The Chase for a Professional Hockey Career

written by CARL DANBURY, JR.Guys Time August 2015

June was quite a month for 17-year-old Chase Pearson. The graduate of youth hockey programs at The Cooler, where he began playing at the age of 5, not only signed a letter of intent with the University of Maine, he was the 140th overall selection in the National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft, chosen in the fifth round by the Detroit Red Wings. Pearson joined Powder Springs’ Vinny Saponari (selected by the Thrashers in the fourth round in 2008) as the only Atlanta-grown players to be drafted by an NHL team.
MOVING ON UP
Chase is the son of Scott Pearson, a former 1988 first-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs that played in nearly 300 games during his 11-year NHL career before moving to Atlanta in 2001. The younger Pearson played Mites, Squirts, Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget hockey in Atlanta, often coached by his father, and concluded his career here with the Atlanta Fire organization on its 16-and-under team a few seasons ago.

Like many with the talent to ascend beyond the recreational hockey level, Pearson moved northward with the intention of garnering attention from both professional scouts and college coaches at the age of 15. While some choose private prep schools in the northern U.S. with solid hockey programs, others like Pearson, an Alpharetta resident, migrate to Canada, where junior programs for 15- to 20-year- olds are numerous and well respected. Despite being selected by the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), one of the three major junior ice hockey leagues in Canada, Pearson joined the Cornwall Colts, a Junior A team one level below the OHL.

It was a natural selection for him. Cornwall is his birthplace and his father’s hometown, and playing for the Colts allowed him to live with his aunt and uncle, to be close to his grandparents and to retain his U.S. college eligibility. The luxury of a college scholarship is not afforded to OHL players, who are considered professionals by the NCAA. Preserving his college eligibility was paramount for both father and son, who collectively understand that preparation for life after hockey is vital. Pearson plans to be a business management major at UMaine.

After one season in Cornwall, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound center went to Youngstown, Ohio, to play for the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Phantoms, a Tier 1 junior program, where he began to attract even more attention from NHL scouts and colleges. Pearson is gifted with size, the ability to play well offensively and defensively, is strong on face-offs and possesses an attribute all players seek – hockey sense. He likely will return to Youngstown for one more season while completing his college entrance requirements. Soon after the NHL draft, Pearson took part in the Red Wings prospect camp, during which he was able to get a feel of where he stands versus other prospects and where he needs improvement.

LOOKING FOR THE EDGE
I caught up with Pearson on his way to prospect camp to discuss his recent fortunes.

“It’s surreal. I can’t even describe how I felt [when my name was called at the draft],” Pearson said. “You work your whole life to try to make it to the NHL, and while this is just the first step of many, I was really, really excited. Detroit is a great organization, an Original Six team, very established with unbelievable players to come through the organization, and a lot of Hall of Famers. To be selected by a team like that was really cool for me.”

Pearson understands that his development as both a top-level college and professional player could take a few more years of hard work. His father has offered experienced-backed advice and encouragement along the way.

“The one thing my dad has always talked about and never really changed his mindset about is the work ethic required to play in the pro ranks. He always reinforced that every day you have a chance to get better, and you have to take advantage of it.”

During the off-season, Pearson trains with weights four days a week, spends 120 to 150 minutes on the ice two days per week along with plyometric workouts.

“I understand that I have to make sacrifices. I have to try to stay a step ahead of the competition, and I’m always determined to look for an edge over the guys I will be competing against,” Pearson offered.

OFF THE THIN ICE
Getting that edge, whether your father was an NHL player or not, isn’t quite as easy as it might appear, particularly if you live in a non-traditional hockey market like Atlanta. There were 1,600 USA Hockey- registered youth players in Georgia during the 2014-15 season. Only seven players from the entire state played NCAA Division I men’s hockey last season, while another 16 played men’s Division III hockey, according to Nate Ewell, deputy executive director of College Hockey, Inc.

To make the NHL, even if a player is drafted, long-term success isn’t guaranteed. Of the 1,537 players selected with the No. 140 overall or later pick from the 1996 to 2008 NHL drafts, only 430 (28 percent) went on to play in at least one NHL game, and only 145 (9.4 percent) of those participated in 200 or more career games.

Despite the long odds, Pearson shared some advice for young players from the Atlanta area.

“Work as hard as you can. If you are good enough, scouts will find you. You don’t necessarily have to leave home. You can stay and develop in Atlanta. You don’t have to play at prep school at a young age. I didn’t leave until my minor midget year, and I have been successful. If you want to be a player, you have to decide what you are willing to sacrifice. Sometimes the choice might come down to going out with your friends or staying home and training. A huge part of your eventual success will come off the ice,” he explained.

That perspective likely was passed down from father to son. Scott was selected in the 1988 draft ahead of such NHL greats as Teemu Selanne, Jeremy Roenick and Rod Brind’Amour. Make no mistake a professional career can be an odyssey, and his road wound through 10 different cities in North America and one in Germany. Only four times during his 13-year professional career did he spend an entire season in one locale, and for all intents and purposes, Scott’s career was over at the age of 32, although he did play one game in 2007 for the Gwinnett Gladiators, when the team’s roster was a player short.

Of course, there are few who wouldn’t have wanted those same experiences of playing with and against the best hockey players in the world, whether it was for 292 seconds or 292 games. During the next few seasons, Scott will want for his son the same things he once experienced.

“Chase has his foot in the door,” Scott beamed. “He’s one of 211 players in the world that was drafted this year, so that in itself is a very special accomplishment and is a great opportunity.”

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