Jeff Odgers' road to the National Hockey League wasn't a smooth one. It was full of bumps, bruises, sleepless nights, and countless hours of hard work.
"My story on how I made it to the NHL is different than 90 percent of the stories out there," says Odgers, who is now 43-years-old. "There were a lot of knocks and days where I questioned how far I could get in hockey. I definitely took the road less traveled."
It all started in Spy Hill, SK., where Odgers grew up playing minor hockey.
"Playing hockey was just part of life. I grew up playing on ponds and school hockey rinks. I always enjoyed hockey and my love for the game grew as I got older."
In his teenage years Odgers narrowed his career options down to hockey and farming.
"I could only see myself being a hockey player or a farmer. But waking up in the morning to farm didn't excite me near as much as a hockey game. So I decided I really wanted to make hockey work."
Odgers' first setback in hockey came when the Yorkton Harvest midget AAA hockey club cut him in his first year of eligibility. For a young player with his heart set on the NHL, it was an eye opener for how tough the competition is on the way to The Show.
"It was really a tough day when the Harvest cut me. It was not only getting cut, but also seeing how good some players were."
Odgers went on to play midget hockey in Saskatoon, before being listed by the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League.
Not to knock his offensive talent, but for the most part, he made the Wheat Kings in 1986 because of his strong character, toughness, and size.
The former right-winger acknowledges he had to play in the dirty areas and sacrifice his body to make it to the major junior level.
"I didn't have the talent like some players had or could skate as fast as some players could, so I had to do stuff like block shots, fight, and kill penalties. It involves breaking bones, a lot of ice packs after games, but I thought it was all worth it."
Odgers went on to score seven goals and 21 points in 70 games in his rookie season in Brandon, while racking up 150 minutes in the sin bin.
"In my first year with the Wheat Kings, I viewed nearly every game as a tryout. I knew guys were gunning for spots and that I had to stick up for teammates, block shots, and work hard every night to stay on the team."
The fighting part of the game wasn't always easy for Odgers. It entailed a lot of sleepless nights and nervous butterflies.
"Sometimes I would sweat right through the sheets on a night before a big game where I thought I would drop the gloves. I would get nervous about the little things of a game. And you know stuff would go through my mind like if I were to break a hand and if I'd have to sit out a bunch a games, would I not be able to get back into the lineup if the guy that replaced me played really good? It was tough being in a position where you had to fight, but it could also cause you to get hurt and be out of the lineup."
Odgers went on to play with the Wheat Kings for three more years, scoring back-to-back 30-goal seasons in the last two.
He went unselected in his first year of NHL entry draft eligibility. He was devastated, questioning whether his dream of playing in the pros was fading.
"It was really tough for a young guy to see all these players drafted and no teams take a chance on you. It was a setback."
Odgers had every right to be taken off-guard by going unselected. He heard through the grapevine that Washington Capitals scout Barry Trotz, who is now the Nashville Predators head coach, said they would take him in the sixth round if he were still available.
"I thought that if all else fails, the Capitals would select me. That was the worst-case scenario going into the draft. But then no one picked me. It made it even tougher. At that age you hang on every word that scouts and coaches say to you or they tell to people close to you."
Nonetheless, Odgers received his big break shortly after the draft. Chuck Grillo of the Minnesota North Stars invited him to their development-tryout camp and later their pre-season camp.
"It was a great experience for me. Although I didn't get a contract from them, it helped me grow as a player and gave me confidence that I was good enough to get some interest from an NHL team."
NHL teams came knocking during his 20-year-old season with the Wheat Kings. The San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks offered Odgers contracts.
He chose the Sharks because he thought there was more opportunity for him in San Jose than Vancouver.
"I decided to sign with the Sharks because they were an expansion team. I thought I had a better shot of making their team down the road. And when I signed with them they weren't going to join the NHL that year, it was the year after. So that gave me another year to get ready for the NHL."
Odgers' confidence was rattled when he was one of the Sharks' first cuts in their 1991-92 training camp. They quickly sent him down to the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League to refine his skills.
"It was tough to be one of the first guys cut. It made you question yourself. You had to be strong and just keep on working towards your goal."
But not long after being cut by San Jose, they called him up from Kansas City.
"It was an amazing feeling. I was nervous, but I was really excited. It was everything I worked for."
Odgers went on to make a name for himself as a hardnosed player with character in San Jose. He spent five seasons with the Sharks, eventually being named their team captain.
"I made the Sharks for the same reason I made the Wheat Kings, I was willing to fight, block shots, and do whatever it takes to stay on the team."
In the summer of 1996, Odgers was traded to the Boston Bruins for Al Iafrate, who had a 14-year prominent NHL career. The change of scenery didn't both Odgers because Boston was his favourite childhood NHL team.
"I grew up being a huge fan of Bobby Orr and the Bruins, so being traded to Boston I thought was pretty cool. They have so much history as an organization and I was honoured to be a part of that."
Odgers' time in Boston was short lived. He signed with the Colorado Avalanche as a free agent the following summer.
"The Bruins were going in a new direction and I wasn't in their plans. Colorado had a great team, so it was a great opportunity for me to play with high-end players and a team that could and did make some noise in the post-season."
The 6-foot, 200-pounder skated alongside the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy during his three-year tenure with the Avalanche.
"It was great to see those players' work ethic and how skilled they are. They came out every night wanting to win. But it was even more impressive to see them stay humble despite their skill. They were great players, but even better people off the ice."
Odgers spent the last three seasons of his NHL career with the Atlanta Thrashers from 2000-03.
One of Odgers' scariest hockey moments came in Atlanta when he broke his leg while fighting San Jose Sharks defenceman Bryan Marchment in 2002.
"It wasn't really the fight that was scary, but how it played out when it ended. It all happened because I went over backwards and he fell on top of me. I tore all the ligaments in my ankle and fractured my fibula."
Odgers officially announced his retirement from the NHL in 2003 with 75 goals, 145 points, 2364 penalty minutes, and 821 games to his name.
He left the game being known as one of the toughest, hard working, and honest players ever to lace up the skates in The Show.
Unlike some professional athletes, Odgers has remained modest and humble over his years of fame. He credits his great attitude on life to his strong upbringing and influential teammates.
"I was raised to give people respect and taught to not think you're better than anyone else. I've also seen guys like Joe Sakic and Ray Bourque stay humble, and if guys that talented can stay humble, I think I can, too."
Odgers may be retired from playing hockey, but he is still involved in the game. He is the head coach of the Yorkton Harvest of the Saskatchewan AAA Midget Hockey League and is a scout for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. Not to mention, he was the colour commentator for the Atlanta Thrashers for two years prior to moving back to Saskatchewan.
"After I quit playing hockey, I knew I didn't want to leave the game completely. I got involved in coaching originally through coaching my sons (Johnny and Dakota). I got involved in the scouting side of the game just through people I knew and it was something I had interest in."
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree in the Odgers family. His sons both play hockey at a high level. Johnny plays for the Yorkton Terriers in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Dakota plays for the Harvest and is poised to move on to the WHL's Swift Current Broncos next year.
"I'm proud of my boys. They work really hard in hockey and they've been rewarded by making some good teams."
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