RALEIGH — While NHL forward Patrick O'Sullivan was born in North Carolina, defenseman Teppo Numminen played a year of youth hockey in the state, and two players from the Triangle have been drafted by junior teams in the Ontario Hockey League, we're still waiting for this area to produce its first NHL draft pick or player.
Three years ago, Raleigh's Kai Kantola was nearly the first to be drafted, his play for a junior team in North Dakota noted by the NHL's Central Scouting Service heading into the 2006 draft. He slipped through all seven rounds and went off, undrafted, to play college hockey at Bowling Green.
After three years there, his numbers improving each season from five to six to 12 goals, Kantola was back in Raleigh this week as a free-agent invitee to the Carolina Hurricanes' prospect conditioning camp. He was sitting in his apartment at school, taking a break from his summer job with the campus grounds crew, when the hometown Hurricanes called with the unexpected invitation.
"I've always had kind of an inkling, a feeling they were watching out there," Kantola said. "With the type of season I had, I could have done better obviously, but I felt like it was a possibility. When that call hits you, you're definitely excited."
Ron Francis noted Kantola a few years back while watching one-time Hurricanes prospect Kyle Lawson play for Notre Dame against Bowling Green -- a long way to go to watch someone who lives about 10 minutes away from Francis in north Raleigh.
Because of his roots and style of play, Kantola remained on Francis' radar screen. With Kantola entering his senior year, Francis recommended the Hurricanes invite him to the camp -- giving the Hurricanes a chance to get to know the player and the player a taste of what it will take to get to the next level.
"I just liked the energy level and the fight in his game," Francis said. "He was battling, he kept working, he wasn't afraid to go to the net. I've gotten to know him a little bit and talked to him last summer at our hockey school, so I talked to [general manager] Jim [Rutherford] and told him I thought it would be good to bring him into the camp and give him that education process a lot of kids don't get. Now we'll see what he can do with it."
Kantola had the misfortune to be draft-eligible in a year when the prevailing trend did not play to his strengths. After watching the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup and seeing the style of play in the post-lockout era, teams at the 2006 draft were obsessed with speed, not size.
Central Scouting rated Kantola 102nd among North American skaters, and the Red Line Report ranked him 159th overall for the 2006 draft, which should have put him in the fifth or sixth round.
A year later, after the Anaheim Ducks bullied their way to the Cup, the pendulum started to swing back toward size, a trend that may have reached its apex when the Hurricanes selected six players who were 6 feet 1 or taller last month. At 6-1 and now 190 pounds, Kantola would have fit nicely into that class.
"A lot of it has to do with timing, but you have to look at it as a blessing," Kantola said. "I wasn't really that mature back then. I've matured into a more stable, more responsible person on and off the ice. That gave me the time to develop as a player."
There are a few other locals out there with high hopes. Cary's Connor Wilson will play for the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League this season, the top junior league for college-bound players. Cary's Patrick Nelson was one of the top-scoring freshmen in Division III at Westfield (Mass.) State, Peter Laviolette's alma mater.
Fuquay-Varina's Kenny Gillespie is at Minnesota prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's, whose products include Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise, and was selected Thursday for USA Hockey's Under-17 Select team to play in a tournament in Germany next month. (All three, like Kantola, are products of the East Coast Eagles program.)
Gillespie, who has been drafted by USHL and Ontario Hockey League teams, probably has the best shot at becoming the area's first NHL draft pick, but there's no one from the Triangle closer to playing in the NHL than Kantola.
"It's been my dream since I was 4 years old," Kantola said. "Not just pro hockey, but the NHL. That's always been my dream. I'll keep going at it until it happens."