Goalie Jesse Deckert, in his first professional training camp at age 27, belongs in the former category.
At this time last year, Deckert wasn’t even sure if he was going to suit up for his final year of eligibility with the University of Manitoba in the Canadian college system (CIS) – a league not exactly known for its track record of developing professional players in the first place. When nothing had materialized from parts of four seasons at the major junior level and an invite to Nashville Predators rookie camp prior to that, the college route was more about setting himself up for life after hockey rather than a life in hockey.
“I figured I’d get my schooling, and if something worked out then I could play hockey for as long as I could and always have that to fall back on,” said Deckert, who is one course away from a degree in criminology.
Despite an up-and-down college career that included injuries, a transfer and a constant battle for playing time, things ended up working out. After impressing in his ECHL debut last season, he’s in Charlotte Checkers training camp on a two-way contract.
“He’s the perfect example of someone who sticks with it and never gives up on their dream,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “He took a longer route than most people, but he’s here.”
After friends convinced him to reconsider and play out that final collegiate season, one that produced a 2.19 goals-against average, the ECHL’s Florida Everblades were faced with a goaltending crisis last March. Cam Ward’s injury in Carolina caused the recall of Justin Peters from Charlotte, which caused Charlotte’s recall of Rob Madore from Florida. Meanwhile, the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, which share the Everblades as an affiliate, had recalled Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Pat Nagle.
Somehow, Florida coach Greg Poss got in touch with Deckert, who had spent the first two weeks of his offseason away from the ice, or at least the kind of ice Poss was interested in.
“I was ice fishing, and you know how ice fishing is. Or maybe you don’t,” said Deckert, a native of Winnipeg. “Ice fishing is really just sitting there for a while and tipping a few back.
“Then I get a call from my agent, and I’m on a plane the next day.”
After arriving at the rink the morning of the game and with the Everblades’ equipment manager serving as his backup – something that would occur for the next three games of the team’s road trip – Deckert made 37 saves in his long-awaited pro debut, picking up a 5-4 overtime win in Cincinnati.
“It was probably a good thing that I went out there right away, because I didn’t have a chance to think about it and there were probably no expectations,” he said.
From there, everything fell into place. Deckert would go on to post a 9-1-1 record, 2.40 goals-against average and .916 save percentage for the remainder of the regular season. He was the starter in the playoffs, making it to the sixth game of the second round.
His parents, who by coincidence already had a vacation condo in nearby Naples, even got to see it.
“It was really the perfect storm for me,” said Deckert. “Everything about it was just perfect.”
When the season ended, the Everblades had seen enough to know that they wanted him back. There was even the possibility of something more with either Charlotte or Syracuse, which eventually came to pass when the Checkers signed him to a two-way contract in late July.
To appreciate the relatively long length of time that it took Deckert to get to this point, consider that he’s currently in the midst of his first professional training camp, while fellow netminder Justin Peters, who is a little over a month younger, is entering his eighth season.
Not that that any discrepancy concerning age or experience bothers him in any way. If it did, he probably wouldn’t be wearing pads designed to resemble the plain leather look that began to phase out of use in the 1980s, though he does have an updated look on the way.
“I’m just happy to be here,” said Deckert, whose age prevents him from qualifying as an AHL rookie this season. “There aren’t many chances to go from CIS to getting an AHL contract. I’m extremely grateful to have this opportunity.”
Unless the injury bug hits again, Deckert knows he’s likely headed back to the Everblades to start the season as the Checkers’ third option behind Peters and Mike Murphy. Still, if past seasons are any indication, he may yet have an important role to play down the road. That’s been the case with every goalie the team has signed for the role, going back to Bobby Goepfert in 2010-11, John Muse playing well in key stretches the following year and Madore becoming the team’s playoff starter last spring.
Time will tell if Deckert gets the chance to do something similar, though he’s already grateful for the chance he’s getting now.
“Winnipeg is a pretty tight-knit hockey community where lots of professional players come back to skate, and you can kind of compare yourself,” he said. “I knew I could play at that level but just didn’t have the opportunity.
“I was ready to hang them up, but people kept telling me to play the year and see how things went. I’m sure glad I did. It’s given me a new lease on hockey.”