigious tournament in Minnesota when he was a teen. He didn’t make the cut, and was instead sent to a lower-level competition in Ohio. It hurt, but today the Minnesota Wild forward echoes Haberl’s words, and said that adversity at a young age drove his later success on the rink.

“Rejection is tough, but I think you have to let it push you and not let it push you down,” Coyle said. “You need to let it build you up, put some competitive edge in you and remind yourself that you’ve got to be better.”



Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.


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