By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
Landon Ferraro’s honeymoon in Red Deer, Alberta, was over.
For three years Ferraro was the poster child for the Red Deer Rebels, the player who was going to lead Red Deer on the road back to Western Hockey Legaue prominence. But by the end of that third year his relationship with his coach had deteriorated beyond repair, and the only road he was on was the one out of town.
Josh Birkholz’s childhood dream turned into a nightmare.
As a youth Birkholz’s aspiration was the same as any other hockey player growing up in Minnesota: to suit up for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. But upon his arrival on campus he quickly learned being a Golden Gopher wasn’t everything he imagined.
Both Ferraro and Birkholz had reached a crossroads in their hockey careers, a point where a fresh start was needed to get back on track toward their ultimate goals of reaching the NHL.
And in Everett they’re getting that fresh start.
Ferraro and Birkholz are trying to re-ignite their careers with the Everett Silvertips, and the Tips are putting the 2010-11 season in their hands, betting the talented pair will flourish in a new environment and lead the Tips to success.
Everett general manager Doug Soetaert has never shied away from giving players a fresh start. During his time with the Tips he’s shown a willingness to take a chance on players who reached the end of the line with their previous teams.
“You know what, I think people deserve second chances,” Soetaert said. “If you do your homework and know the type of player they were before they come here, a change of scenery sometimes helps a player. It happens in the National Hockey League and it happens at the junior level, where a player struggles at a location, then gets a fresh start and comes in and does good things.”
Sometimes it’s worked spectacularly for the Tips. Dan Gendur was a no-name when he was given a fresh start with the Tips in 2006, having amassed just 18 points in 92 games over two-and-a-half seasons with the Prince George Cougars. Gendur asked out of Prince George and landed in Everett, where he tallied 126 points in 108 games and was drafted by the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.
Sometimes it’s been a bust. Dale Hunt, the third-overall pick in the 2005 bantam draft, languished for two-plus seasons in Prince George. Soetaert decided to give Hunt a second chance, hoping a change of scenery would unleash the skills Hunt displayed as a bantam player. It didn’t work. Hunt had just five goals and seven assists in 80 games with Everett, eventually being released last season.
But the misses haven’t stopped Soetaert from giving players second chances.
“They’re young people,” Soetaert said. “They have bumps in the road, they have years where they struggle. I think what happens is sometimes it’s a growing experience. They grow as people, they grow as hockey players. I have no problem giving people second opportunities.”
Which explains why Soetaert was willing to put Everett’s season in the hands of two players seeking fresh starts.
Ferraro came to Everett as the fallen star.
The 19-year-old center from Vancouver, B.C., first arrived in the WHL to great fanfare. Not only was he a bantam superstar, his name is legendary in the league as his father, Ray, still holds the WHL record for goals in a season.
After Red Deer missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years in 2005-06, the Rebels picked Ferraro second overall in the bantam draft. He was the offensive dynamo who would restore Red Deer’s greatness.
The Rebels didn’t make it back to the playoffs in Ferraro’s first two seasons, but Ferraro made good progress, scoring 37 goals as a 17-year-old in 2008-09. After the season he was selected in the second round of the 2009 NHL draft by the Detroit Red Wings.
However, last season things turned sour. Ferraro was dogged by a knee injury, and he and Red Deer coach Jesse Wallin had a falling out that resulted in Ferraro being benched for the Rebels’ final playoff game. After the season ended, both sides agreed that Ferraro would not be back in Red Deer for another season.
“We didn’t necessarily end on the best of notes,” Ferraro acknowledged, without going into details about any specific incidents.
Ferraro became the most-coveted name available in the trade market, and when the Tips offered center Byron Froese in return, the Rebels accepted. It was a gamble for Everett, giving up certain quality in Froese for a chance at greatness in Ferraro.
And Ferraro is looking forward to the fresh start, one that he hopes sees his star back in ascension.
“The guys have been so good here that I haven’t felt left out, or felt like I have no idea what’s going on,” Ferraro said. “There’s always someone there to make sure I have something to do. It’s a hockey team, you all fit in pretty quick. You’re all sharing the same experiences and going through the same things. It makes it pretty easy to make friends quick.
“It’s an important year for me,” Ferraro added. “I need to have a good year and it’s important to me for moving on. I want to get off to a really good start and that’s what I’m focusing on now.”
Birkholz arrived in Everett amid disillusionment.
The 19-year-old right wing from Maple Grove, Minn., had no intention of playing the WHL. He had his sights set on NCAA stardom with his hometown Golden Gophers. Being selected in the third round of the 2009 NHL draft by the Florida Panthers prior to his freshman season reinforced his notion that he’d be an instant hit at Minnesota.
But Birkholz wasn’t given his chance to shine. Instead he found himself buried on the depth chart, seeing just a handful of shifts per game while playing on the fourth line. In 36 games he managed just five goals and one assist.
Everett had added Birkholz to its 50-player protected list a year earlier, and as he rode the pine Birkholz’s thoughts turned toward Everett. His mind was all but made up to leave Minnesota for Everett when he was slapped with a suspension by Minnesota for violating team rules. That erased any final lingering doubts about his decision.
“Growing up in Minnesota it’s always a goal for the young hockey players to play for the University of Minnesota,” Birkholz said. “It’s tough leaving that and tough leaving home. But it’s part of the sacrifice you have to make to reach your goals.”
Now in Everett, Birkholz sees opportunity. He sees the chance to show the Panthers the full range of his abilities, something he says he was never able to do at Minnesota. And he sees a chance to move into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
“(Ferraro and I) both understand why we’re here,” Birkholz said. “We both agree that the reason why we’re here is because we feel this is the best place for us to develop each day and sign an NHL contract. There’s a lot of people in this organization who want to do everything in their power to make us better and help us get to that next level. It was really important for both of us to be in an atmosphere where everyone is pushing you to be your best every day, not just on the ice but also off the ice.”
When the season begins Friday, the second chance begins in earnest for Ferraro and Birkholz. Fittingly, there’s a good chance they’ll be skating together on the same line.
So far the Tips like what they’ve seen from from the duo, not just in the way they’ve performed, but also in how they’ve handled their change of scenery.
“I see two guys who have come and worked hard and are trying to play hockey,” Everett coach Craig Hartsburg said.
“It’s human nature that if you struggle you want to come back and prove people wrong. It may be in there for both of them.”
And the Tips are banking on the fact that a fresh start is just what they need to catapult both themselves and the Tips to greatness.