The past week has been a bit of a whirlwind for Virden, Manitoba’s Wyatt Kalynuk. Although having occurred just four days prior, the 23-year-old defenceman is already having difficulty fully wrapping his head around all the pieces of time leading up to and following his National Hockey League debut with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“To be quite honest with you, it’s been a bit of a blur,” Kalynuk told Game On. “I was down in Rockford, playing with the IceHogs, where I was supposed to be coming back on the Sunday night after we played Iowa. But I ended up getting a call from the Hawks on Saturday, telling me to come back. On my way back to Chicago they gave me another call saying that I would be playing the next day. I quickly told my parents I was playing, and then the game came and went just like that.”
Calling it a whirlwind would certainly be an understatement.
“It was pretty crazy, something you dream about since you were a young kid,” Kalynuk added. “You get a lot of messages from friends and tons of people that maybe you hadn’t heard from or seen in a while, so that was really cool for sure. Back in Virden we had a nice outdoor rink there as kids. I caught myself thinking back upon that, just growing up and spending so much time on the outdoor rink with my buddies and my dad. I really thought about my dad when I stepped on that ice in Chicago. It was just really nice to get that opportunity.”
Although suffering a 6-3 loss at the hands of the Central Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, Kalynuk skated for nearly 11 minutes with the Original Six Chicago Blackhawks in his debut. Not bad for a kid from a town of 3,500.
Growing up in Virden, Kalynuk says he never dreamed of playing in the NHL, or at least not with the same aspirations that many of his friends and teammates had. Suiting up as a AAA player with the Southwest Cougars before playing one season with his hometown Oil Capitals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, Kalynuk says he was in it solely for the love of the game.
“Those were some fun years for me, for sure,” he chuckled. “When I was playing there, I wasn’t really thinking about playing in the NHL. I was just thinking about playing the game for fun, because I liked it and that’s what I did. At the time, there were probably a lot of players that were viewed as a lot better than me, and I knew that. I also knew that I had a different route ahead of me than some of the other players that were in and around Manitoba at the time.”
That ‘different route’ saw Kalynuk travel south to play in America for the past six seasons. After missing out on the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, Kalynuk heard his name called in 2014 by the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. He played within the USHL for three seasons before moving on to the University of Wisconsin. He suited up as a Badger for three years, serving as team captain in his final season.
“As a kid, lots of guys were bigger and stronger than me at the time, so they were drafted in the Western League, and that was the way they were gonna go,” he reflected. “I knew that my route was going to be different than that. Playing with Southwest and Virden was fun for me and it served really well for my development. Obviously, from there I moved on, but there were, and still are, a lot of good people in those organizations in Southwest and Virden. I remember lots of older players who helped take me under their wing when I was just 16 with the Oil Caps. Jordan Greig was an older guy like that who really stands out to me.”
Finishing his college hockey career and opting to sign as a free agent with the Chicago Blackhawks was “a dream come true” for the 6-foot-1, 185-pound blueliner. Beginning the 2020-21 season in the American Hockey League with Rockford has proven to be a fabulous starting point for the offensive defenceman.
Often paired alongside former NHL veteran Cody Franson, the youngster is already seeing time on the power play and owns a team-best 1.25 points-per-game with one goal and five points in just four contests. And should he find himself back with the IceHogs, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, according to the 2017 seventh round NHL draft pick.
“I really enjoyed Rockford when I was down there,” Kalynuk said. “It was great to get back and actually just play hockey. In this whole enire calendar year, I’ve only played five games. So it was nice to go down there and play and play a lot of minutes and have a big role on the team. There is a really good group of guys down there. If I end up back there again at some point I wont be too heartbroken about it. The goal is to play in the NHL, but the ‘A’ is a really good development league. Especially for me, I got to play quite a bit, so it’s not a bad place for me at all.”