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Dec. 15, 2010

by Karen Patterson -

Across North America there are thousands of young boys who play hockey with dreams of making a career for themselves at the professional level. Of that group, a select few will go on to play juniors or college hockey. That number is narrowed even more for the players lucky enough to be drafted by an NHL team. Then there are players like Griffins defenseman Travis Ehrhardt, who scratch and claw their way into the pro ranks as an undrafted free agent.

For Ehrhardt, not being drafted was just one obstacle on the path to what the young player hopes will be a long and successful career. At the conclusion of his junior career in 2008-09, he made his AHL debut by appearing in three contests with the Manitoba Moose on a professional tryout. That summer, Ehrhardt received an invitation to the Detroit Red Wings training camp, where he turned heads and earned a three-year entry-level contract. Now in his sophomore pro campaign, Ehrhardt’s hard work has him off to a great start as he continues to improve. 

“Going through juniors I had a couple of good years where I thought maybe I would get drafted,” the 5-foot-11, 204 pound D-man said. “When I didn’t, I just kept working hard. I was the captain in Portland and then Detroit invited me to camp. When the Wings offered me a contract I was excited to sign it.”

Ehrhardt’s junior career consisted of 256 games in the Western Hockey League between Moose Jaw (134) and Portland (122). He tallied 53 points (4-49—53) during his time with the Warriors before being traded the Winter Hawks in 2007-08, where he put up 66 points (16-50—66).

While the hard work paid off for the Calgary, Alberta native, Ehrhardt finished his rookie season with only five assists and a minus-9 rating over the course of 42 games. Mid-season he found himself playing for the Toledo Walleye (ECHL), where he recorded his first professional goal during a three-game stint.

“It turned out to be a good thing,” Ehrhardt said. “Playing the three games was a good experience but I’ve been working hard to stay in the AHL this season.”

After 15 appearances this season, the 21-year-old has contributed seven points (2-5—7) and a plus-8 rating to tie for third on the team midway through December.

“I think that [going to Toledo] helped him work on getting stronger and faster,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “He came to camp this year 100 percent improved. You could really see the difference. There was more confidence in the way he played, he handled the puck better, and he skated much better. He’s had a really good start to the year.”

That strong start has involved trying Ehrhardt out as a forward, a change that the young blueliner is learning to adjust to after two games.

“It’s a completely different game,” Ehrhardt said. “You’re out there and you’re thinking ‘where am I supposed to be?’ You can’t just relax and play the game, you’ve got to think about different things.”

Although Ehrhardt enjoys getting the added playing time at forward, he feels his true position is defense and is not looking to make a permanent switch.

“I actually feel more comfortable contributing on defense,” he said. “When you have the puck on D, everything is in front of you so you can see the plays happen, whereas on forward, you see the plays as well because you’re right in the middle of them.”

To Fraser, the switch can only help strengthen Ehrhart’s game. In the Griffins’ 4-2 victory over Texas on Dec. 12, the coach was impressed with the effort displayed.

“He’s such a strong skater so he didn’t have any trouble moving up there,” Fraser said. “It was a big win for us and he played a huge role. When Amadio was in the box, he played defense, but then he was also at forward on the real strong defensive line with Owens and Andersson,” he added.

At this point Ehrhardt hopes to keep improving.

“Personally I feel like I’ve been doing a lot better,” he said. “Getting my first goal (Nov. 6 vs. Chicago) was a sigh of relief. I don’t like not scoring and contributing, so last year was a struggle. It was nice to get it out of the way this year.”

Ehrhardt is also hoping to continue developing his defensive game, taking advantage of the experienced talent on the Griffins’ roster. Fellow defensemen Doug Janik has worked with his younger counterpart to help round out his game, drawing on over 650 professional games for advice.

Fraser has noticed the changes and with over half of the season still to be played, there’s only room for growth.

“You look at his numbers, and they’re pretty good. The kid works hard. He’s a good player and we’ve got a veteran defense, but it won’t be long before Travis is in to play a lot. He’s got real good things ahead of him, he’s just got to keep working to improve his game everyday. If he does he’ll continue to get better as a player.”

For many athletes, not being drafted marks the end of years of hard work and dreams. For Travis Ehrhardt, it may turn out to be just the start of a long, productive career, regardless of which team’s jersey he is wearing.

“I really just wanted to go somewhere,” Ehrhardt said, “but coming to a place like Detroit, they’re a skilled organization and they like puck control so I thought it would be a good fit for me. I’ve loved hockey from the start and can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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