In every sense of the word, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland has fought every step of the way to get to where he is now.
The Edmonton native came onto the scene as a rugged blueliner in juniors, amassing three consecutive triple-digit penalty minute seasons with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors before beginning his pro career in 2003-04 with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers and AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters.
The adjustment to the pro game was, at first, a difficult one for Engelland.
"It was a big transition, moving in on your own and kind of fending for yourself after juniors," said Engelland in a one-on-one phone interview with ECHL.com.
"Obviously, the game itself is a little bit quicker and guys are a little bit bigger and older, so you get into that a little bit more as well."
Making things a bit more difficult was coming from the calm and cold of Western Canada to the bright lights of Las Vegas as a 21-year-old.
"Until then, the biggest cities I’d been in were Calgary and Edmonton, and going to a place like Vegas was pretty neat at first. It still is, I live there in the off-season with my wife and we love it there.
She moved out there from Wisconsin to get her Masters, and we live out there in the summers. It kind of became a second home."
It also was where he got his first opportunity to showcase his skills at the pro level, and he was impressive, posting 13 points in 35 games, which was two more points than he’d registered in 30 more contests over his final season in juniors. It also served as the only points he’d put on the scoresheet that season, as he didn’t tally a goal or an assist in 26 games with Lowell, which likely led to his return for a full second season with the Wranglers during the lockout year in 2004-05.
Engelland would ultimately play in all or parts of four seasons at the ECHL level, playing in 35 games for the South Carolina Stingrays in 2005-06 and six in a conditioning assignment for the Reading Royals in 2006-07, splitting time both years with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.
"I still wanted to make it up and get out of the (ECHL) obviously, but I grew as a player in the ECHL and I don’t think I would be the player I am now without going there and playing," Engelland said.
"I played a lot more minutes there, and I think my game improved a lot down there with the coaches I had. They really helped me out."
Engelland’s game started to really blossom in his second season in Hershey, a year in which he played 44 games at the AHL level and posted a 4-6-10 line. That and his steady play in the Calder Cup Playoffs that year earned him some attention on the free agent market prior to the 2007-08 season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins scooped him up.
His days in the ECHL were finally behind him, and Engelland was now logging regular minutes in the AHL with Wilkes-Barr/Scranton.
Looking back on it, Engelland says signing with the Penguins was the turning point in his career.
"It was huge, it was a big decision to sign with them," he said.
"From that day forward, they’ve really invested in me and I want to give the same to them. They’ve given me every opportunity to play my role and improve as a player. Every day, you’re still working and they want to get the best out of you. They’ve really helped my career."
Engelland played in all 80 games for the WBS Penguins in back-to-back seasons, and also posted what remain as career highs in penalty minutes with 141 in 2007-08 and 143 in 2008-09. With his increased ice time and more roster stability, Engelland was also able to refine his role as a defenseman who could mix equal parts skill and grit.
"That’s always been part of my game since juniors," says Engelland of dropping the gloves and playing a physical game.
"I like doing it, it’s fun most of the time. It definitely has been an aspect of my game that’s gotten me here, and it’s going to keep me here if I can keep on doing it, so I can’t stray away from that. You’ve got to pick the right time and place to do it, but you’ve still got to be able to play the game too."
For a while, it seemed Engelland’s games would be played strictly in the minors, as he was entering his seventh season without having played in the NHL in the 2009-10 season. But as it turns out, the call came pretty quickly that year, and Engelland became a 27-year-old rookie when he debuted against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 10, 2009.
Given everything he’d had to go through and all the uniforms he’d had to wear just to get to that point, and it made the moment seem that much sweeter.
"It’s a long road, and it’s a dream to get there since you’re a little kid, no matter what way you get there," Engelland said.
"Definitely for me, I think with my road and it being a long battle and working my way through, it just adds character. To finally make it, you look back at all the hard work and the sacrifices you make and it makes it that much better."
With his first NHL game out of the way, it was only a matter of time before Engelland got his first goal, and that milestone came on Nov. 12, 2010.
"Kunie (Chris Kunitz) had a good forecheck, and made a good pass and I just tried to get it on net," said Engelland through a laugh.
"I think my head was buried in the ice looking at the puck, but Duper (Pascal Dupuis) was in front and had a good screen, and it found the back of the net. I didn’t actually think I scored, I thought Duper tipped it, but he said he didn’t. So I’ll take it, I guess."
It was a moment, Engelland admits, that he’d daydreamed about during his days in Las Vegas, South Carolina and Reading.
"It’s kind of surreal, you see it go in and you don’t know how to react," he said. "It’s a huge thing you’ve been dreaming about all your life and when it happens, it’s so quick. I don’t score too many goals, so I didn’t know to react really. But it’s a great moment."
Another great moment for Engelland was getting an opportunity to play in last season’s Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field. One of a handful of ECHL alumni both on the ice and behind the benches for the game, there was nothing at either of the minor league levels that could have prepared him for playing in front of over 68,000 people on national television.
"Just being out there the day before the game and practicing, there were a few thousand fans out there, so you just got to take it all in. When the game came, there was almost 70,000 people out there screaming and stuff, it was unbelievable. Still kind of like you dreamt it. It was an awesome experience. They did a great job with it. We could have had a little bit better weather for it, maybe a little bit colder with snow, but the rain didn’t stop us."
As part of the buildup to the game, an HBO documentary crew filmed both teams for several weeks leading up to the game itself, and Engelland found himself as an unlikely TV star as well, being prominently featured in many scenes.
"A lot of people mention it, that they didn’t know how it was behind the scenes other than just the hockey games, so that was pretty neat," he said.
"They did a fabulous job with it. At first, it was kind of a little awkward always having the cameras there, but once you get to know the camera guys and stuff, they’re pretty good guys. They were just part of the family after that, that type of thing. It was an experience, that’s for sure."
But, perhaps true to his humble beginnings in the ECHL, Engelland felt a little uncomfortable in the spotlight.
"I’m not one of those type of guys who likes to be (on TV) all the time or anything like that, so it was good while it lasted, but it’s good it’s over."