For a player to make their dream come true and then receive news that he’s being sent back to a development league is a tough thing for some to take, but for Brett Kulak, starting the year on the Calgary Flames roster and playing in six contests with the club simply serves as motivation.
“The experience was extremely motivating for me and now I just want to look for new ways to try and elevate my work ethic and ability even more so I’m just going to keep pushing myself and see how good I can get and see what my potential really is,” Kulak said.
Of course receiving that news is more than just a test of your ability on the ice, it’s also a test of your mental strength.
“Brett’s one guy that I think he’ll work just as hard in Stockton as he did in Calgary,” Head Coach Ryan Huska said. “We saw that out of him last year and he’s a grounded young man that wants to play in the NHL. Sometimes guys come down and they think it’s going to be a little easier than what they were tasked with up top but I don’t really see that being an issue for Brett, so we’ll challenge him to play the exact same game he was playing in Calgary and we’ll look forward to welcoming him to our lineup on Saturday night.”
Kulak rode an excellent camp that Huska said began in Penticton where he was one of, if not the best defender on the ice for the Flames. However, it was Kulak who put in a ton of work during the offseason to better his chances of achieving his goal of making the NHL out of camp.
“I focused on the prior five months leading into training camp and prepared myself physically and mentally,” Kulak said. “I put a lot of hours in the gym and a lot of hours on the ice as well and I went into camp feeling really good, probably the best I ever have. I had some success early on which gave me confidence as I went into main camp, simplified my game a little bit and cleaned up my play in the defensive zone and I think that’s what they were looking for from me.”
“This year he did everything that was asked of him in the summer,” Huska said. “He had a great camp right from Penticton on and was probably our best defenseman during the early portion of our camp, and then carried it on with the Flames through their camp where he made a very good impression with them and earned his time that he’s had so far with the big club. He’s turned a corner now and we’d like to see him continue to develop with us now.”
While Huska and his staff got a good look at what Brett Kulak could do last year having played the defenseman in 26 games with the Adirondack Flames, the Calgary Flames received just a brief look last season up close and in person when they gave Kulak an opportunity to dress for the final regular season game for the Flames.
The feeling must’ve been particularly satisfying for the young defenseman as he had been sent down not only to the AHL, but also to the ECHL having played for the Colorado Eagles in 39 games for the “double-a” side.
“It was a whirlwind season for me and a lot of things happened in a short season but throughout it all I tried to keep an even head and stay positive,” Kulak explained. “When I was first sent down to the ECHL, I was really down on myself but my first three games in the ECHL I played terrible and I figured you have to earn your opportunities and the work you put in is what you’ll get out. I started working hard everyday, started playing better for the Eagles and then eventually worked my way back up in the AHL and got in for the Flames last regular season game in the NHL.”
A reward for the hard work he had put in, but as the team motto that extends all the way from the Calgary Flames:
Always earned, never given.
Kulak earned that opportunity with Calgary not just because of the way the defender picked up his play, but also by the way he worked his way from the ECHL to the AHL and eventually to the big club.
“In his situation when a player gets sent down from every level, if you’re not mentally tough or strong between the ears you don’t stand a chance,” Huska said. “Number one I think Brett did a great job of focusing on getting better and it didn’t matter where he was. The mental fortitude that he showed in that situation allowed him to come back to us and we saw him finish off the year strong and in turn gave him the opportunity to play the one game with the Flames at the end of last year. “
Certainly the one game Kulak saw in 2013-14 with Calgary and the six he saw to start the season will show dividends in Stockton as the player begins continues to develop, but take some of the lessons learned in Calgary and apply them while with the Heat.
Kulak credits his defensive partner Deryk Engelland as a guy who really helped show him the ropes but went on to say that watching guys like Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell helped show the 21-year-old defenseman what it takes to be an NHL’er full time in hopes that someday, Kulak joins those players as an integral part of the Flames team.
So for now while he’s not where he’d like to be, Kulak continues to demonstrate that even at the age of 21, he is mature, composed and confident in what he has to do to once again achieve his dream of playing in the NHL.
“I have to work on the little details of my game here in Stockton,” Kulak said. “Moving the puck hard, playing harder on the body in our own end and also to keep my play fast, make good quick reads, and keep a high pace of play. That’s what helped me get into the lineup for the Flames during the preseason and I was able to take those games, play well and run with it. Getting into those six games was a good experience for me. I learned a lot and everyday I was there I was just trying to learn by watching the older guys and get better.”
Even as a young player, there’s no doubt that with his attitude, drive and work ethic Huska will look to him as another young leader in the dressing room. If Kulak continues developing at a high rate and continues to demonstrate the core values of the franchise, there’s no doubt that he’ll be in Calgary achieving his dream soon enough.
It’s always tough to handle difficult news like being sent down a league after getting a taste of playing in the NHL. However, some players just have the right mindset on how to take the news and turn it into a positive. After a tough year in 2014-15 spanning across three leagues, it seems like Kulak has the right stuff “between his ears” to take this on the chin, continue to develop and learn everyday and sooner rather than later, make it back to Calgary.