Most woke up to the news of last weekend’s trade at their own leisure, hours after it occurred. For Kellan Tochkin, it was a little more jarring.
Around midnight on Saturday, the newest Checkers forward, who was with the AHL’s Utica Comets at the time, awoke to a phone call. Even in his groggy state, the unknown number from a Vancouver area code gave him an idea of what was happening.
Given the nature of the call - Lorne Henning, the Canucks’ assistant general manager, was informing him he had been traded to Carolina in exchange for Zac Dalpe and Jeremy Welsh - he didn’t mind the intrusion.
“I was excited because this is something I’ve wanted for a while – to get an opportunity,” said Tochkin, 22, who participated in his first Checkers practice on Monday. “I feel like I’ve been ready for a few years to play at this level.”
So ready, in fact, that he didn’t mind leaving the organization that he grew up idolizing in nearby Abbotsford, home of the AHL’s Heat.
“The loss to the Rangers in ’94 still haunts me, even though I’m too young to really even remember it,” said Tochkin, who was three at the time, of the Canucks’ game seven loss in that year’s Stanley Cup Final.
A few frustrating years are what led to that point, with Tochkin, originally signed as an undrafted 18-year-old, never getting particularly close to the NHL roster. He did get an exhibition game for the Canucks one year, but the team opted to send him back to his junior team for an overage season. He also got a preseason game with the Chicago Wolves, Vancouver’s AHL affiliate at the time, last season, but got caught in the same lockout numbers crunch that victimized the Checkers’ Justin Shugg and Brody Sutter, among others.
As such, he spent his first professional season with Missouri in the Central Hockey League, where he continued to post the same solid scoring numbers (44 points in 56 games) as he did over his four full seasons in the WHL (243 points in 256 games).
“It’s been hard and it’s been humbling, but it’s been good because for after hockey it gives you that mental toughness you need,” he said. “You can’t let things get you down because no one is going to feel sorry for you. Well, I guess your parents might, but that’s it.
“When I was 19 I had a very bad camp in Vancouver and sometimes that’s all it takes. Once that happens, you’re kind of at the bottom of the depth chart, but there’s no one to blame.”
Though he has yet to make his AHL debut, Tochkin was on the cusp of doing that with Utica prior to the trade. He played an exhibition game in front of family in Abbotsford last week and was one of two Comets players to score a goal. Coincidentally, Alex Biega, brother of Checkers defenseman Danny Biega, was the other.
“It was a good eye-opener for me because the confidence wasn’t very high, but I felt like I could play in this league,” he said. “There was no concern at all.”
The only concern now is that his timing isn’t perfect. He’s already missed the Checkers’ exhibition schedule and a chance to make an in-game impression on coach Jeff Daniels, who had received little information on Tochkin as of Monday morning, prior to the start of the regular season on Friday. With Chris Terry returning from Carolina and Stefan Della Rovere set to complete his signing at any time, the Checkers have 15 forwards at their disposal, a number that could potentially grow depending on Carolina’s needs.
Working in Tochkin’s favor is the fact that the team could be short on scoring, having lost Dalpe and Welsh to the trade and Riley Nash and Brett Sutter to the NHL. Though somewhat undersized at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, Tochkin could provide another option on that front.
It’s what’s always been his strength, though he feels that his overall game has caught up to it.
“I’ve gone through kind of a transformation,” he said. “In junior I was a liability, but Rasmus (Rissanen) and I were really lucky to have Craig Hartsburg as our coach (in Everett of the WHL). I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor, and that helped me take my d-zone a lot more seriously.”
Even if Tochkin doesn’t crack the lineup right away, opportunities are sure to be there throughout the season, which is all he can ask for.
“One thing I’ve learned in hockey is that if you stick with it, anything can happen,” he said. “(Vancouver) might have just needed to clear a roster spot, but the important thing is that I’m here now.”