By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
The Bakersfield Californian
Mark Derlago never knew what, or who, hit him. His head was down, looking for a puck when an opposing player crashed into him, sending him slumping to the ice.
Derlago, an 18-year old playing in the final preseason game before what was to be his second season of junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, skated off the ice and walked into a hospital where he received the shock of his life: his second cervical vertebra (C2) was broken.
“I was really scared about what was going to happen,” Derlago, now a rookie for the Bakersfield Condors, recalled. “When they tell you that you have a broken neck, you obviously think the worst.
“First, you just want to get back healthy, but as a hockey player, obviously you wonder if you can get back to playing hockey.”
It was a year before that happened.
“They told me I was out of hockey for a year, no contact for eight months,” said Derlago, who thought he was going to the hospital for a checkup and stayed there four days, leaving with a halo attached to his head.
“They did traction, tried to line up my neck again, then they put the screws in the forehead (to mount the halo). It was not a fun experience. I wore the halo for 10 weeks.”
A year after the broken neck Derlago was back on the ice as captain of the Wheat Kings and finished second on the team in scoring and first in goals with 28. Last season was even better. Derlago scored a career-high 81 points and led the WHL with 46 goals.
“That first season back was real exciting for me,” he said. “It was like I was a rookie again after not playing for a whole year. Last year was unbelievable. The puck just kept finding its way into the net. I had great linemates and that helped out a lot.”
Derlago showed that scoring touch in his first professional game as he scored the tying goal and assisted on the game-winner in Bakersfield’s 3-2 opening-night victory over Stockton.
That scoring touch is why Condors goaltender Jamie Hodson is really glad to have Derlago as a teammate. Hodson, a former Wheat King, farms just west of Derlago’s hometown of Brandon, Manitoba, and talked up Bakersfield to Derlago during the offseason.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity for him and us as a team, too,” Hodson said of why he pressed Derlago to play for the Condors. “I really wanted him to play for us. I didn’t want to be playing against him this year. I thought he would be a good fit here. I knew it’s a good team here and a good organization.”
So did Bob Bartlett, Bakersfield’s director of hockey operations.
“Bob called pretty early on, right after the end of the season,” Derlago said. “Then Jamie Hodson got in my ear a bit and he had nothing but good things to say. I talked to some other guys and they said it was probably one of the best places to play in the league.”
Still, coming to Bakersfield was a a completely new environment for Derlago, who had always played in his hometown at every level until becoming a pro.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I got here,” he said. “I’ve just been enjoying it so far. I’ve been getting a lot of playing time and liking it.”
Condors coach Marty Raymond said there’s a reason the rookie winger is getting a good deal of playing time: He’s good and he understands the game.
“Without being demeaning to our other players, he’s one of our smartest guys,” Raymond said. “He’s not the best skater, but he’s so smart, has great hockey sense and understands the game well. Even in 4-on-4 situations, although his skating is not the greatest, he still looks good out there because he makes the best decision, understands the game and knows where to be.
“He has a helluva a shot. He’s (hit) two or three posts over the last two games but he’s a kid who can score 30 goals in this league without being flashy because he’s so smart.”
Some of that hockey sense certainly can be traced to his family. His uncle, Bill Derlago, scored 416 points over the course of 555 National Hockey League games during a career that spanned eight-plus seasons.
“He’s got a good family and he doesn’t have to be taught that much,” Raymond said. “He knows what’s going on. We explain something to him once and he knows what needs to be done. He’s pretty impressive.”
But there’s a reason Derlago is skating in Bakersfield and not an American Hockey League city.
“I think it’s obviously skating ability,” Derlago said when asked why he wasn’t approached by any AHL teams. “I have to work on that a bit. I would have liked to get a sniff somewhere. Hopefully I can have a good year here and try to move up somewhere.”
Derlago tries to make up for the lack of skating skills with his hands and positioning.
“Obviously I’m not going to skate around anybody that quickly,” he said. “I just park myself in front of the net and try and get open and find the right spots. That’s what I’ve been doing most of my career and it’s been working so far.”