When the Langley Chiefs asked the New York Islanders' Jeff Tambellini to come out and sign autographs as part of the opening celebrations of the Langley Events Centre, it was an easy decision for the former junior hockey star.
“They were so good to me as a kid coming up and over the years after as well, it was a no-brainer,” the 25-year-old said. “They are such a vital part in developing players and they played such a big role in my career.”
“It has been a great road (and) if it didn't go through Chilliwack, it probably wouldn't have happened.”
Tambellini, who grew up in Port Moody, spent two seasons with the Chiefs back when the hockey club was based in Chilliwack. Tambellini recalled the powerhouse team that head coach and general manager Harvey Smyl built in the 2001/02 season, as Tambellini (46 goals, 71 assists, 117 points in 54 games) led the BCHL in scoring. In fact, the high-scoring forward was one of four Chief players to crack the 100 point barrier, while a fifth had 99 points.
“It was a pretty elite group and it taught us how to win,” he said. “It was a pretty special time and led to success for everybody in that room.”
The Chiefs went to the Canadian Junior A national championship and Tambellini was also named the National Player of the Year. Following three years at the University of Michigan, Tambellini, a first round draft pick (27th overall) of the Los Angeles Kings in 2003, turned pro. But after only a handful of games with the Kings, Tambellini found himself traded to the Islanders at the 2006 trade deadline.
He has split the past three seasons between New York and their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but spent the bulk of the 2008-09 campaign at the NHL level. The Islanders, who finished dead last in the NHL, moved a couple of veterans in the season's second half, giving some of the team's younger players like Tambellini an increased role.
Having had such great success at the junior game, Tambellini said the pro game is a whole different beast. In 144 career NHL games, he has put up 11 goals and 21 assists. At the AHL level, Tambellini has been a prolific scorer with 96 goals, 98 assists and 194 points in 169 games.
“That is the one jump you can never really prepare yourself for, that you are playing against the best players in the world,” he said about the NHL. “It is the 600 best players in the world, the best of the best. You can't take any shortcuts when you get to that point.”
At most levels, there are always mismatches that can be exploited, but that is not the case with the NHL.
“Every defencemen is 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-6 and great skaters,” he said. “And with the goaltenders, you can barely see the net. You have to take your game to a different level to make it work in this league.”
He called it the biggest learning curve any player can go through. But no matter what struggles Tambellini had endured, he stresses persistence.
“If something wasn't working for me, I would just try and find another way to get through it and produce and be a better player,” he said. “If you put in the time and the dedication, hopefully all the things will fall into place.”
The other advice he gives is to keep things in perspective.
“You always have to enjoy playing there, it is the best league in the world,” Tambellini said. “You are playing in big buildings every night, doing what you have always wanted to do. Every day you are there, you have to enjoy playing the game and appreciate where you are.”
“The work is really hard, putting the time in, but I enjoy it. There is no bad going to the rink. A bad day in our league, I think there would be a lot of people who would kill for that opportunity. I don't take any day as a pro athlete for granted at all.”