By Kirk Luedeke
When a player goes undrafted and starts out his pro career in the ECHL, it isn’t a strong indicator of future big league hockey success.
Yet in Rich Peverley’s case, the Boston Bruins winger turned a blazing set of wheels and old fashioned work ethic into an NHL job and Stanley Cup championship just seven years after he started out on one of pro hockey’s lower rungs amidst non-existent expectations.
When Peverley was taking long bus rides in the Southeast United States as a member of the South Carolina Stingrays during the NHL lockout season of 2004-05, he admits that he wasn’t even thinking of making it to the NHL.
“At that time I really think that my focus was on making the American Hockey League,” Peverley told New England Hockey Journal. “If I had that chance I was going to try and take advantage of it. Once I did get to the American Hockey League, obviously the next step is the NHL. You kind of go day by day and set short-term goals to get to your long-term goals, but the NHL was not on my mind a lot in those early days of my professional career.”
The 29-year-old and native of Guelph, Ontario spent four years at St. Lawrence University, but got nary an NHL sniff in the draft. He found himself in the deep south trying to make a name for himself and succeeding, scoring 30 goals with the ‘Rays as a rookie and getting one AHL game in with the Portland Pirates at the end of the year.
“It was a big change, especially jumping from upstate New York in St. Lawrence,” Peverley said of starting out in the decidedly non-traditional hockey market of Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s one of the nicest cities in the U.S. to live in. They follow that team pretty well. (The Stingrays) have won a few championships, so they’ve done a really good job of marketing the team. Obviously, Saturday nights and weekends they pack it in and fill the building. It’s a great place to play.”
Peverley’s production as a rookie pro in the hockey equivalent of AA baseball saw him earn his way to the AHL on a more regular basis with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2005-06.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “One thing about the East Coast League is that they play with three lines in a game, so you really get to play a lot, so it was great for my development.”
When Peverley was on pace for 30 goals in his second AHL campaign with Milwaukee, the Nashville Predators saw enough to sign him as a free agent in January, 2007. The rest, as they say, is history, as Peverley earned a 13-game look that very season before breaking into the NHL to stay in 2007-08 (splitting the year between Milwaukee and Nashville).
Although Peverley was placed on waivers by the Predators in Jan. 2009, the Atlanta Thrashers claimed him, and he went on to post a career-best 22 goals in 2009-10. When the Bruins needed to shed salary in the spring of 2011, GM Peter Chiarelli was able to send Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler to Atlanta for Peverley and prospect Boris Valabik (whom the B’s cut ties with after the 2011 campaign). Peverley’s cap friendly deal south of $1.5M was only part of the appeal for the B’s, who were able to use his speed, quickness and penchant for scoring timely goals to bring home the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years.
For Peverley, who paid more than his share of dues to reach the pinnacle of professional hockey, that dedication and perseverence was honed to a rapier edge. He and Boston teammate Chris Kelly, who also spent time at an even lower level than the ECHL (Kelly played four games with the UHL’s Muskegon Fury in his rookie pro season), are case studies in players who have managed to make the most of their modest talents to make an impact at the highest level.
“I think so,” Peverley said when asked if he and Kelly have a greater appreciation for where they are given the work it took to reach the NHL. “I think there are certainly some guys who started in the lower leagues that worked their way up. You gotta give them credit for that. But, there are guys that are true professionals and even if they were first-round draft picks, they’re still working extremely hard. Those guys are usually the stars in the league, so everybody works hard to get to this level.”
Peverley knows the value of hard work. He had a long time to focus his efforts and energies to reach the highest level as a solid role player.
And now, he has a Stanley Cup ring as a significant reminder of where his journey has taken him.
“I think it’s in the back of your mind,” he said of being a world champion. “But you spend most of your time just trying to play well from game to game and trying to focus on being a good teammate. It’s pretty amazing to sit back and think about everything that’s happened to get to this point.”