September 15, 2015

Kyle Wellwood

Kyle Wellwood was fantastic talent but also an at-times frustrating enigma.

He was a poised playmaker with lightning quick hands that allowed him keep defenders at bay. His fast hands made him into a strong face-off man and over the year he matured into a reliably solid defensive player. He had a tricky shot that made him a good support player on the power play and a shoot-out specialist.

For all these positives Wellwood never seemed to quite put it altogether. On either side of the puck he was tiny by NHL standards, not always able to compete offensively or defensively against many of the big boys in the league. As such he was a very polite player, too. He once went 159 games without taking a penalty, and only spent 36 minutes in the penalty box in nearly 500 NHL games.

His lack of size was compounded by his lack of any quickness in his skates. The NHL has room for small players and even slow players, but it is an awfully hard league to last in if you are both. On top of that Wellwood was unable to shake an early label of poor fitness attached to him.

Wellwood was raised in Oldcastle, a small community south of Windsor. His mother was a firefighter and his father - who quite openly battled mental illness - was a civil engineer, who was a building code inspector and bylaw enforcer. Kyle and his younger brother Eric (who also would play in the NHL) spent much of their time playing hockey on the large backyard rink their father built.

Although he put together an OHL leading 83 assists and 118 points in the 2000-01 season with the Belleville Bulls, he was not drafted until 134th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He continued on in junior for two more years, being traded to Windsor in a straight up trade for Jason Spezza.

"To me, Kyle is as special a player as Jason. We didn't take a step back with [Wellwood]. "He was much more efficient in his movement in junior because he always knew where the puck was going. The game slowed down for him. With Kyle, you just had to give him the broadest direction and he would figure it out," said his junior coach, Mike Kelly.

Kelly also really enjoyed Wellwood off the ice, too.

"This is an extremely bright, intelligent person. When I talked with him it was like talking to a college professor. He has a worldly, philosophical view of things. He sure wasn't your average junior hockey player."

He was called "a genius" by more than a few people. Teammate Matt Stajan. Minor league coach Doug Shedden. NHL coach Paul Maurice. And they meant he was a genius as much off the ice as on it.

"He doesn't have a TV at home. He reads a lot. He knows everything that's going on in the world," said Stajan, a teammate since junior hockey.

After two seasons of apprenticing in the minor leagues Wellwood teased Leafs fans with hand skills from 2005 through 2008. He established solid rapport with hulking Kazakh center Nik Antropov. Wellwood usually played the wing but would usually take the defensive zone draws.

In the summer of 2008 Wellwood broke his foot while playing indoor soccer. The Leafs left him go, with the Vancouver Canucks signing him to a contract. He initially failed his physical - to many media alarm bells - and was assigned to the minor leagues. He never did play there, as injuries in Vancouver saw the Canucks recall him. He ended up having a solid season after a rocky start, scoring 18 goals.

The Canucks kept Wellwood for a second season, but opted to sign Manny Malhotra to center their third line in 2010. Wellwood headed off to Russia to play in the KHL, but returned mid-season to play with the San Jose Sharks.

Wellwood's final two NHL seasons were played with the Winnipeg Jets from 2011 to 2013. He finished his NHL career with 92 goals and 143 assists for 235 points in 489 career games.

In 2013 Wellwood started the season with EV Zug in Switzerland but quickly came home and announced his retirement. Media reports at the time stated "his heart was no longer in the game."

He returned to Vancouver and briefly worked for Telus before enrolling at the British Columbia Institute of Technology as a Financial Planner.

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