Perseverance usually has a way of paying off, but even Dustin Tokarski couldn’t have predicted that his resolve to succeed in hockey would come together this well during the past 13 months.
Especially since the Spokane Chiefs’ starting goalie was overlooked so much early in his career.
“That’s happened ever since I was a little kid,” Tokarski said. “I’m a small guy, from a smaller town.”
Tokarski, a Watson, Saskatchewan, native, certainly hasn’t been short on the right kind of attention the past 13 months.
In late November 2007, the annual ADT Canada-Russia challenge – a series of six games between Russia and the three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League, played in six different cities – came to Cranbrook, British Columbia, approximately 200 miles from Spokane.
Each of the CHL leagues – the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – puts together a roster for two of the six challenge games. When the WHL goalie originally selected to play was unavailable for the Cranbrook game, Tokarski wasn’t even considered for the job.
Now, a little more than a year later, that seems like peanuts compared to the résumé Tokarski has put together.
“You have to look at that kind of stuff and laugh a little,” Tokarski said. “And you can’t let it get to you.”
If anything, Tokarski has used the underdog role to his advantage.
He finally earned the outright starting goalie position with the Chiefs when the playoffs began in mid-March, and just weeks into the playoffs led Spokane to victory – and was named MVP – in the marathon seven-game Western Conference championship series against the Tri-City Americans.
Then, in May, Tokarski and the Chiefs went on to win the WHL title when they completed a four-game sweep of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and the CHL title – the Memorial Cup – over the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
Tokarski was named the Memorial Cup MVP.
“You’re with one team and you work all year and it’s one of the hardest trophies in sports to win,” Tokarski said. “That was definitely one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Then came another great moment – and an important first – for Tokarski, who was not selected in the WHL Bantam Draft and tried out for several teams before Spokane’s director of player personnel, Chris Moulton, added him to the Chiefs’ list of protected players.
This summer he was finally drafted, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the fifth round of the NHL draft. He attended his first NHL camp.
“I never let that stuff bother me,” Tokarski said of being an underdog for so much of his career. “Even now I’ve heard of people saying, ‘Who knows how far he will go, maybe he’s just a good junior player.’
“But I think you can never say never. I didn’t want to quit when I tried out for all those teams and didn’t make them. I just said to myself, ‘If I listen to them and take their advice I’m never going to go anywhere.’
“You have to believe in yourself and luckily I have a great family that never quits or gives up, so they’ve shown me a lot and they’ve always believed in me, too.”
To top it all off, Tokarski earned a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior team and was in net Monday when the Canadians won the gold medal. While he was competing for Team Canada in Ottawa, he also took the next step toward a pro career by signing an entry-level contract with Tampa Bay.
“It’s hard to believe that it happened so quick,” Tokarski said. “There was a little bit of negotiating, but not a whole lot. To get signed within the first half of the season in your draft year is very exciting. To know that they want you as part of their organization in the future just feels great.
“You obviously play for fun, but to get paid to do something you love to do is pretty surreal.”
Surreal is also the word Tokarski uses to describe the past 13 months of his life, which he said couldn’t have gone any better.
“You can’t ask for much more than I’ve gotten,” said Tokarski, who will return to Spokane on Monday after taking some time off following the World Junior tournament. “I’ve been pretty lucky with the opportunities.
“Now it’s time to get on with the rest of the season in Spokane and hopefully win another championship. We’re just going to have to keep working hard to accomplish our goal, but hard work and dedication usually pays off.”
Tokarski would certainly know.
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