Thursday, July 11, 2013

Part 16: Captain John de Gray

John de Gray’s nomadic professional hockey career eventually brought him back to Toronto.

de Gray, who in four seasons with the Brampton Battalion skated in 253 games, tied for fifth place on the club’s career list, second among defencemen , left pro hockey after three years in the organization of the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks to attend York University, where he’s studying finance.

de Gray was Battalion captain from 2006 to 2008, joining Jason Maleyko and Cody Hodgson as the only players in club history to serve as captain for more than one season.

Required to sit out a season to gain eligibility to play hockey at the Canadian Intrauniversity Sport level, de Gray went behind the York bench, working as an assistant under head coach Jim Wells.

“I started going to York when I was playing for the Battalion,” de Gray, who turns 24 on March 14, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Richmond Hill, Ont.  “I took classes during the summer and one or two a season when I was playing in the minors.

“By the time my contract with the Ducks was done, I had finished a little more than one year of schooling at York, so I had a chance to keep going there.”

A third-round pick by Anaheim in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, de Gray signed a three-year entry-level contract on April 30, 2008. After playing six regular-season games and three playoff games for the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates, he moved to the AHL’s Iowa Chops for 2008-09, scoring two goals and adding five assists for seven points in 62 games.

He opened the following season with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors, skating in 29 games and producing 11 points, including five goals, before being called up to the Rochester Americans of the AHL, where he played 41 games, contributing one goal and five assists for six points. He split his final pro campaign between the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals and the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, playing a total of 57 games and recording 14 points, including two goals.

“My pro career was a little unique. Anaheim had so many affiliates in the time I was with them. I had one contract with one team, the Ducks, and I played on six different pro teams. It’s not like I was getting called up all the time. It was more because the Ducks didn’t have set affiliates for the whole time I was there, and that made it difficult for a lot of guys, not just me.

“I played my first pro season in the AHL; I didn’t play a single game in the ECHL. I thought I had a good rookie season and had a good meeting at the end of the season. They told me I’d be back in the AHL the next season, but when the time came they didn’t have an affiliate, so I went to the ECHL. That was disappointing and hard to deal with, but I started in Bakersfield, where we were the top team in the league because we had some high-end prospects on that team. I got called up to Rochester and stayed the rest of the season there. The next season Anaheim had a farm team in Syracuse, and I almost felt like I had to start all over again since they had all these new guys they’d signed. I felt like I’d already proven myself after two seasons, but I felt right from the start of that season that I was at a disadvantage against a lot of other guys.”

After the 2010-11 campaign, de Gray said, he started considering other options.

“I always wondered what things would be like with a different organization. I decided not to keep playing professionally, because I felt I owed myself more than being just a minor league player. I didn’t have a degree and knew I was capable of succeeding in another line of work. I didn’t have a good contract anywhere else. I would have to start all over again in the minors or in one of the lower leagues in Europe.

“York is close to home, and I had a good relationship with the coach. Jim gave me a chance to join the team as a coach while I was sitting out. Everything fell into line there. I look at it now as a student-athlete; I’m a student first, athlete second. I’m still competitive and I still want to do well and I want to win.”

The sixth overall pick in the 2004 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection, de Gray played 53 games in his rookie season of 2004-05, producing two goals and eight assists for 10 points.

“When I look back at my four seasons there, that was the season I had the most fun,” said de Gray, who often was paired with 17-year-old Phil Oreskovic. “It was my rookie season and I was living away from home, and that was great. In some ways, I think that was my best season. I was given the opportunity to jump right into the lineup and I played a lot. Phil came to play and battled every day. The team was good, and I got along well with the older guys. Ryan Oulahen was a great captain, too.”

de Gray played all six Battalion playoff games that year, in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Sudbury Wolves.

“I don’t think we matched up well against them in some ways. I always hated playing against them. They always had guys like Zack Stortini who weren’t the nicest to play against. It was tough.”

The 2005-06 Battalion scored 275 goals, most in club history, and was led by veteran centre Wojtek Wolski, who contributed 47 goals and 81 assists for 128 points, club records in each category. The Troops, who won their last 16 games to claim the Central Division crown, eliminated the Belleville Bulls in six games in a conference quarterfinal before losing in five games to the Barrie Colts.

“We had a lot of skilled players like Wolski and loads of firepower up front,” said de Gray, who earned 10 assists in 68 games.  “Daren Machesney and Kevin Couture were in goal. I think we underachieved at the end of the day. It’s hard to say what went wrong with that group. I remember thinking we should have beaten Belleville a lot easier than we did.”

de Gray was named captain for his third season, 2006-07, when the Battalion welcomed a promising group of rookies led by first-round pick Cody Hodgson. Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach, shook things up in January, dealing Oreskovic and centre Howie Martin to the Owen Sound Attack for overage defenceman Dalyn Flatt and rookie centre Thomas Stajan.

“It was difficult. We had a good group of young guys with good heads on their shoulders. I looked at a guy like Hodgson and thought he loved the game more than anyone I’d ever seen.

“I wasn’t the oldest guy, and I felt the guys who should have been supporting me weren’t always doing that.  Eventually Stan brought in guys who were quality people who played hard and really made it easier for the younger guys. “

de Gray presided over one of the more bizarre moments in club history when third-year left winger Aaron Snow, an alternate captain, bolted from the team during the first period of a 7-2 road loss to the Saginaw Spirit on Oct. 19. Snow, a second-round pick in 2004, eventually was traded to Belleville for John Hughes.

“Snow and I came in together, and we were pretty close that first season,” said de Gray, who had 17 points, including four goals, in 65 games.  “We both got a great opportunity to step right in and play a lot. Snow had some issues, and that episode was difficult for all of us to deal with. I don’t know how we were supposed to approach that.”

The Battalion won 27 games, finishing eighth in the conference, and again was pitted against Barrie. The Troops were swept in a playoff series for the first time in a series that featured two overtime games and only one that was decided by more than two goals.

“We finished eighth that season, and all the games were close,” said de Gray, who earned his only OHL postseason point with a goal in that series. “Even though we lost four straight, I thought we had a good series.”

First-round pick Matt Duchene joined the Battalion the following season along with veteran defenceman Bobby Sanguinetti, who came in an offseason trade from Owen Sound, and veteran left winger Cory Emmerton, acquired in December from the Kingston Frontenacs.

The Troops again captured the Central title but were upset in the first round by Barrie, which prevailed in five games because of an extraordinary goaltending display by Michael Hutchinson, who faced 229 shots and allowed only eight goals.

de Gray was embroiled in a controversial moment in overtime of Game 4 at Barrie when he had his helmet pulled off by Alex Hutchings. As de Gray, by rule, left the ice, the puck caromed off his helmet to Daniel Michalsky, who beat goaltender Bryan Pitton in a game that saw the Troops outshoot the Colts 63-31. de Gray’s junior career ended with a 2-0 loss at Brampton two days later.

“I was really excited when Duchene came and Stan traded for Sanguinetti and Emmerton,” said de Gray, who played 67 games, once again contributing four goals and 13 assists for 17 points.  “But it was tough for us to succeed at playoff time. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have done better than we did.”

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