Red Wings prospect Willie Coetzee wants to prove that a boy from Johannesburg can one day make a name for himself in the National Hockey League.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Ask the average person to think about South Africa and the first thing that comes to mind is not hockey.
Willie Coetzee would like to change that.
The Detroit Red Wings prospect was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, hardly the hub for a seasonal sport played on ice. In fact, the only NHL player to share Coetzee’s birth country is recently retired goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who was born in Johannesburg to German parents and moved to Denmark as an infant.
For Coetzee, the roots run much deeper. Although his surname may sound unusual to American ears, it is actually fairly common in his native land, with Coetzee (it’s pronounced coot-SEE-ah there) being nearly the South African equivalent of Smith.
Google the name and you’ll come across a famous author, an adventurer, a boxer, a designer, a couple of musicians, a jockey, a golfer, a tennis player, a former Miss South Africa and even a field hockey player.
Until Willie came along, there had been no Coetzee in ice hockey, a sport that seems as strange to his relatives back home as cricket does to people in North America.
Coetzee moved to western Canada when he was 4 years old, his parents looking to escape the long shadow of apartheid, the system of racial segregation scorned by much of the free world.
“My parents moved us to get away from the politics of apartheid,” Coetzee said. “They wanted to help us out so that we might have a better future.”
Coetzee played hockey, baseball and soccer while growing up in Vancouver. “My parents put me in every sport,” he recalls. “They kept me busy, so I was pretty active.” He excelled in all of them, thanks at least in part to athletic genes passed on by his parents.
If South Africa had not been barred from the Olympics due to its policy of apartheid, his father, also named Willie, might have represented his country in track at the Games. His mother, Thelma, had been a gifted tennis player.
“If we had stayed in South Africa, I’m pretty sure I would have become a golfer,” said Coetzee, who competed in Canadian Junior Golf Association events. “That would have pleased my family there – they don’t understand the sport of ice hockey.”
Many of his relatives, including his grandparents, still live in South Africa, which he was able to visit in 2004 before his paternal grandfather passed away.
“I don’t really remember much about living there, except for watching videos of me when I was little with our dog, Sniffles,” said Coetzee, who has an older sister, Val. “It’s a beautiful country, but not really a place where I would want to live. I'm happy we ended up where we did.”
His parents, however, did not leave their South African roots completely behind. They still speak Afrikaans, a West Germanic language mainly of Dutch origins that Coetzee speaks sporadically but understands fluently. “My parents still speak Afrikaans to each other or when we want to keep something a secret,” he said.
Coetzee played all sports until he was about 16. He loved soccer and would like to have kept playing golf but realized he had to make a decision.
“My coach said I could be better than average at more than one sport but I could be the master of only one,” said Coetzee, who chose hockey because he felt it afforded him the best opportunity.
“I started golf too late so I would have needed more time to get to where I needed to be,” he said. “I liked golf – it was relaxing, being able to get away from everything when you’re on the course. But mentally it’s still pretty intense.”
He believes hockey is also intense psychologically, estimating that the sport is 95 percent mental, which may seem surprising given that it is so physically challenging. But Coetzee discovered that confidence – one thing that he had in abundance at the junior level – can be elusive in the professional ranks.
Coetzee struggled during his first season as a pro in 2010-11. He failed to find the net in 25 games with the Griffins, although he managed to build some confidence with ECHL Toledo, where he had nine goals and 11 assists in 36 games with the Walleye.
“Getting sent down is going to play with your head,” he said. “I knew the first year in the pros might be tough. Getting points is a huge factor in helping to build your confidence, and they didn’t come easily.”
In retrospect, his demotion was probably a blessing in disguise. Getting the opportunity to play in the ECHL afforded him more ice time to work on his skills and develop his game.
“In Toledo, I was able to make myself a stronger player by improving my defensive play while working on my speed and scoring ability,” he said. “It all comes down to work ethic, how hard you’re willing to push yourself.”
Like countless rookies before him, Coetzee learned that playing professional hockey is a huge jump from junior hockey.
“I’m sure when Willie came in, his expectations were very high,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “Like other players in the past, he’s learned that it sometimes takes a year to get used to the style of play.”
Coetzee had averaged more than a point per game during his final junior season with Red Deer in 2009-10, so being consistently absent on the scoresheet was frustrating to say the least after he turned pro.
He struggled to find his footing against older players who were bigger, stronger and faster. “You can’t play the puck when you’re getting pushed around the ice. I realized I was going to have to work harder than ever.”
This past summer Coetzee upped his training regimen, pushing himself to improve his strength and speed. “I saw what it was going to take to become a better player,” he said. “You look at the top players and they never take a day off. They’re working every day to improve.”
He skated with a number of players from other organizations, including Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. “It was good working out with those guys because everybody had the same work ethic,” he said.
More than ever, he was resolutely focused on what was required to show that he could succeed at the pro level. “I kept my eye on the prize,” he said. “I set goals that I needed to reach and achieve if I wanted better ice time.”
The results thus far have been telling. “Willie has worked exceptionally hard,” Fraser said. “When he came to training camp this year, he looked like a totally different guy. He’s stronger, faster, more confident and much more prepared – and it’s shown on the ice.”
His dogged determination has paid dividends early in the 2011-12 campaign. After going without a goal in a Griffins jersey last season, Coetzee tallied four in the first 10 games.
“There’s a point where you start to build chemistry with your linemates,” Coetzee said. “At the beginning of a season, it’s all pretty new. As you start getting the hang of things, you begin to feel comfortable with each other and the points start coming more easily.”
Coetzee wants to show that he’s a better player today than he was a year ago.
“I not only want to prove that I should stay here in Grand Rapids, but that I also want to make the Red Wings,” he said. “I’m not here to be satisfied with playing for the Griffins. I want to play with guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom and (Pavel) Datsyuk.”
The longer he’s in the Red Wings organization, the more he understands that it’s all part of a process. The idea of overnight success is simply too good to be true.
“In the long run, it’s the little things that will matter in the big picture,” he said. “It’s about eating right, getting sleep, making sure I’m working hard not only during the game but before and after the game as well.”
And so he watches veterans like Chris Conner, Greg Amadio, Garnet Exelby and Doug Janik. He aspires to be like Darren Helm, the former Griffin whose speed and work ethic have made him an integral part of the Red Wings’ attack.
It doesn’t matter where a guy is from. It’s where he’s going. “If you’re not 100 percent committed, you’re not going to succeed,” he said. “Even the best players are always pushing themselves.”
Fraser is pleased with Coetzee’s progress, but he hopes he will continue to improve.
“Willie’s doing much better in all areas of the ice and he’s come a long ways,” Fraser said. “He still has a long ways to go to move up to the NHL, but he’s headed in the right direction.”