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Knocking on the NHL's Door and What It Takes to Get There

Tuesday, September 9, 2014, 12:50AM
Riley Wetmore

In the game of hockey, like all professional sports, the elite rise to the highest levels. In hockey’s case, those elite athletes play in the National Hockey League. They are the best of the best but have you ever wondered what kind of effort it takes to become labeled as one of the best?

Former University of Massachusetts Lowell captain Riley Wetmore is on the fast track to joining hockey’s elite athletes but he has not achieved his success by simply wishing for it.

Wetmore, a two-time recipient of UMass Lowell’s Male Student-Athlete of the Year award (2012 and 2013) and was named to the Hockey East All-Conference Second Team (2013), signed with the New York Islanders after posting 111 career points at UML and was assigned to New York’s American Hockey League affiliate, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, where scored his first professional goal during his three game stint at the end of the 2012-2013 season.

Wetmore returned to Bridgeport for the 2013-2014 season and saw action in 38 games, in which, he scored three goals and eight assists before suffering a concussion. The Islanders had the forward rehab and complete the season with the East Coast Hockey League’s Stockton (CA) Thunder, where Wetmore scored two goals and three assists in fifteen contests. He followed that up with one goal and one assist in nine postseason games for the Thunder.

If you are not that one in 10 million, who is selected as a top five pick in the NHL Entry Draft, chances are you will need to find that one thing that gives you the edge over all others that will propel you to the NHL.

Riley Wetmore has had to put in hour upon hour of hard work and perspiration to be on the NHL’s doorstep. Recently, he sat down with the High End Hockey Journal and discussed his journey to professional hockey.

“I grew up in Vermont,” Wetmore began. “In the town of Swanton, which is about six miles from the Canadian border. I played high school hockey there during my freshman and sophomore years. I just knew I wanted to play at the higher levels so I spoke with my coaches and they told me I had to make a choice, either keep playing high school hockey or move on and try to make the junior team that was in Vermont (Green Mountain Glades). So, I made the decision to play midget AAA 16-Under that year and was called up to the junior A team right around Christmas time. I played around 30 games with them then the full year the following season, which was my senior year of high school. Then, I took two years off from school and continued to play junior hockey. I wanted to try to, eventually, play in Hockey East. I grew up a University of Vermont fan and watched them play a lot so I wanted to see if I could play at that level.”

How did the young hockey player, who had hoped to attend the University of Vermont, find his way to Lowell, Massachusetts?

“Two of my best friends on the Glades ended up going to UMass Lowell and told me how much they loved it,” Wetmore explained. “I went there on a visit and met some of the players and the coaching staff and ended up going there.”

While skating for the River Hawks, Wetmore flourished under the tutelage of the team’s present head coach Norm Bazin.

“I played for (head coach) Blaise MacDonald during my freshman and sophomore years and Norm Bazin came in for my junior and senior years,” the 25-year-old forward said.

Wetmore continues to communicate with his former coaches.

“I talk to Norm once per week and have stayed in touch with all the coaches there,” he said. “UML is a great organization.”

In a world where some players need to make the choice whether to pursue hockey through the college route or move to Canada to play in one of the three major junior leagues, Wetmore, not surprisingly, urges players to get their education while chasing the dream.

“I would tell kids if they had the choice to play major junior or college hockey, I would always say go to college because I had such a great experience in college, however, I understand that some kids take a different route (major junior) and that may be better for them but at the same point, from my experiences and those of other guys, I think the college route is the way to go,” Wetmore said.

As many can attest to, after four years of college, it is time to experience the “real world.” After graduating from UMass Lowell, Wetmore quickly learned there are significant differences between the college and pro hockey lifestyles.

“I feel in college, you always know where you’re going to be for four years,” the Eastern Junior Hockey League alum said. “You kind of get a comfort level where you get to know the guys, there’s camaraderie in the locker room. I’m going to stay in touch with people I went to college with for life.”

“In the pros, it’s different;” Wetmore continued. “I was a 24-years-old rookie with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and it’s a different spectrum in the locker room. There are guys who have families, guys who don’t. It’s a lot tougher because when you’re done with practice, guys are going in all different directions. In college, guys are going back to the same dorm or you live in the same house, you’re together in the same classes so you’re seeing the guys more. It was different in pro hockey because you don’t have homework. I loved that but it was different. I had to learn a different hobby, I mean, you can watch TV but that gets boring after a while and you can only go to the mall so many days. You need to find ways to keep yourself busy. Some guys learn to cook. You do other things but overall, it was a good experience.”

Hockey, like all professional sports, is a business and the harsh reality is that management makes decisions that can be out of your control and you need to be prepared for it.

“One thing I learned is you can be there for one day then be sent somewhere else,” Wetmore said. “You need to be a team player, be a team guy in the locker room as well but you’re there to really play for yourself and just work as hard as you can because you never know when you’ll be sent down to the lower level team (ECHL) or called up (to the NHL) and if you get sent down, it’s all a mental thing. Some guys who get sent down say, ‘What’s the difference?’ Well, you gotta stay healthy, that’s the number one thing and mentally, you have to be tough. You have to fight through some of the adversity. The guy who makes it (to the NHL) looks at being sent down as a positive.”

Wetmore knows of which he speaks and discusses what it is like to be sent down to a place like Stockton, California to continue his career.

“It was neat,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I had been out for a little while with a concussion. I knew I was going to be sent out there which wasn’t bad. I wanted to keep playing and in Bridgeport, we didn’t make the playoffs, unfortunately, so I was sent out there and it was great. The guys were great. The weather was, obviously, awesome. You wake up every day and it’s 75 degrees and sunny. That’s the toughest thing but you gotta stay focused and not let up and that’s one of the tough things about pro hockey. It’s a great lifestyle and a lot of guys like the lifestyle but don’t want to put in the hard work.”

The Golden State made a pretty good impression on Wetmore.

“California hockey is great,” he continued. “There are a lot of pro teams out there and I really enjoyed my time there.”

After the season ended, Wetmore decided to move on from the Islanders organization and became a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect.

“I’ve signed with Springfield (Columbus’ AHL affiliate) and accepted a tryout offer to go to the NHL (Blue Jackets) camp on the 17th of September,” an, obviously, very happy Wetmore said. “They just told me to work hard this summer and come into camp in great shape so I’ve been trying to get into the best shape that I can and prove myself. They’ve said that it doesn’t matter if you’re a first round draft pick or not drafted at all, just work hard and they’ll take the best players and that’s good enough for me. I just gotta prove myself. If you have a bad day, you just gotta grind it out. You can’t just be one type of hockey player. In any pro league, as a forward, you need to be good at left wing, right wing, and center because you never know what position is going to be open and you want to be able to move up as fast as you can.”

As with all hockey players, Wetmore admires NHL players, past and present and hopes to follow their footsteps to The Show.

“I like Patrice Bergeron,” he said when asked to whom he pays close attention. “He plays defensively, he play offensively but growing up, obviously, I liked to watch (former Philadelphia Flyer) John LeClair because he’s from Vermont and I liked the way he played. Just a big, strong player, who shot the puck a lot. He was tough. I also really liked to watch (retired Colorado Avalanche captain) Joe Sakic but overall, in the last few years, I’ve really paid attention to Bergeron.”

In looking to become the best player he can be, Wetmore has spent the last two summers training away from home.

“My move down to Massachusetts within the last couple of years just to train has been great,” Wetmore explained. “Working with High End Hockey’s Jon Hutcheon and Xcelerated Performance’s Pat Gigante has been awesome. With Pat, I had a little bit of a hip problem. He knew that so he had me do one legged exercises such as squats and also focussing on improving my posture. As a hockey player, you’re always sort of bent over so I focus on keeping my shoulders back. Pat’s been great. He’s kept me healthy and I feel really good and that’s thanks to Pat.”

“On the ice, Jon has helped me with my shot and the little things like skating down the wing, keeping my shoulders square and getting a consistently hard shot on goal with the intent that you always shoot to score,” continued Wetmore. “He’s helped me with my (shooting) release and I feel really good when I do it the right way. When I don’t, I get kind of lazy and he teaches you how to focus so that won’t happen.”  

“I can feel the difference on and off the ice so it’s been great,” he concluded.

With the summer workout schedule behind him, there is always something more that can be done in order to achieve the goal of playing in the NHL.

“I need to stay healthy and if I get called up, I’ll need to just play my game and hopefully, stick with the big club but, as I said, I need to prove myself at the American League level and prove that I can handle it and be ready if I am called up to the NHL,” Wetmore explained.

Knowing that young players of all ages have the desire to be paid to play. Wetmore is quick to offer advice when asked how does one become a professional hockey player.

“Work hard and play other sports,” he said, adamantly. “Growing up and even now, I go and play golf or ping pong. The little things that will help you become a better athlete. Baseball is good for developing eye-hand coordination. Soccer helps with footwork.”

“Overall, play other sports and just have fun,” Wetmore continued. “Once hockey becomes a job and you get paid to play, it’s still fun but you can’t take it so seriously that you’re not going to love it when the new season comes around and you do that by playing other sports. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I made the decision to pursue hockey more than the other sports but, because of the seasons, I still get to play golf and I love it.”

Riley Wetmore is living the life so many dream of living. It did not, and does not, come easy but with sacrifice, perseverance, talent, and good old fashioned hard work, he is knocking on the NHL’s door. You will find him skating in an NHL arena near you, very soon.