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THE UNDERDOG

Turner Elson is determined to overcome the odds and earn a spot in the NHL. 

Story and photo by Mark Newman

              
Turner Elson is the classic overachieving player flying under the radar.
              
Hockey is in his blood, but it’s his upbringing that could spell the difference – it’s nurture, not nature, that will likely propel him to succeed where others might fail.
              
The fourth of five boys, Elson, 25, learned to fend for himself at an early age. If you wanted something, you fought for it.
              
“I think I gained my work ethic just from growing up with four brothers,” he said. “You have to battle for everything: food, toys, Xbox and TV.”
              
His father, a project manager in the oil industry, worked in far-flung places like Saudi Arabia and New Guinea, which meant he was often away for months at a time, leaving his mother to hold down the proverbial fort.
              
“Seeing our mom with five boys, a lot of the time all on her own, getting us to hockey and everything else, you learn,” he said.
              
Elson learned you have to roll up your sleeves, and when he does, you’ll see a large tattoo on his forearm – the same inked cross found on the same arm of all four of his brothers in honor of their grandfather, Antonie Kaiser.
              
“My grandpa was a big influence on all of us,” he said. “He was a marathon runner who also battled bladder cancer and a form of ALS.”
              
Kaiser, who was well known among runners in the city of St. Albert, Alberta, northwest of Edmonton, competed in 30 marathons, finishing his first at the age of 50. He also developed a type of aquatic exercise that combined karate with water fitness for wellness.
              
“He was a hard-nosed guy who always pushed my brothers and me to be better. He was a real straight-arrow guy, and he had the will, the character and the determination. I think that’s where I get my battle level.”
              
Like his grandfather, Elson is a bit of a bulldog, a hard-nosed kid with an indefatigable spirit, determined to overcome the odds.
              
At 17, he was the odd man out, a player without a spot on any junior hockey team until he literally talked his way into a tryout with the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars, only to later get a camp invitation from the Red Deer Rebels, with whom he would play four seasons.
              
Ignored in the NHL Entry Draft during his eligibility year, Elson ultimately signed a free agent contract with the Abbotsford Heat for the 2013-14 season. He played limited minutes and tallied two goals and an assist in 37 AHL games before being assigned to the ECHL’s Alaska Aces late in the season.
              
In retrospect, Elson believes it was the best thing that could have happened. The ECHL allowed him to shine.
              
“I really enjoyed my time,” he said. “In the East Coast, guys are less stressed about hockey. There’s a little less pressure because guys are there to have fun and keep playing. Plus, with teams playing three lines (instead of four), you see a lot more ice. It’s a cool league.”
              
Elson recorded five goals and 10 assists in the 18 games leading up to the postseason, then added seven goals and four assists in 21 playoff games as he helped the Aces capture the Kelly Cup championship.
              
“No matter what league it is, winning a championship is one of the best feelings you’ll have,” he said. “We had a great group of guys. Plus, Anchorage is beautiful with the ocean and the mountains right beside you.”
              
Elson spent two more seasons in the Calgary organization, moving from Abbotsford to the Adirondack Flames in 2014-15 and the Stockton Heat in 2015-16. He recorded 30 points each season, tallying 17 goals with the Flames and 14 with the Heat while playing 59 and 63 games, respectively.
              
Playing for the same organization for three years in three different cities presented a unique challenge. “Whenever you go to a new city, you have to learn the area, the different spots to go,” he said. “As long as you’re with a good group of guys, it makes it a lot easier.”
              
At the end of 2015-16, he fulfilled a lifelong goal and got to play in Calgary’s final game of the season at Minnesota. He had missed out on an opportunity for a late-season call-up the previous season because of injury.
              
“You dream about it, but I never thought growing up that I would be there,” he said. “It was pretty awesome. They sent me out early to skate around by myself before the rest of the team came out, so that was pretty cool.
              
“I didn’t think I played that well – the nerves got in the way – but I did get an assist.”
              
Elson, however, was ready to try his luck in a new organization. He signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Colorado Avalanche, but he appeared in just four games before he was sidelined with a sports hernia. He ended up missing most of the 2016-17 season, appearing in just nine more games.
              
“It was a long year,” Elson said. “You’re watching other guys excel and you’re trying to figure out how long you will be out. It’s hard on your mind. But I was in Texas, so I got a lot of sun. Plus, I was with a good group of guys for support. Still, it’s always difficult to miss almost a whole year.”
              
Figuring he had fallen off the radar of most teams, Elson was more than thrilled when the Detroit Red Wings extended him a one-year contract this past summer.
              
“I was really excited to come to a championship team,” he said. “You look at the roster and you wonder how you will fit in. I thought I could fit in a third line role, putting pressure on the top lines, not allowing goals against and chipping in a few of my own every now and then.”
              
Elson got off to a great start with his new team. He had seven points in the Griffins’ first three games, including a four-point effort on opening night when the team raised its second Calder Cup banner in Van Andel Arena.
              
“I got a quick start out of the gate, and even though the points have slowed a bit, I feel like I’m still playing good hockey,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of penalty killing time and I’m getting my share of chances. You have to work with the opportunities you’ve been given.”
              
Griffins head coach Todd Nelson has been pleased with the play of the 6-foot, 195-lb. forward.
              
“I didn’t know what we were going to get out of him because he was injured last season, but he’s been a nice signing for us,” Nelson said. “He’s very versatile – he can play all three forward positions. What he brings is that he has a tremendous work ethic. He’s a smart player and he follows the systems to a T.”
              
Elson knows he still has plenty of room for improvement.
              
“I think my defensive play has to keep getting better,” he said. “I still need to push the tempo offensively, maybe get a little grittier in front of the net to get those second opportunities. I think I can still pick up my game from a rattier perspective. I need to make sure that I’m willing to finish checks, block shots and play a hard-nosed game.
              
“I’ve had to work for everything I’ve been given so far, and that’s driven me every summer because I want to be better every year. I want to keep pushing the envelope.”
              
Elson said he has no fear of growing complacent. On the ice, he’s going to give the game everything he has. That little voice in his head – he imagines his grandfather still encouraging, still pushing – won’t settle for anything less.