In summertime, ice hockey rinks become lands of hopes and dreams.
While it’s lazy, hazy days outside, can’t-miss prospects and undrafted players are hard at work at training facilities throughout the National Hockey League, hoping to catch a coach’s eye and dreaming of earning a spot on an NHL club or a place in its minor league system.
Keoni Texeira, a defenseman last season for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, was ranked the 143rd-best North American prospect by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service but wasn’t chosen by any team at the 2015 NHL Draft last month.
The 18-year-old California native’s disappointment from being passed over quickly turned to elation when he received a telephone call from the Washington Capitals inviting him to the team’s development camp as an undrafted free agent.
“The draft obviously didn’t go the way I was hoping for but I’m happy I get a chance to come here. It’s a great opportunity and a Class-A organization,” Texeira said after a vigorous practice session last week at the Capitals’ practice rink in Virginia. “They called me a few hours after the draft. I wanted to come to the Capitals camp because I like their system and I think I would fit great in their system.”
Texeira sored eight goals, 18 assists and had a plus/minus rating of plus-32 in 71 regular season games in 2014-15 for Portland. He tallied two goals, three assists and was a plus-two in 17 playoff games for the Winterhawks.
Not bad for a Fontana, Calif., kid who started out in roller hockey but switched to ice at age six. He got the hockey bug from his Hawaiian father and Canadian mother.
“My grandpa and dad were from the Big Island,” he said. “My dad came over from Hawaii when he was about 10, my mom came over from Canada when she was 14-15 years-old. My dad played roller hockey at the local ice rink with one of our neighbors who was from Toronto. He loved hockey, so he got my dad involved in roller hockey. My dad and mom both loved hockey so they decided to put me in roller hockey, and I loved it.”
Texeira had a solid season in Portland last year, it wasn’t enough to keep the Winterhawks from being ousted from the WHL’s Western Conference Final by the Kelowna Rockets and defenseman Madison Bowey, a top Capitals prospect.
Bowey attended Washington’s development camp and Texeira stayed close to him on the ice, hoping to pick up some tips from the organization’s 2013 second-round draft pick.
“He’s been here for a while, knows all the ropes and tricks and he gives out some good advice,” Texeira said with a smile. “Coming into camp, I’m just trying to make a great impression, a good first impression, so it’s great to follow a guy like that.”
While Texeira was thrilled to be at the Capitals’ camp, defenseman Dajon Mingo looked like the happiest man at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex whenever he was on the ice. The diminutive Bowling Green State University player, another undrafted invitee, had a perpetual smile on his face, no matter how difficult the drill or strenuous the workout.
“I like to smile, I like to have fun out there,” said Mingo, a Canton, Mich., native. “Without fun, I’m not playing at my best. So I’m always smiling. Even if I mess up, I’m going to smile because I’m going to learn from my mistakes.”
Mingo, 25, aspires to go pro, but he’s in no rush. With one more season of eligibility left at Bowling Green, he viewed his attendance at the Capitals camp as an investment for the future.
“Obviously, everyone’s dream is to play in the NHL, but I wouldn’t mind going to the AHL (American Hockey League) and working my way up,” he said. “But I want to finish college first. I have one more year at Bowling Green and after that, we’ll see what happens.”
A lot has already happened in Mingo’s hockey career, a path that’s best described as a series of conversions. Mingo was a figure skater as a child, but switched to hockey when it was suggested that he become his sister’s doubles skating partner.
“It was my sister. If it was someone else, that would have been okay with me,” he said with a laugh. “So I tried out hockey. I already had the speed and all that for hockey. All I needed was to learn how to shoot, stop on my left foot. It took me, maybe, a couple of years to get the puck off the ice. But after that, it came easy.”
Initially, Mingo was a forward, and a pretty good one. He led the United States Hockey League’s Des Moines Buccaneers in goals with 24 in 2010-11 and was tied for second on the team in overall points with 35.
Mingo was Bowling Green’s third-leading scorer in 2012-13, his freshman season, with 22 points – eight goals, 14 assists in 41 games. But despite his scoring touch, Mingo’s coach asked him to switch to defense.
The 5-foot-8 player responded by scoring a goal and nine assists in 39 games last season. He was tied for fourth on the team in blocked shots with 35. In a weekend series against Northern Michigan, he registered a goal, two assists, a plus-four rating, and seven blocked shots.
“To be honest, our coach wanted a better D-corps because we were running low on D,” Mingo said. “After that, I had a good season, so I’m strictly defense now. I like it, I get to see the ice a lot. When I take the puck up from behind the net, I like to look left, right and center, I can see everything.”
But Mingo admits that he’s still a work in progress on the blue line.
“My positioning, my stick-work and footwork as a defenseman,” he listed as areas that need improvement. “I know I’m good on my feet, but you’re learning in hockey everyday, particularly as a first-year defenseman.”
Mingo was surprised that the Capitals invited him to camp, but never asked anyone in the organization why they did.
“No,” he said with that perpetual smile. “I just came.”