One of the biggest surprises of training camp was 21-year-old blueliner Brett Kulak. Heck, you can make a case that he was the biggest surprise, period. A relative dark-horse to make the opening day roster of a Calgary Flames club that had seven veteran defensemen on one-way deals, a couple injuries opened the door for a young player to take a spot.
With that door open a crack, Kulak kicked it open with some strong play in the pre-season.
It’s a bit fitting that a pair of injuries may come to define this season for Kulak, because a pair of conversations with Flames assistant general manager Brad Pascall really defined Kulak’s first pro season.
I had the chance to chat with Kulak about his whirlwind 2014-15 season during training camp.
The 2014-15 campaign was Kulak’s first as a professional after a pretty strong junior career with the Vancouver Giants – where he played 216 games over four seasons. He came to Calgary for his first full pro training camp and had a solid, if unspectacular, showing.
He was assigned to the Adirondack Flames to open the season and soon faced the log-jam of bodies on that team’s blueline. The Baby Flames had Ryan Culkin, Sena Acolatse, Tyler Wotherspoon, Dustin Stevenson, John Ramage, Mark Cundari, Patrick Sieloff and Nolan Yonkman, and then they got Corey Potter back from injury at the end of October. That meant ice-time was at a premium and he didn’t play much.
Kulak was officially demoted to the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles on November 7.
“It was good there, I got to play in every situation, played a lot of minutes every night, and then I played well there and it worked out that I got called back up to Adirondack,” shared Kulak about his time in the ECHL.
After 39 games with the Eagles, during which he put up 30 points, 70 points and a plus-9 rating, Kulak was soon brought back up to the AHL in early February.
“i never knew much about the East Coast, but obviously you never want
to get demoted or whatever, so I kinda felt that and I was a bit down
on myself at first, the first week being down there,” said Kulak. “The East Coast is a
pretty good league, too. It’s good hockey and there’s some good players
down there. I just kinda went in, had a positive mindset, kept working
and I was playing really well.”
Kulak’s play in the AHL after his return was strong enough that he was one of a handful of players recalled at the end of the season to play in the regular season finale against Winnipeg. Kulak noted that the call from Brad Pascall summoning him to the NHL was a bit surreal, and certainly was a lot different from the conversation that sent him to the Colorado Eagles.
The stigma regarding the ECHL being hockey’s Siberia – where careers often go to die – has diminished a lot in recent years. Kulak’s teammate Joni Ortio was another Flames prospect that was able to play in the NHL, AHL and ECHL in the same year. Kulak noted that assignments to the ECHL seem to be situational, and often result in a player playing a lot of hockey given the ECHL’s smaller roster sizes.
“It happens a lot, with a lot of players, and there’s always just
different situations, with numbers of guys in place that need to play,
and that’s the biggest thing is the more games you play, the better you
can get,” said Kulak.
After his crazy 2014-15 season, Kulak seems to have gained perspective on just how crucial it was to play a ton of hockey – even if a good chunk of it was in the ECHL.
“I felt like that was actually huge for my improvement. I improved a lot. I grew a lot as a person and as a player, and now sitting here I’m better off because of that, because of the season I had,” said Kulak. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches. I guess whatever happens, happens, there’s always gonna be ups and downs in the games.”