The large conference-centre room was filled with dozens of NHL general managers and team staff, all of them craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the player who may be the most talented of the 2012 draft class.
Rather than watch Alex Galchenyuk perform on the ice, however, the who’s who of the hockey world were left with only a two-hour showing at the league’s combine in Toronto this month.
Because he had played just two regular-season games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, having badly torn up his knee in preseason, Galchenyuk’s ability to bike, jump and hurtle through the strenuous tests was more important than ever.
And he left those gathered wanting more.
“He’s a real gym rat,” one league executive said.
“A lot of people were pretty impressed when they saw him up close in person,” said Matt Nichol, a Toronto-based trainer who along with Gary Roberts works with elite prospects and NHL players. “He’s just a big, strong guy, and he trains extremely hard.”
Galchenyuk’s unique story goes beyond his injury, limited playing time and fitness fanaticism. Born in Milwaukee when his father, Alexander, was in the midst of a 20-year pro career, he grew up all over the world as a hockey brat in the United States, Germany, Italy, Belarus and Russia.
He returned to North America at 15 to play midget hockey in Chicago in the hopes of being drafted into the OHL, and the Sting were happy to oblige when they made the skilled, play-making centre the league’s first overall pick two summers ago.
Galchenyuk responded with 83 points as a 16-year-old rookie, drawing plenty of buzz that he could be the NHL’s top pick a year later in 2012.
Given the injury and how little he has played since, going first overall on Friday in Pittsburgh on a much bigger stage doesn’t appear to be in the cards. But Galchenyuk is expected to be picked anywhere from second to fifth overall, and it’s more likely he goes among the top three.
Both the Montreal Canadiens, who select third, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, at fifth, are believed to have him at No. 2 on their lists after they had him in for extra skating sessions following the combine.
It helps that, unlike several other Russian prospects, including Quebec Remparts star Mikhail Grigorenko, Galchenyuk isn’t considered much of a flight risk to his home country because he insists he is as American as he is Russian and has little interest in the KHL.
He has already, for example, chosen to play for the United States internationally – doing so for the first time at last summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament – and carries only one passport.
“Maybe I see the world differently,” Galchenyuk said of growing up in so many different countries. “I obviously feel half Russian because my parents are Russian but half American because I was born there and I love the States. I love the country.
“It was my decision [who to play for] all the way. I talked to my dad and he said make the decision as you feel comfortable and I felt comfortable with USA Hockey and the organization, how they treat their players.”
Those who know Galchenyuk well believe his work ethic will make him stand out in the NHL, as he has trained at a pro level for years with his father (an assistant coach with the Sting) and has plenty of room to grow beyond his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame.
Nichol, a former Leafs trainer, feels Galchenyuk can play at as much as 225 pounds given his large frame, which would make him even more valuable given he already has faceoff abilities and a solid two-way game.
That strength and those intangibles may not be as sexy as the goal totals produced the last two seasons by Sting teammate Nail Yakupov, the consensus No. 1 pick this year, but one former NHL scout likened the difference between Galchenyuk and Yakupov to that of Chicago Blackhawks teammates Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
“The one thing that stands out about Alex is just his character,” said David Burstyn, an OHL scout who helped the Sting bring in both players. “He wants to do everything to be a player, and he wants to be in the NHL. That’s his goal.”
“He’s very hungry,” Nichol added.
Galchenyuk said he is anxious to learn his new destination and get started along the path to the NHL that he set out on with his father a decade ago.
“I’m not nervous,” he said. “I’m extremely excited. I’ve been waiting for this since I was a little kid. To get closer to the NHL every month and now I’m really close to that podium. I’ve been looking toward the draft since I was five or something. It’s really nice.”
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