American Hockey League

Underdog Phelan making most of chance

BELLEVILLE, Ont.—One pair at a time, they squared off in front of the net, fighting one-on-one battles for the puck.

It was around noon on Saturday inside a practice rink in this Ontario town, located halfway between Toronto and Ottawa.

The destination goal, though, for every player on the ice is Winnipeg, and a spot on the Jets roster. This year, next year – whenever.

A reminder of what’s at stake was watching through the glass, not 25 feet away: Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his player development staff.

Taking his turn in the net-front battles was a 22-year-old who wasn’t even supposed to be here this weekend.

Undrafted, unsigned, unheralded – and definitely an underdog next to blue-chip prospects like Kristian Vesalainen, Ville Heinola and David Gustafsson – James Phelan more than held his own.

Just like he did in the first game of this rookie tournament, Friday, when he scored the Jets’ only goal and was noticeable, throughout.

“The odds were against me from the start,” Phelan told a solitary reporter after the gloves and sticks were put away. “I wasn’t a first-rounder. I know what I have to do. I’m just trying to earn a contract.”

Far down the pecking order of forwards in the Jets organization, Phelan (pronounced FAY-len) only got to this rookie tournament because another, Skyler McKenzie, was injured.

The Jets haven’t even announced Phelan’s signing yet. He’ll attend Manitoba Moose camp on an AHL tryout.

Last week, Phelan found out he’d be coming to Belleville with the real prospects, first.

“Just more time to get some looks from upstairs,” he said.

Longshots like Phelan come and go all the time.

The product of Laval, Que., doesn’t have to look far for an example of one who stayed.

Behind the bench of the Montreal Canadiens rookies, who face the Jets here Sunday night, will be Alexandre Burrows.

Now an assistant coach with Montreal’s AHL team, Burrows took a similar road to the one Phelan is on: undrafted out of the Quebec Junior League, through the ECHL to a tryout with the Manitoba Moose, then Vancouver’s farm team, and finally to a 13-year NHL career.

Phelan has the same agent as Burrows, and the same agent and same former junior team as Yanni Gourde, a similar story who’s scored 20-plus goals in back-to-back seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Yanni’s been really a big inspiration for me,” Phelan said. “Smaller-sized guy, just a little bulldog out there, just grinds and earns his points. I’ve got a couple good mentors. It can be done.”

Pascal Vincent, the Moose head coach who’s handling the Jets rookies, says the Jets don’t care if you’re drafted or just invited.

“If they’re here, there’s a chance,” Vincent said. “We’re not going to put a pick number on your shoulders or your forehead. If you can win your battles, if you can win your shifts consistently, then you’re going to make a name for yourself.

“I don’t know where it’s gonna lead. But now you’re leaving a good impression.”

Phelan did that in Friday’s game.

“So there’s a check next to his name, now,” Vincent said. “And then we’re going to look to see if it’s consistent.”

Burrows just kept adding check marks until the Canucks couldn’t ignore them. He played two ECHL seasons and parts of two more with the Moose before getting the call-up to stay.

Phelan has been a pro for just one, splitting last season between AHL Texas and ECHL Idaho.

His three goals in 50 games don’t scream for another chance.

“Some guys are home right now and they wanted to be given a chance,” Vincent said. “These guys are here. Take advantage of it.”

A strange kind of confidence has followed Phelan to Belleville. He’s been in rookie camps before, knows what it’s all about.

The sight of an NHL GM behind the glass at practice doesn’t really faze him.

“It’s weird to say, but I kind of feel like an old guy right now,” he said. “I have one year of pro under my belt. I’ve been in this situation before where I’ve got to prove myself. You never know who’s looking.”

Or where it might end up.

Twitter: @friesensunmedia

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