TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — After scoring the game-wining goal in the waning minutes of a prospect tournament game on Saturday, Alex DeBrincat — the Blackhawks’ next big thing, a drafted star-in-the-making with a three-year contract — didn’t even smile. There was no celebratory leap, no windmill punch into the air. He simply turned and glided back toward the bench, taking an obligatory hug or two from his teammates. Ho-hum.
Earlier in the game, after racing down the right wing and scoring the first goal of the game, Michael Cramarossa — a 21-year-old free agent who has spent five years toiling in the Ontario Hockey League — delivered a vicious fist pump and let out a primal scream.
For the guys who are locked into contracts and headed for Rockford, prospect tournaments and offseason development camps are mere tune-ups, a chance to shake off the summer rust and get to know future coaches and linemates. For unaffiliated invitees, however, they could be once-in-a-lifetime chances to secure their dreams of being professional hockey players.
And long shots such as Cramarossa or Homer Glen native Joey Keane need look no further than their own locker room in Traverse City for proof that it can actually happen. Last July, Alexandre Fortin was a virtual nobody. But a breakout performance at development camp earned him a contract with the Hawks, and a strong preseason vaulted him to the top of the organizational depth chart. There’s a good chance he’ll be in the NHL at some point this season.
Fortin is the model, the proof — the patron saint of free-agent invitees.
“I had one chance to prove myself, and I knew it,” Fortin said. “So I just said to myself, it’s probably the only chance I’ll ever have. So take it, and do what you have to do. That’s what I did, and I’m proud of it.”
Keane, a defenseman who attended Lockport High School before spending a year in Dubuque (USHL) and a year in Barrie (OHL), was invited to prospect camp in July. And even though he had just turned 18 two weeks before camp, he did well enough to earn another invitation to Traverse City. And while he’s not exactly high on the Hawks’ radar — he was a healthy scratch in their second game of the tournament — that Hawks scouts even had gone to see him play was enough to keep the NHL dream alive.
“It’s definitely my ultimate goal, for sure,” Keane said. “That’s every hockey player’s dream when they’re growing up. It’s not hard to hold on to that, in all honesty. I love what I’m doing.”
Kyle Maksimovich, a teammate of DeBrincat’s with the Erie Otters, has been very productive in the OHL — a point-a-game player the last two seasons. Despite those gaudy numbers, he went undrafted, and couldn’t latch on to the Maple Leafs after being invited to their prospect camp earlier in the summer. He’s only 19, so there’s still time. And with DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and other top Otters -moving on, Maksimovich could prove himself with a bigger role this coming season.
But that doesn’t lessen the pressure that he — and every free-agent invitee — feels on every shift. It’s why Cramarossa’s goal meant so much to him, while DeBrincat’s was just business as usual.
“It’s nerve-racking, but you can’t really think about it too much,” Maksimovich said. “Yeah, it’s frustrating [to get overlooked] but it just means you’ve really got to capitalize on your opportunities. The Hawks gave me a chance to show my skills and show what I’m good at. That’s something I’ve got to not take for granted.”
Because any of these guys could be the next Fortin — with a contract in hand, and a bright future ahead.
“It’s good to see him do that,” -Keane said. “Just like [Will] Pelletier, who went straight from -Division-III to Rockford. I definitely want to be one of those guys. That’s what I’m here for.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.