By Jim Gintonio
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 11, 2008
PHOENIX – A lot of sports fans, especially youngsters who dream of a professional career, tend to identify with the star players or kids with the “can’t-miss” label.
True inspiration, however, can came from a journeyman player or one who has beaten the odds by battling for years at lower levels before making it to the big time.
One player who fits that niche is Craig Weller, the Coyotes’ 27-year-old rookie right wing who played his first professional season with Charlotte in the ECHL. He spent seven years in the minors, signing as a free agent before training camp after four seasons in the AHL in the New York Rangers organization.
“He’s a great story,” coach Wayne Gretzky said. “You always talk about guys who make the NHL and focus on guys like Shane Doan, the top-echelon players. You don’t think a whole lot about a guy who spends five, six years in the minors.
“It’s a great story for kids trying to make the NHL, that you never give up. He’s a tremendous young man, very mature, and what he brought to our team throughout the season has been that physical presence.”
Weller has three goals and seven assists in 48 games, but his contribution goes beyond the numbers. At 6-foot-4 and 220, he’s on a line with two other big young kids, Martin Hanzal and former Phoenix RoadRunners center Daniel Winnik, and they supply a lot of energy. Weller obtained an elevated status among fans when he took out three Columbus players during a melee.
Weller said he never thought about giving up, and that it’s a valuable asset for any player to have.
“One thing it shows is that there are always opportunities around the corner that you might not expect,” he said. “It’s important to keep working hard and stay positive. I think I did that pretty well, and my wife helped me a lot with that. I just had faith that I’d get an opportunity somewhere and felt pretty blessed to get the opportunity.”
He believed he had a lot he could show on the ice, but that playing in the Rangers’ organization was not going to afford him the chance he wanted.
“That’s the way things work out sometimes,” he said. “But when that door got closed, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to come here and get a chance. I think they probably had me pegged to be in the American league when I signed.
“Then I just worked hard in training camp and was able to make the team . . . and I hope that can be a motivation for kids, definitely.”
Coincidentally, he became a free agent about the time that Don Maloney, the Rangers assistant general manager, took over the reins in Phoenix. Weller said that is probably a big reason he was signed since Maloney knew the type of player he was, “and he though enough of me to give me another shot so I could play at this level.”
During the early stages of camp, it can be difficult to make an impression. Weller did just that, and Gretzky said it was hard work that got Weller to this point.
“The story is legendary now where he started in training camp and where he came from,” Gretzky said. “The fact that he got into the lineup and how well he’s played, it’s a tremendous story.”