For all his young life, Tyler Ennis was told he is too small to be a professional hockey player.
When he was 13, the coach of his bantam team in Edmonton cut him, and Ennis had to go through a draft to get on another team. So it was no surprise one year later when he was not selected in the Western Hockey League's bantam draft, the junior league's method of divvying up the best 13- and 14-year-old players in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the United States.
Six years later, Ennis is looking back from a perch as the Buffalo Sabres' leading playoff scorer, with four points in five games, and as the left winger on their top line with centre Derek Roy and right winger Jason Pominville. The Sabres trail their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final series with the Boston Bruins 3-2, and Game 6 is tonight. If there's a seventh and deciding game, Ennis will be a big part of it.
"I never levelled out, I've always been small," Ennis, 20, said yesterday. "There have been a lot of ups and downs through my whole hockey life. I've always been told you won't make it or you're too small."
Through it all, he said, his parents Bruce and Diane told him to persevere. "My parents were the biggest influence on me that way," Ennis said. "I've always been told I won't make it and they've been there to say they saw the skill in me. They've been there every step of the way for me, helping me out."
Ennis, who is generously listed in the Sabres' media guide as 5 foot 9 and 163 pounds, said he used each of the knocks and rejections as inspiration to work harder on his speed and hockey skills.
"It builds character when stuff like that happens," he said. "There is a lot you learn on the ice about being a small player. You learn how to play with the bigger guys.
"The difference sometimes is just wanting it. You can still get pucks out of corners. You use your speed and you can get down low and try to get leverage. I don't know if I would be as good if I were a 6-foot-2 guy."
Not long after being passed over in the WHL draft, Ennis was signed by the Medicine Hat Tigers. By 2008, he had turned himself into a scoring machine, with 112 goals and 228 points in 202 games in his last three WHL seasons. That was enough for the Sabres to take him in the first round of the 2008 NHL entry draft.
Ennis's education once he turned professional came a lot quicker. He had 65 points in 69 games this season with the Sabres' farm team and was named the American Hockey League's rookie of the year. He also ran up nine points in 10 NHL games and found himself with a permanent spot on the Sabres in late March.
His biggest thrill after the promotion was lining up for a faceoff against his childhood hero, Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He, too, has not let his small size get in the way of being an NHL star.
The funny thing for Ennis is that he is no longer the smallest player on his team. When Nathan Gerbe, listed as 5 foot 6, was promoted to the Sabres in Game 5 of the series, he inherited that honour, although the Sabres balance that out with another rookie and Ennis's good friend, 6-foot-9 defenceman Tyler Myers.
Even though Ennis earns his keep with his speed and stick-handling, he is not afraid of the hitting. Not even when a behemoth like 6-foot-9, 255-pound Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara blasted him into the Boston bench earlier in the series.
"He [Ennis]was actually laughing about it," Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said in wonder. "I think that just sums up the type of kid he is. He won't be intimidated. He took a run at Chara in the last game and it led to a great scoring chance by Pominville. The kid just plays."