Anyone skeptical that hockey is the sport in which fortunes can change the quickest might want to consider the recent career arc of Michael Grabner:
From waived to rescued to NHL Rookie of the Year finalist to recipient of a five-year, $15 million contract – all within the space of seven months.
“Sometimes,” he admitted, “I still don’t think I’ve realized what happened this year.”
His story might be instructive to the 60-odd players gathered for this weekend’s Spokane Chiefs training camp, so it’s handy that he happens to be among the handful of Chiefs alums who have carved out some time to drop by. In Grabner’s tale, they’ll get it all – the happy payoff after the necessary cautions about patience, luck, self-examination and perseverance. And if they’re a little uncertain or apprehensive about survival even at this level, well, he’s been there, too.
In fact, it’s now a little slice of Chiefs lore.
Grabner was a Chiefs rookie, their first Austrian import, in 2004 who suffered a broken collarbone in his first Western Hockey League shift. It was the job of Kevin Sawyer – then an assistant but himself a former Chief with NHL experience – to skate him back into shape.
“And Michael seriously thought Kevin was trying to kill him,” recalled Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz with a laugh – perhaps hearing Sawyer’s impression of Grabner’s thickly accented moans in his head. “He couldn’t believe it. He wanted to go home.
“But every player has to go through some kind of adjustment here and that was Michael’s – the competitive adjustment. I think he was the best player in Austria – he could skate away from or catch anybody – but he wasn’t ready to be a competitive player like the Canadians who grow up playing bantam and midget hockey in an intense environment.”
But just as quickly, Speltz remembered Spokane’s Eastern swing in Grabner’s second season when, on a line with Adam Hobson and Judd Blackwater, “he had an amazing run of goals. And that’s when his career took off.”
Well, in a sense. He did get picked a surprisingly high 14th by Vancouver in the next NHL draft, then returned to Spokane to score 39 goals in just 55 games his final season. But his progress as a two-way player was fitful at best, and in three years in the Canucks organization he could never find a way to stick with the big club out of training camp. A year ago June, they traded him to Florida – and once again, Grabner’s climb stalled.
“I got to training camp and just didn’t show why they traded for me,” he said.
So the Panthers put him on waivers with the intention of sending him to their American Hockey League affiliate – only to see him claimed by the New York Islanders.
“I don’t think Florida in their wildest dreams thought they were going to lose him,” Speltz said.
In New York, Grabner joined a young team – OK, a bad team – with opportunities to play. He found a coaching staff willing to explain, teach and live with some of his mistakes and keep sending him back on the ice. And he didn’t have to go through training camp.
“I just tried to go out and play,” he said. “Everywhere I’d been before, when I came to training camp, I just tried to be perfect and got away from my game. I didn’t use my speed. I didn’t create any offense. When you have two teams tell you the same thing you kind of have to look at yourself and realize you’re doing something wrong.”
The early going was still a struggle – the Islanders lost 14 in a row at one point – but he was invited to the SuperSkills competition at the NHL All-Star game in January and won the fastest skater event. And as his ice time grew, so did his impact. Starting in mid-January, he scored 16 goals in a month – including 10 in a stunning six-game stretch. He finished with a rookie-high 34 goals, which earned him third place in the Calder Trophy voting – and that hefty contract.
“I had a good season – but it was one season,” Grabner cautioned. “I need to come back and show I can have the same kind of season this year. I am more confident and hopefully I’ll have a better start – to start like I left off. Last year, I was worried too much about getting a spot on the team. I’m not worried about that now, but you still have to earn what you get.”
After all, no one knows how quickly things can change in hockey better than Michael Grabner.