Around six years ago, a pair of old high school teammates named Justin Peters and Bobby Raymond were taking part in their usual summer skates near their southern Ontario hometowns. Players in the small group from a rural area on the shore of Lake Huron knew each other well, which made new additions all the more noticeable.
“I didn’t know who that guy was that kept showing up,” recalled Raymond, a defenseman. “Because of his talent, after a while you start to wonder, ‘Where did this guy come from?”
That guy was Jeremy Welsh, a then-17-year-old center from the nearby village of Bayfield.
It’s a long-running theme that the hockey world is a small world where one will inevitably cross paths with old acquaintances, but the fact that Peters, Raymond and Welsh are now reunited with the Charlotte Checkers must rank among the bigger coincidences.
“Especially because we all took such different paths,” said Welsh. “Petey went off to Albany (the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate at the time), I went to college and Bobby ended up going to college and then to France. It’s really weird that we all ended up on the same team.”
To appreciate the odds against something like this happening, consider that the towns of Bayfield, Blyth (Peters) and Lucknow (Raymond) have an estimated population of around 3,000 people – combined. That made it not particularly strange that Raymond, the eldest of the three (and also, currently, the oldest player on the Checkers at 27), and Peters went to the same high school even though their towns were a 30-minute drive apart.
The offseason practices that kept them in touch beyond high school were organized by brothers Cal and Ryan O’Reilly – names that hockey fans may recognize. The various hometowns of players involved combine to form a perfect semicircle around the big coastal hub of Goderich (population 7,500), making that a perfect rendezvous point for the most accomplished local players.
Despite sharing similar roots, one still gets the sense that each player still considers his own hometown to be distinct, and possibly even superior.
“Welsh’s town in Bayfield has second best sunset in the world,” said Peters, smiling. “You should ask him about that.”
“It does, and you can print that,” said Welsh, who laughed before citing an old tourism article. “The guys give me grief about that because they don’t believe it. It’s the latitude, and it’s right on the shore with cliffs around it
Geographical origins aside, the pedigree of each player only added to the unlikeliness that that Peters, Raymond and Welsh would ever play pro hockey together. While NHL teams drafted others in the group, including the O’Reilly brothers and Colorado Avalanche prospect Joey Hishon, of the Checkers’ three, Peters was the only one that seemed destined for big things.
“Petey was very high profile, even then, and I never expected to play with him again because I still believe he’s an NHL goalie,” said Raymond, or “Bobby Ray” as Peters calls him. “I never played AAA or on travel teams, so at that point, even college was kind of a lofty goal for me.”
While Peters, the Hurricanes’ second-round pick in 2004, played major junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League before turning pro, college was the way to go for the undrafted Welsh and Raymond. They did so at the lesser-known schools of Union College and the Rochester Institute of Technology, respectively, neither of which offer athletic scholarships.
After helping put Union on the map by reaching the 2012 Frozen Four, Welsh had no shortage of NHL offers after his junior season and ended up choosing Carolina. Raymond’s course, which included one season with Strasbourg in the largely unknown French league, was considerably more obscure.
“At RIT we didn’t have a lot of guys going pro and the one guy that did (the Chicago Wolves’ Steve Pinizotto) had agents going after him,” said Raymond. “Since I didn’t have agents coming after me, I just assumed there was no interest from North American teams and didn’t bother looking for one. Since my roommate was an International French major, we just decided to sign over there together.
“Looking back, it seems pretty bizarre to me even.”
Raymond’s hockey career, something he didn’t think would exist at one point, had stalled until he caught on with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, where he was playing until the Checkers signed him to a tryout contract on Dec. 30 and, later, an AHL contract on Jan. 22.
“I wasn’t going to quit without giving North American pro hockey a chance,” he said. “As much as it was a longshot, you have to take that chance or else you’re always going to wonder.”
A two-way defender who is among the best skaters on the team, Raymond, now with 53 career AHL games under his belt, recently became the first player in the Checkers’ three AHL seasons to score game-winning goals in back-to-back games.
“Over time, goals change,” he said. “Playing in a small town, you don’t have the best competition and they try to protect people by telling them they’re probably not going to play. In a way, that helped me develop a pretty unique skill set.”
It’s one that’s serving him well now that the NHL’s lockout has ended and there’s room for him in the AHL, where he’s become a regular member of the Checkers’ top six. In doing so, he’s also completed the unlikely reunion of local boys from back home.
“It’s comforting being with these guys, because not playing AAA and not playing in a big college conference, I don’t know as many people in the hockey world as they do,” said Raymond. “It just so happens that all the people I know are playing here.”