The phone number came up as being from Peoria, Ill., but if you listened carefully, you could swear you heard Anthony Peluso‘s descriptions of just how far he’s come since his days there coming through an ear-to-ear grin.
The 23-year-old’s road to becoming the 500th player to graduate from the ECHL to play in the National Hockey League started in 2007, when he was drafted in the sixth round by the St. Louis Blues. After completing a four-season, three-team tour of the OHL, the soft-spoken North York, Ontario native began his professional career in 2009, but things didn’t go quite as he’d hoped in the early going.
"When I was younger, getting out of junior, I went through a little bit of a rough patch adjusting to pro," said Peluso in, you guessed it, a phone conversation with ECHL.com.
"I was in Peoria for five months of the year and I only played 20 games, so I got sent to Alaska. I went down there and started to work on my game and get my confidence going."
Peluso not only did just that — he posted 11 points while playing in 27 regular-season games with the Aces — he also had his first pro postseason experience, getting into four Kelly Cup Playoff contests during the 2009-10 season.
"I had a fun time there," Peluso said. "Alaska was a fun place to play, the fans were great. Probably one of the best memories I have is I’ve never seen people throw frozen fish heads out onto the ice."
It was tough, Peluso said, being as far away from home for as long as he was. But he stuck with it, and eventually re-joined the Rivermen for good at the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign. After two full AHL seasons, he remained with Peoria through the first 36 games of this year, and lockout or no lockout, his NHL prospects with the Blues organization seemed bleak.
"I worked hard for four seasons," he said. "It was a work in progress, and I knew that. For me, it was just kind of take everything for what it is and keep working. No matter when you get an opportunity or when it comes or with who it comes, you’ve just got to realize that you’ve got to keep working and fighting through it."
And sometimes, of course, you’ve got to catch a break. And that’s exactly what happened to the gritty, big-bodied winger when he was claimed by the Winnipeg Jets on waivers just prior to the start of the shortened NHL season. However, the 6-foot-4, 235 pounder didn’t play right away, instead getting scratched in the club’s first 11 games.
But Peluso credits the Jets coaching staff for working with him every day to get him prepared for his debut and, in retrospect, admits that maybe sitting out wasn’t a bad thing after all.
"It’s good, because you learn stuff when you play, but you learn stuff when you watch," he said.
"Every day, you’ve got to come in with an open mind. When you get your chance, be patient with it, and that’s what I did. I honestly just kept it in the back of my head to keep working through it, keep pushing through it. You’ll get your chance, and when you get it, you’ve got to be ready."
That theory would get tested out on Feb. 12. For many, it was just another game; one that happened to feature the Philadelphia Flyers visiting Winnipeg’s MTS Centre. For Peluso, however, the day that changed his life started when Jets head coach Claude Noel approached him after the morning’s pre-game skate.
"Claude just came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in there tonight,’" recalls Peluso.
"And that’s when everything just got going. I went back and tried to sleep, (but I) couldn’t sleep very much because of my nerves. But then I got to the rink, and it was just like any other game."
Peluso registered one shot on goal in six shifts in the 3-2 loss to the Flyers, saying afterwards that he got to live out "every kid’s dream."
"I was four or five skating on a pond, so for me to finally play, for me and my family, it was a special moment for everybody," he said.
"Let’s just say you waited for something for 20 years in your life and it finally happened, if you’re trying to compare it to a ‘normal person.’ But it’s the best feeling you can get in the world."
And even though he’s still just days removed from experiencing the culmination of a life’s work, the humble grinder was sure to not overlook what it meant to the ECHL as well.
"It’s cool, it shows you a lot," he said of being the league’s long-awaited 500th NHL alum.
"I put in so much work, but when you see that number, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m not the only one.’ For me, to be the 500th player, it’s pretty cool. That’s a pretty cool number to me. When I actually read that, it was an honor."