Some players put on weight in summer, some put on muscle.
Kyle Wellwood put on years.
He went from being one of the kids to one of the old men – a hyperaging phenomenon known only to professional athletes who switch teams in the off-season, leaving a veteran, established squad of known qualities to join a young club of unknown potential.
Goodbye San Jose, hello Winnipeg.
He went from a team where he knew there would be precious little power-play time available, given the veteran stars on the Sharks, to a team where everything is open. For the moment, the 28-year-old Wellwood is the senior citizen on the line they are all watching heading into Sunday’s home opener against the Montreal Canadiens: Wellwood with 20-year-old Evander Kane and 18-year-old rookie phenomenon Mark Scheifele.
“Kane has got some power and size,” head coach Claude Noel drools. “Scheifele is a big guy, young. With Wellwood, Wellwood is smart, doesn’t have size but has really good intellect. At least you put the pieces in place for chemistry and we’ll see how all that shakes down.”
For Wellwood, this opportunity marks a new beginning in a place where, coincidentally, he first began. In 2004, when Wellwood was a prospect in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system, he played in the very first hockey game ever played at the downtown MTS Centre. Manitoba Moose vs. St. John’s Maple Leafs. He can even find himself in the poster that hangs today in the Winnipeg Jets’ dressing room: “You need a magnifying glass to see me, but I’m on the bench.”
Back then, Wellwood was just beginning his professional career. He made the big team the next season and had 45 points in what, by any measure, would be termed a successful rookie season.
He had a remarkable gift: the hands of a magician. In junior he had won the Ontario Hockey League scoring championship while with the Belleville Bulls. Traded to the Windsor Spitfires for Jason Spezza, he set the league on fire with 26 goals and 59 points in a 29-game stretch.
Why, then, no superstardom? One, he didn’t much care to mix it up. He won Canadian junior hockey’s Sportsman of the Year Award, considered a curse by some in the game. He was not drafted until the fifth round, 134th overall, by the Leafs in 2001.
The issue was size. Wellwood is listed at 5 foot 10, 181 pounds, but he appears almost bird-like compared to the giants who are his teammates. He also exasperated coaches. From the Leafs he went to the Vancouver Canucks, where he got off on the wrong foot by failing his fitness test. The Canucks let him go when his contract ran out, he failed to crack the Phoenix Coyotes’ lineup and, a year ago, signed with Atlant Oblast of the KHL, an experiment that didn’t go well. By January he was back in Canada, having been released from the team for “family reasons.”
The Sharks took him on for their final 35 games and he had five goals and eight assists, but perhaps most telling was his plus-10 rating – a sign, finally, that he was paying attention defensively.
He says he’s “matured” now. He thinks his time in Moscow actually helped him.
“You’re always picking up things,” he says. “You learn as you go. I felt my defensive game improved when I came back to the league. I’m a little stronger in my positioning.”
It’s been a long adjustment, junior star to not even wanted to now being wanted again in Winnipeg, where he signed a one-year deal for $700,000 (U.S.). At 28, he says, he’s a far different player from when he was in that very first game ever played here.
“Once the scoring dries up a little bit,” he says, “or you get behind guys who score at MVP paces on your team, all of a sudden you’ve got to find a different role. You learn how to play defence. You learn how to do other things.”
He came to camp in much better shape. He played well and, soon enough, he was put on a line with the two kids and he was expected to lead.
“They’re young,” he says, “and they are going to be dynamic. And if you can help get them off to a good start in their careers, then it’s a benefit to everybody.”
Spoken like a man of, finally, experience.