Glass-half-full approach has served Blackhawks defenseman Koekkoek well
On every game day for as long as he can remember -- whether he's playing, sitting or injured; whether the team is at home or on the road -- Slater Koekkoek knows his phone is going to light up with a message from his mom.
The text never changes, never deviates.
"I like it," said Koekkoek, who wanted to keep the words private. "I look forward to it and it's just our little thing that we do."
It's his constant in what has been a trying, turbulent journey for the Blackhawks' defenseman, whose career will once again be at a crossroads once the reboot to the 2019-20 NHL season comes to an end.
Like many Canadian kids, Koekkoek's indoctrination into hockey began soon after he could walk. His story has a unique twist, however, in that his grandfather, William Sherwood, was quite an accomplished player and actually played in a camp in St. Catharines, Ontario, with -- are you ready for this? -- Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull.
"Obviously Mr. Hull went on to bigger and better things than my grandpa," Koekkoek says with a wide smile.
Due to family circumstances, Sherwood returned to Winchester, Ontario, but he certainly passed some impressive hockey genes on to Slater. Koekkoek, who was also inspired by his figure-skating mom, was a standout junior player in the Ontario Hockey League and was drafted 10th overall by Tampa Bay in 2012.
The Lightning were incredibly excited about Koekkoek's potential and believed he would become a top-pairing defenseman.
But three shoulder surgeries cut short two of Koekkoek's OHL seasons. The last one was a particularly tough blow as it happened near the end of Koekkoek's 15-goal, 38-assist campaign for the Windsor Spitfires.
"Obviously, not only is he our best player, but I truly believe he's the best two-way defenseman in league at this point," Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner told the Windsor Star. "To lose a guy like that is devastating. You're not going to replace him."
Said Koekkoek, who was averaging a whopping 35 minutes of ice time: "It was tough obviously. Tough mentally. But it prepared me for life and how to work through things and see the positives."
Strong family, faith
It hasn't always been easy for Koekkoek to see the glass as half full during a career made up of spits and spurts. The first major disappointment came in January 2017 when Tampa Bay demoted Koekkoek to the American Hockey League after he'd carved out a significant role over the course of 29 games.
Then came the next season, one in which he was healthy-scratched a whopping 47 times.
It's moments like these that can test anyone's mettle. Some players go into a dark place and never resurface.
But not Koekkoek, who credits a strong family and a strong faith for pulling him through. The 26-year-old is one of four or five Blackhawks who take part in chapel meetings before every practice and game. These sessions, organized by center Ryan Carpenter and run by a chaplain, normally last 15 to 30 minutes on practice days and involve reading and talking about a Bible verse.
"I had to learn it," Koekkoek said of dealing with the scratches. "I just think that I have a good support system with my family.
"Keep a positive mind. Like to look up above sometimes when I get a little bit low. Keeps me strong."
Blackhawks defenseman Slater Koekkoek moves in on Philadelphia Flyers right wing Jakub Voracek during a game last season at the United Center.
- John Starks | Staff Photographer
'Throwing me a bone'
Things weren't getting any better for Koekkoek last season, so Tampa Bay sent him to the Hawks in exchange for Jan Rutta Jan. 11. The change of scenery could have breathed life into Koekkoek's career, but the healthy scratches kept piling up and continued well into this season.
Still, Koekkoek never pouted, never moaned, never wavered. He just kept plugging along, hoping to get another chance.
"It's easy to be discouraged and go into a shell," said teammate Connor Murphy. "But he was actually a guy I was really impressed with that seemed to stay himself and keep working toward when he got his opportunity.
"He obviously took advantage of it."
He sure did -- and in a most unorthodox way, as Koekkoek was asked to play on his off side for the first time in his career Jan. 9 against Nashville. That was Game No. 45 for the Hawks, and Koekkoek's 17th appearance.
"I was a little nervous because I had never played the right side," Koekkoek said. "And they were kind of throwing me a bone where, 'We're going to get you in for a game here. I know it's on the right side, but that's all we really have right now. So go do what you can.'"
Koekkoek played 17 minutes during a 5-2 loss, showing enough where coach Jeremy Colliton kept him in the lineup two nights later against Anaheim. The Hawks beat the Ducks 4-2, then won their next four, with Koekkoek registering an assist in three straight road games to help solidify a spot in the lineup opposite veteran Olli Maatta.
Koekkoek remained a regular and played in 26 straight contests before the NHL suspended its season due to coronavirus. He eclipsed his career high for games played against -- who else? -- Tampa Bay on Feb. 27 and finished with 42 appearances.
"Credit to Slater," Colliton said. "Great teammate. Showed a lot of character sticking with it. Kept working at his game. We got him in when we could and he really took that (opportunity) in the second half, and he's a big part of our team."
At a crossroads
Now, as the Hawks are preparing to play Edmonton in a best-of-five play-in series that begins Saturday, Koekkoek has retained his spot next to Maatta during training camp at Fifth Third Arena. It was a grueling first week, but Koekkoek provided a bit of levity with a lengthy, smack-talking celebration after scoring during a shootout drill last Friday.
"That was chirping guys who were on the 'No Goal' side when I went to shoot," Koekkoek said, smiling. "A few guys moved over late and bet on me not scoring. I like to shove it in their face whenever I put it in."
Koekkoek will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights when the off-season rolls around. He'd love to stay in Chicago, but it's difficult to say what will happen with the Hawks having so many veterans locked up and a slew of young, up-and-coming D-men.
"I love the city, love my teammates and organization," Koekkoek said. "If I can have a good playoff, who knows? Winning always helps, so that's what I'm focused on. Everything else will take care of itself."
Said Maatta: "We've become pretty good friends. Off the ice, we kind of just hang out. We played a little tennis before the training camp. He's a funny guy. Guys like to be around him."
Considering Koekkoek's draft position, it's fair to ask if he feels like he should be an 82-game player at this point.
The question, which was posed in late February, rankled the Ontario native for a brief moment.
But he composed himself quickly and delivered an honest, heartfelt response.
"Everybody has a different path," he says. "Whether I was put in this position for a reason, or spent those years in Tampa for a reason, it ultimately led to me growing stronger as a person. You ask anybody that's been through what I have with the scratches or with the trade or whatever -- it's a tough situation.
"If I was a weaker man it could have broke me, or it could have caused me to turn to something else. But ultimately you have to work through it and become a strong person.
"And now when I see somebody going through what I am it just gives you a different perspective. Some guys that have never been through it, they don't know how it feels. So I'm in a position where I can talk to guys who have been scratched a lot.
"It's a good position."
Now, that's a message mom would be proud of.