Graham's heading back to the Wild side in September

Brendan McCarthy
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He was hurting, having suffered a hip flexor injury in an earlier workout, but with only a couple of days left in the Minnesota Wild's weeklong rookie development camp, winger Ryan Graham - undrafted and unsigned - figured there was no way he could afford to be unseen, even for one training session.

So he started to put on his gear and was in the midst of doing so when Barry McKenzie, the Wild's director of player development, walked into the dressing room and asked Graham what he was doing.

Ryan Graham

He was hurting, having suffered a hip flexor injury in an earlier workout, but with only a couple of days left in the Minnesota Wild's weeklong rookie development camp, winger Ryan Graham - undrafted and unsigned - figured there was no way he could afford to be unseen, even for one training session.

So he started to put on his gear and was in the midst of doing so when Barry McKenzie, the Wild's director of player development, walked into the dressing room and asked Graham what he was doing.

"I told him I was getting ready to go on the ice," recounted the 20-year-old from Mount Pearl, "but he told me not to bother."

Graham's heart sunk, but the freefall lasted only as long as it took McKenzie to pause between sentences.

"Because then he told me it was more important that I take the day off so I didn't hurt myself any further and maybe not be 100 per cent for Traverse City," continued Graham.

What McKenzie was saying was that Graham would be part of Minnesota's entry in an NHL pre-season rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in early September. In other words, he'd be moving up another rung on a climb towards what he hopes will be a pro career.

It was like someone going from worrying about having to go to summer school to finding out they made the honour's list.

"It was a huge weight off me, especially right then and there," said Graham, "because at that moment, I was thinking that could be my last chance."

"So to go from thinking that, to finding out I'd be going (to the rookie tourney) ... it was a great feeling."

Graham, who led the QMJHL's St. John's Fog Devils in goals (37) and penalty minutes (175) last season, was one of a few free-agent invitees to the camp, which concluded late last month in St. Paul, Minn. The majority of those attending were Wild draft picks like first-rounders James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot or young minor-leaguers like defenceman Shawn Belle.

But even though he arrived with a great deal of uncertainty - except for perhaps knowing the odds were against him since the Wild had nothing invested in him either in terms of a draft pick or a contract - Graham left feeling good about himself and his chances of moving up to the next level of hockey.

"Overall, I thought it was really positive," Graham said about the camp, which featured extensive on-ice sessions - either in drills or scrimmages - run by Wild assistant coaches and former NHLers Mario Tremblay and Mike Ramsey and Kevin Constantine, the new head coach of Minnesota's AHL farm team, the Houston Aeros.

"Before I went, I asked people like (San Jose Sharks winger) Ryane Clowe and (former NHLer) Harold Druken and Teddy (Los Angeles Kings prospect Ted Purcell) about what I might expect and they were helpful. But obviously, I had to go through the experience to really find out, and I learned a lot in a short period of time," said Graham, who is convinced he is not being used to temporarily fill up a roster spot.

"I'm being realistic. I'm not a draft pick and I'm not signed yet, but I believe there is an opportunity there and so does my agent (Ottawa's Larry Kelly).

"What they told me was they wanted to see me play that good third-line role and if I do, then something could happen. I believe that. And I was talking to Benoit Pouliot, who played in Houston last year, and he said they were losing a good few forwards from last season. So there should be openings."

That's key, because Graham remains determined to settle for nothing less than an AHL contract. He has said and continues to say he is not prepared to forfeit the education bursary he has built up over three seasons in the QMJHL just to play in a lower-level minor pro circuit.

"I don't want to go to the ECHL when I'm pretty sure I could still do that after I go to school," said Graham, who is eligible to return to the Fog Devils as an overager and will attend the Devils' training camp, beginning in Summerside, P.E.I., late next week.

Eight NHL teams will have entries in the Traverse City tournament, set to start Sept. 7. The other organizations with entries are the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, Atlanta Thrashers and Detroit Red Wings.

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: NHL, Minnesota Wild, Houston Aeros San Jose Sharks Los Angeles Kings St. Louis Blues Tampa Bay Lightning Columbus Blue Jackets New York Rangers Dallas Stars Atlanta Thrashers Detroit Red Wings

Geographic location: Traverse City, Minnesota, Mount Pearl St. John's St. Paul, Minn. Ottawa Houston Summerside

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