Sports media is a funny thing.
It’s not only about reporting facts, statistics, and recaps, but a lot of the media is full of opinion and analysis. Certainly, a trend of the day and age we live in.
The advent of social media has made that opinion and analysis even easier for people to consume. It’s also made it easier for players to consume as well, and since the American Hockey League is filled of mostly players that were born in an age that saw them born with phones in their hands, it’s hard to think that players aren’t aware of what’s being said about them by fans and media members alike.
Sometimes, that analysis and opinion by fans and media can be hard on a player’s psyche.
Imagine you’re at your nine to five job and you look at Twitter during your lunch break only to find your mentions include messages about your terrible TPS reporting, and how you’re the biggest bust in the history of the company.
Now throw in that the media comes to you to write a story on you about what has gone wrong.
That’s the equivalent of what Heat forward Morgan Klimchuk has gone through for three seasons now.
What happened in year one?
“I wouldn’t say it annoys me, it’s a fair question to ask,” Klimchuk says of constantly answering that question. “If you look at the year, offensively I didn’t have the success I wanted to have but for some guys that’s the learning curve. You come into the league and you have to learn.”
“Ultimately it takes some guys a little longer than others and I think that was the case for me.”
But the question was on the tip of every reporters’ tongue who wanted to talk to the Heat forward. What went wrong?
Well if you only judged him based on box scores you’d have a different summation to what the Heat Coaching staff would say.
“He did a lot of great things that first year so if someone were to ask that question and I were Morgan, I’d say nothing,” Heat Head Coach Ryan Huska said. “I’d say I became a better player that first year and I’m going to continue to grow.”
“That’s how I’d respond.”
After an illustrious junior career in the Western Hockey League with the Regina Pats and Brandon Wheat Kings, Klimchuk, a first round selection, 28th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft entered his first season as a pro in 2015-16, where he skated in 55 games and recorded 3 goals and 9 points.
Certainly, a drop off in production from his final season in juniors, split between Regina and Brandon where the forward recorded 34 goals and 80 points. But it’s a whole new game when you step on an ice with professional players.
“I think it’s tough for guys coming out of junior to transfer to pro,” Heat Assistant Coach Domenic Pittis said. “Guys are faster and stronger and you have to make plays a little quicker, so there’s an adjustment that has to take place.”
“I don’t think you can underestimate the jump from junior to pro and I also don’t think it’s out of the ordinary to see that adjustment across the board.”
As Klimchuk later learned, and can now reflect on and appreciate, the big difference is learning how you have to produce in professional hockey.
“I’m not going to say you need to create it on your own but junior players make a lot of unforced errors and mistakes you can capitalize on,” Klimchuk explains. “Coming into the league I was capitalizing on a lot of people’s unforced mistakes in junior quite a bit compared to here, where everyone’s pretty structurally sound and make good plays. If you aren’t countering that with a good play of your own or trying to beat someone, you’re not going to produce.”
“Here, you have to force someone’s hand or ultimately beat them to create, so that was a big adjustment for me.”
And while 9 points for a player used to producing 70 to 80 points in junior every season would make it seem like doom and gloom, his first season pro was anything but.
To his credit, Klimchuk recognized that if he wasn’t contributing offensively, he needed to find another way to contribute on the team, and contribute he did. He developed into one of the best defensive players on the team, consistently finding himself on the ice in key defensive zone faceoffs, on the top unit of the penalty kill, and used as a “shut down” forward who was able to hold the opposing team’s best players off the score sheet.
In fact, Klimchuk was even or better in his plus/minus for 19-straight games in his rookie season and spent nearly 80% of his 55 games even or better.
“I tried to find a place in the lineup with a role that I can contribute to the team’s success and I tried to stick with that the entire season,” Klimchuk said. “It was things that were more defensively minded. Those are things that coaches like and I think that’s helped build me into the player I am now.”
“It has allowed the coaching staff to trust me when I’m on the ice.
Trust, a theme Klimchuk’s story has a lot of. The thing that pushed and motivated Morgan to work hard.”
“At the end of the day, you need to be trusted across the ice if you want to play at the next level and that’s where I want to get to,” Klimchuk said. “If the coach can’t put you on the ice, you can’t score, so you have to be trusted defensively first.”
Something his Head Coach says dominated conversations across Klimchuk’s early days of his career.
“He’s put in the work to be a real solid, trustworthy guy away from the puck, in particular in all key defensive situations,” Huska explains. “The work he’s put in has allowed him to trust that he can do things offensively which we’ve now seen for a while, where he has confidence now to not only make smart defensive decisions, but also score big goals for us or make key plays offensively.”
“He’s a great example in that sometimes the road is bumpy and winding, but if you stick with it and keep the belief in yourself, you’re going to see positive results.”
Those results came early in year two, and it wasn’t as if we were seeing a brand-new player on the ice.
Same ol’ Morgan.
First shift of the 2016-17 season, Klimchuk takes a drop pass in the neutral zone, splits the Texas defense in half for a partial breakaway and finishes the deke past the goalie.
That’s a great way to not only gain 33% of your previous season’s goal total, but a way to say, “hello, I’m Morgan Klimchuk, and you’re going to see a lot of me across the ice this season”.
Just six games into his season last year, Klimchuk had matched his previous season’s point total of nine.
All those conversations, meetings and video sessions he had with the coaches, all the times the staff, and even teammates said to keep doing the things he was doing and eventually the goals would come, finally came to fruition.
“We told him if he stuck with it and put in the extra work, things would fall for him,” Huska said. “Everyone wants their journey to be a sprint when in reality a lot of times it’s a marathon. If you’re willing to put the work in and believe in yourself, eventually, it will lead to more and more opportunity and chances.”
“We saw that play out in year two with Morgan.”
It’s not the journey any player envisions for himself, but one that Morgan is now grateful for.
“If you said to me that I’d have only have three goals at the end of my first year I’d think ‘no, I expect a little more from myself’, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Klimchuk said. “You learn. It’s part of adapting and part of becoming a better player and person, and when you go through something like that you have to learn to play in all situations and it’s something I took pride in.”
“It’s cliché but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Third on the Heat in 2016-17 in goals (19), assists (24) and points (43) with a solid plus-9 rating, showcased a more confident player, one who’s adjustment to the pro game was now completed, and someone who should’ve turned a lot of heads with his production.
And yet Morgan couldn’t dodge the same question that’s followed him from year one.
Interview after interview, Morgan continually had to refer back to his first season, even doing it in this article you’re reading now! At what point is this question old news? At what point does the negativity cease and instead, replaced with encouragement and praise.
“You have to own it, because at the end of the day, I was the one who had a difficult year offensively, but there’s a lot more that went into it then that and I think you see that in the way I play now,” Klimchuk said. “I don’t mind answering that question, it’s a good story, and hopefully it’s one we can look back on and say that truly, that’s what got me to the NHL.”
The last adjustment Morgan hopes to make, adjusting from playing AHL hockey, to NHL hockey. It might not be an overnight change, but the work he’s putting into his game, and the results he’s producing is reinforcing why he was a 28th overall pick.
He’s a better player now than he was back in 2013 when he was selected in the first round by the Flames. He has layers to his game, ones that can help him contribute to his team’s success. His coach, who has had a big hand in developing him, knows that if Klimchuk stays focused on the task at hand, and not worry at all about that opinion and analysis from people fa.
“For Morgan, it’s a matter of not paying attention to the social media stuff, and whether you get yourself to the NHL at 24 or 25, or 22, your job is to show them that you’re ready to play and that you’re up for good when you get that chance,” Huska said. “That’s what putting in the time down here does, it forces you to work hard and forces you to appreciate the good times and you have to earn that opportunity.”
“When he gets there, whenever that may be, I know he’s going to do everything he can to stay there. That’s the type of person he is.”
Tied as the Heat’s second leading goal scorer this season with nine, and tied fifth on the team with 14 points this season, Klimchuk is continuing his assent to the NHL.
“It’s a marathon not a sprint, and everyone has different path to get them where they want to go to,” Klimchuk said. “I’m happy with where I’m at as a player and as a person and I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t go through the struggles in the first year. You can step into the league at 18 and light it up, and it’s all sunshine and roses, or you could take a few years and still end up playing a good amount of your pro career in the NHL. My story isn’t finished yet, we’re still writing chapters every day.”
“Hopefully that chapter book involves me playing at the NHL level. That’s what I’ve set my sights on, so I’m excited for the next chapter.”