What a difference a year has made for Kyle Turris.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft showed up at the Phoenix Coyotes development camp last year as a 170-pounder getting his feet wet with his future NHL club before heading off to the University of Wisconsin.
Twelve months later, Turris is a solid 180-pound (and growing) center with a year in college behind him, his first NHL point already on the score sheet and the opportunity to crack the lineup of one of the League's most talented young teams — while getting to play for one of his boyhood idols, Wayne Gretzky.
It's quite a change for a player the Coyotes are banking on for big things.
“I've tried to focus on getting bigger and stronger,” said Turris, who turns 19 next month. “At school, I worked out three times a week, and now I've been working out every day for 3-4 weeks now. I'm trying to put on weight and get physically stronger so I can win more battles for the puck. I'm up over 180 now, and I'm holding it. I'm going to work my hardest and make sure I come into (training) camp in the best possible shape.”
The Coyotes drafted Turris after a spectacular 66-goal, 121-point season with Burnaby of the British Columbia Hockey League in 2006-07. Though he didn't go right into the NHL the way No. 1 overall pick Patrick Kane did with Chicago, Turris said he wouldn't trade his year at college for anything, even though the Badgers had a rare sub-.500 season.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was really exciting and I learned a lot. I was lucky to have coach (Mike) Eaves as my coach. He taught me a lot, and it was a great learning year. I learned how to be independent off the ice as well as learn on my own on the ice. It was a great year and I really enjoyed it.
“We were definitely a little disappointed in the way the season finished up. We thought we could have done better, but it was a fun year, and we all learned a lot. The atmosphere and the school spirit were out of this world. I wouldn't have traded that year for the world.”
Turning pro after one year at school in which he scored 11 goals and a team-high 35 points in 36 games, “was a mutual decision. I told them when they wanted me, I'd come, and I'm really excited.”
Turris signed a pro contract after the season and dressed for the Coyotes' last three regular-season games. The thrill of putting on an NHL sweater is something he'll never forget.
“It was unbelievable — I can't explain it,” he said. “It was my dream come true, and the whole first shift was just a blur. After that I started to get comfortable and started to settle in a bit. I got a couple of chances. I was lucky to play with (Peter) Mueller and Doaner. They made things really easy for me. I just gave them the puck and went to the net. I actually got to play a lot, too. It was really exciting.”
Turris was scoreless in his first two games, but had an assist in the season finale against Anaheim for his first NHL point.
“It was good to get it out of the way — get the nerves out of the way a little bit,” he said.
Another area in which getting a taste of NHL life will help Turris is getting used to having hockey's greatest scorer as his coach.
Turris said Gretzky has gone out of his way to help him feel at ease.
“It is kind of nerve-wracking,” he said of having hockey's most famous player — and one of his boyhood idols — behind the bench. “But at the same time, you have to get used to it. It's going to be like that all the time. It's great to have him to learn from. You have to be confident in yourself not to worry too much that he's there.”
“It's definitely there at first,” he added when asked about the difficulty of separating Gretzky the legend from Gretzky the coach. “But after that, honestly, it wasn't that hard. He made me feel real comfortable, and all the guys made me feel comfortable. He took me aside right away and told me, 'We just want you to come in and play your way and don't change anything. He made me feel really comfortable and that took away a lot of the nerves. It was a huge help.”
Though he sees Gretzky every day, Turris said he modeled his game after another hockey legend.
“My favorite player was always Stevie Y (Steve Yzerman) — and Wayne Gretzky, of course,” he said. “Stevie Y was my favorite because he was such a great all-around player and someone I tried to be like.”
Another thing that will make the transition to the NHL easier is GM Don Maloney's big Draft Day trade that brought center Olli Jokinen to the Coyotes from Florida. Having a bona fide No. 1 center figures to take a lot of the pressure off youngsters like Turris — they won't have to be stars right away.
“He'll add a lot and make this a really competitive team,” Turris said of Jokinen, a four-time 30-goal scorer. “I can't wait to see how he does things and learn from him.”
So how does Turris see himself, at least in what he hopes will be his first NHL season?
“I'm just going to go out and work as hard as I can, and try to do everything I can to help the team win. I'll try to chip in offensively and not be a liability defensively.”
The Coyotes are hoping for a lot more than that down the road.
“Kyle can be a special player,” said Keith Gretzky, the Coyotes' director of amateur scouting. “He has speed and skill and a great work ethic. He really wants to win. He can be very special. When you've got a player with all that, it's hard not to like him.”