The bench door opens at Buccaneer Arena, home of the Des Moines Buccaneers, and out skates a 15-year-old carrying a bucket of pucks. He glides over to his usual spot between the center hash marks, about 12 to 15 feet from the net.
He pours the bucket of pucks onto the ice and zeroes in on his target. The youngster fires away at the four corners of the net, concentrating on his quick release and keeping his head up. After a few rounds, then 15-year-old Aaron Palushaj skates a few laps around the freshly resurfaced ice rink.
After about 30 minutes, his teammates and some of the coaches trickle onto the ice. A strenuous two-hour practice soon follows. But afterwards, the now ex-Wolverine grabs the same bucket of pucks. Positioning himself on the face-off dot in the left circle, Palushaj shoots at the far side corners of the net until, finally, coach Regg Simon has to kick him off the ice.
But if it were up to Simon, he’d let the Northville, Mich. native keep at it all night.
When Palushaj arrived in Des Moines in the summer of 2005, Simon quickly realized he had acquired a special young player.
“Desire — he has an intangible not many players have,” Simon said. “I’ve never been around a kid who was legitimately the first one on the ice and legitimately the last one off everyday. … If I had to hedge a bet on someone who was going to will their way to the NHL, it would probably be him.”
On Apr. 3, Palushaj came one step closer to proving Simon right. Palushaj signed a contract with the Peoria Rivermen, the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues.
Palushaj sat down with Michigan coach Red Berenson prior to making a final decision — one that would mean forfeiting his final two years of NCAA eligibility.
Berenson has historically been opposed to players leaving the University early if they are not ready for the next level. But Palushaj said the two are still on “good terms,” even after his premature departure from the maize and blue.
“He was disappointed, but you don’t just leave to play in Peoria,” Palushaj said. “It’s a chance to play in the NHL and play for St. Louis. He understands where my heart’s at.”
A self-made family
For the past few weeks, Palushaj has been stationed in St. Louis, training with the Blues’ strength and conditioning coaches to become stronger and improve his skating. But Palushaj wouldn’t really consider that work — especially with an opportunity to impress the St. Louis coaching staff at the Pro-Orientation Camp which begins on July 8.
Working 30 to 40 hours a week as a 12 year-old — that’s real work. Just tell that to Tom Palushaj, Aaron’s father.
In 1972, the elder Palushaj emigrated from his native country of Albania to the United States. Aaron’s mother, Rita, had traveled to the United States just three years earlier.
As a teenager, Tom endured long hours to support his family of 11. He and his brothers eventually became entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry, opening Archie’s in Livonia and the Lyon Grill in South Lyon.
“They’re a self-made family, and it’s a good home,” Simon said. “Aaron probably grew up with inspiration around him all the time.”
Lightin’ the lamp
Natural goal scorers have a distinguishing attribute about them — the puck always seems to find their stick and eventually the back of the net.
A soft touch around the crease, an endless array of moves that leave netminders scratching their heads and an uncanny ability to score anywhere in the offensive zone makes them a goalie’s worst nightmare and a coach’s best weapon. It’s what every coach, at any level, looks for.
And it didn’t take long for Simon to recognize the offensive talent he had on his bench.
“(Aaron) was just a punk when he showed up (in Des Moines),” Simon said. “He was a real young kid, fresh out of Midget Minor in the Honeybaked (AAA) system. He was underdeveloped physically but most kids are at that age, but you knew he had the body to grow. … The determining factor of having him on that team was that he just always scored goals.
“Even as the second-youngest player in our camp (in 2005), he still scored.”
As a rookie, Palushaj had to prove to Simon and the rest of the Buccaneer coaching staff that he belonged in the lineup. Whether it was in off-ice workouts, practices or the weight room, he needed to show that he was driven and committed in his new environment. And he did.
But his second year in the United States Hockey League was a different story.
“He definitely played more of a leadership role,” Simon said. “Aaron also had a little bit of pressure on him to perform well because he was a highly recruited player at Michigan.”
The more experienced Palushaj played on the first and second line for the whole season while registering 67 points and finishing second in scoring. The same kid who used to pour endless buckets of pucks onto the ice had solidified himself as one of the top Wolverine recruits for 2007.
Size is a luxury in hockey.
And for Palushaj, his 5 foot, 11 inch, 175-pound frame makes him an average-sized player. It’s clear Palushaj’s not going to be one of the biggest skaters on any team he plays on in the future.
But being big is not really one of the components that characterizes an exceptional hockey player.
Without a size advantage, he has developed an intangible ability that can’t often be taught and few players truly posses: outstanding hockey IQ.
And while Palushaj’s hockey IQ is superior to many players, it’ll need to develop even further according to Peoria coach Davis Payne.
“The developmental timeline for him is very steep,” Payne said. “Playing in the AHL against guys who have been playing pro or who have played in the NHL is a definite step up. His competition will be tougher which will force his level of play to come up and with that, the developmental curve will be forced to steepen.”
Palushaj in Peoria
This upcoming season will be Palushaj’s first full year with the Rivermen, and while he is looking to cement a permanent place in the lineup, he will also hope to revert back to his old ways: simply putting the puck in the back of the net.
Still, it wasn’t as if Palushaj didn’t score at Michigan. He had 23 goals in his 82 games in Ann Arbor. But he was just more of a shoot first, pass second kind of player.
“I’m a goal scorer,” Palushaj said. “But my first year at school — the first powerplay unit was me, (Max) Pacioretty, (Chad) Langlais, (Kevin) Porter and (Chad) Kolarik. Playing with those guys, you’re really intimidated — going into college as a 17-year old and you’re playing with guys that put up 55 points in a season in NCAA.”
Payne mentioned that he would like Palushaj to drive to the inside of the ice more and play to his offensive strengths. Whether that includes passing the puck to an open teammate in the slot, rifling a snap shot from 20 feet out or sliding the puck back door on the powerplay, Payne wants offense and plenty of it.
“There’s something that goes on inside their brain that says, ‘Hey, I need to make a difference when I’ve got the puck,’” Payne said. “We want guys thinking that they need to score, they want to score, they love to score. We want Aaron to continue to be one of those guys.”