VANCOUVER - Jordan Schroeder isn't small unless he plays that way.
“I remember standing in the corner of the rink,” John Schroeder said, describing his son's first hockey practice in Minnesota. “I didn't know much about the game, but I was watching him with other kids and thinking: 'God, he kind of stands out.' Right after the first practice, they said they wanted to move him up a level. The next week, they did the same thing and moved him up again, to eight year olds. All his life, Jordan played against older kids.”
All his life, he played against bigger kids.
Wednesday, Schroeder played against the biggest kids of all.
No one makes it to the National Hockey League by being “small” or weak or intimidated. This is the league that in some stages of its evolution has valued size about all else, and even now rarely considers a player's height less important than his ability to, say, skate.
So it is no small achievement that Jordan Schroeder, five-foot-nine on tippy toes, made his NHL debut in a 3-2 shootout win for the Vancouver Canucks, who drafted him in the first round 3½ years ago and have been waiting patiently for him ever since.
Schroeder had been waiting, too, for an opportunity that finally came with Ryan Kesler's surgery and Andrew Ebbett's failure to impress last weekend.
So it is Schroeder's turn against the Calgary Flames. He looked ready. He should be. He has been waiting his whole life for this.
“I never doubted this,” the 22-year-old said after the morning skate. “I knew it would come if I stayed positive and kept working hard to become a better player. You do realize how hard it is (to make the NHL). But like I've said before, there are different paths for everyone. Some guys jump right in. Some guys have to find what they do best to make it. It could take a year, could take five years. There's a different path everyone takes.”
Schroeder's path has been neither short nor straight.
An offensive whiz from the U.S. under-18 program, Schroeder led his country's world junior team in scoring as a 17-year-old and was at the front of the curve in that program's development of small, fast, skilled players.
As a freshman at the University of Minnesota, Schroeder had 45 points in 35 games and was drafted 22nd by the Canucks in 2009. A year later, it looked like the centre might sprint all the way to the NHL when he had four goals and nine points in 11 games in the American League after leaving school.
But the next season, 2010-11, he managed only 10 goals and 28 points in 61 games for the Manitoba Moose. Schroeder was only slightly better last year, scoring 44 points in 76 AHL games, and seemed to be as much suspect as prospect.
But the Canucks weren't exactly the Cleveland Barons the last two seasons, and Schroeder probably would not have cracked their Presidents' Trophy-winning lineups no matter how many points he piled up in the American League.
Henrik Sedin and Kesler are arguably the NHL's best one-two punch at centre this side of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And Cody Hodgson, drafted a year before Schroeder, was ahead on the depth chart and like a road block for Schroeder.
Centring Dale Weise and Mason Raymond, who scored, Schroeder logged a sturdy 14:49 of ice time that included a shift in overtime.
He is miles from making it in the NHL, and if he thinks he has arrived he is probably already doomed.
But Schroeder earned this opportunity with an excellent training camp last week, and his NHL debut was a solid one.
His dad and mom, John and Deb, travelled from Minneapolis to see Jordan's first NHL game. They're going to California, too, for the Canucks' three-game trip that starts Friday in Anaheim.
“We wouldn't miss this for nothin',” John said. “I can't really explain the past 22 years – all his hockey career, the ups and downs you go through. All those memories will come together a little bit.
“I like to say it's his dream to play in the NHL, but this is far from his goal, just to play one game. He wants to show that he belongs in the NHL, with his vision and skill and speed. He wasn't given the physical attributes of a six-foot-three, 230-pound body. But that's what made Jordan work that much harder to overcome that issue with all his other attributes.”
John Schroeder's sport was basketball and he knew nothing about hockey until he moved his family to the Twin Cities from the town of Pipestone in the southwest corner of Minnesota. Jordan begged to play hockey like other kids in the suburb of Lakeville.
Jordan skated at the rink and on the frozen pond in his neighbour's backyard. He played hockey in the house, too.
“I spent a lot of time out in the garage,” he said, “shooting pucks, stickhandling around my dog, firing tennis balls at my brother.”
Firing tennis balls at his brother?
“For accuracy,” he smiled.
Little brother Zach survived and is playing college hockey at RPI in Troy, New York. The boys' sister, Elly, is on the Lakeville high school team.
His dad recalls two defining moments for Jordan.
The first was when Jordan was 10 and discovered at a tournament in Edmonton that Canadian boys like Drew Doughty, John Tavares and Steve Stamkos were allowed to do slapshots, which were forbidden at that age in Minnesota leagues.
“The first day we got home, he went out on the driveway and started doing slapshots,” John said. “The first couple just dribbled off his stick. But he stayed out there for five hours straight. He taught himself to do it. That defined his passion for the game and to learn.”
Another revelation came at the state high school championship when Schroeder, an eighth-grader on the senior team, scored five points in a game against local star and future NHLer Matt Niskanen.
“That was a defining moment (for me),” John said. “Like, maybe this kid can play hockey.”
So far so good.
“After the first few shifts, I relaxed and just started playing,” Jordan said after the game. “I was trying to get used to the pace, used to everything. It was fun. I'm keeping my jersey, but I didn't grab a puck. I'll save that for my first goal.”
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