12/08/2007 12:03 AM
Randall Gelech’s small-town values are serving him well in his pursuit to someday play in the National Hockey League.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins forward Randall Gelech comes from Elfros, a little Canadian town in rural Saskatchewan, a place so small that you had to go to the next town to find enough people to play hockey.
According to Gelech, if you wanted to pull a game together, you looked to another small town called Wishart about 15 miles down the road. “They had the ball diamonds and we had the hockey rink,” Gelech explained. “In the winter, they’d come to Elfros to play and we’d go there in the summer.”
There were opposing teams, but no picking of sides in terms of who was allowed to play and who was not.
“Everybody played, young and old, guys and girls alike. I had girls on my hockey team until I was probably 13 or 14. I think we even used a couple of dogs for goalies. That was life in the Saskatchewan prairie.
“You really didn’t have a choice. Whether it was girls or guys, everybody was accepted as one. Everybody got to skate, or you didn’t play at all. That’s just the way it was.”
Gelech, 23, loved growing up in Elfros, which is located about 200 miles north of the U.S. border and about 100 miles west of the border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Elfros had no street signs, no stop signs and no paved roads. The town was laid out in a square, exactly one mile to each side.
There was a bar-hotel, with a total of six rooms, where Gelech’s mother sometimes worked, and a co-op that served as the general store. “It sold everything from hockey sticks to tires to produce which wasn’t very fresh because we were in the middle of nowhere.”
Elfros was home to about 100 people. Gelech not only knew everybody by their first and last name, but their pets, too. “If I saw a dog walking down the street, I knew exactly who it belonged to and what its name was,” he said.
Gelech spent a lot of time at the town’s natural ice rink. “It was inside what looked like a farmer’s quonset. It had chicken wire at the ends, no plexiglass, but it had a nice lobby with benches.”
In the northern prairies, the rink typically stayed frozen all winter, with the exception of a few mild days when it might get slushy. And there were always nearby ponds and lakes beckoning for action.
“As soon as we got the OK from our parents, we were always out there,” Gelech said. “I might skate from noon to 5 o’clock, come home to get something quick to eat, then go back out until 10.”
Of course, sometimes household chores got in the way. His parents, Terry and Alice Gelech, always made sure he and his younger brother, Daniel, understood the value of hard work.
“My dad worked for the highway department – he still does – and he would be gone for most of the week, so my brother and I helped out a lot around the house. Of course, my mom might say different.
“But there was no dishwasher in our house, that’s for sure. My mom tried to keep things as structured as possible, with a schedule of chores on the refrigerator, and an allowance at the end of the week.”
Youth hockey was no less structured. Practices were led by “drill sergeants” – at least that’s the way it seemed to Gelech and his buddies. “It sounds funny, but the discipline they instilled even at age 7 or 8 was unbelievable,” he said.
Gelech recalls the strict regimen and training in fundamentals as indispensable to his development as both a hockey player and a person. Although he didn’t realize it then, his parents and coaches were preparing for the day when he would leave Elfros.
That day came at age 16 when he left to play junior hockey in Kelowna, British Columbia, in the Western Hockey League.
“Being away from home was a big adjustment,” he recalled. “I still look back and wonder who it was harder for, my mom or myself. Leaving home and going halfway across the country at 16 is a big deal.”
Before he made his decision, his parents asked all the right questions. They recognized that hockey was in his blood.
“My parents were very supportive. They knew that this was what I wanted to do and that this was a great opportunity for me to hopefully chase down a dream.”
Going to a high school with 2,000 students was a far cry from the small schoolhouse he attended in Elfros with one librarian and three teachers, one of whom doubled as the principal.
Junior hockey practice, meanwhile, provided an education of an altogether different type. The Kelowna coaching staff of Marc Habscheid and Jeff Truitt was very demanding.
“There were some days when it was tough to go to the rink because they were very strict, very hard on us,” Gelech said. “They taught us how to be good people first and great hockey players second. They instilled in us stuff that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”
It was in junior hockey that Gelech began his true development as a player. Habscheid, who played in the NHL with Edmonton, Minnesota, Detroit and Calgary, preached the importance of being defensively accountable.
“He told me, ‘Be strong on the wall’ because that’s where he said I was going to make my living. Once I started getting that message, he taught me to drive the net. He said, ‘Shoot the puck and get there.’
“He knew exactly how to get what he needed out of his players. I can say he definitely pushed me to the brink.”
Gelech has always been a strong forechecker, in part, because it was true to what his father always preached.
“My dad had two rules. He would say, ‘Never dog it,’ which meant give 110 percent, never slack off. And he would always remind me to headman the puck, which meant passing it to a player who was skating ahead of me.”
Gelech took all of his lessons to heart. College was not an option, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t learn. “Hockey is all I ever thought about,” he said.
Even though he now only gets back to Elfros a couple of weeks a year – his parents still live there – Gelech never stops thinking about the town, its influence, and how much growing up there helped shape his personality, his work ethic, his very being.
“I’m very proud of where I come from and what it’s meant to me,” he said. “Although I don’t know if I could ever live that ‘small’ again, I’ll definitely take my children back there so they can see my roots.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
It’s that work ethic that attracted the Red Wings to offer a two-year deal to Gelech, whom the organization sees as a player in the mold of a Dan Cleary or Anaheim Ducks forward Travis Moen.
“He played with Moen in junior and he was just as good of a player,” Detroit assistant general manager Jim Nill told RedWingsCentral.com. “You’re just hoping. He’s still a young kid.”
Gelech recorded 17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points in 79 games last season with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. As a 6-foot-3, 200-pound forward, he has many of the attributes of a good NHL fourth liner.
“We like his size, he plays hard on the boards, he chases the puck well and he has pretty good hands for a big guy,” Nill said. “In this game, we’re forced to rush a lot of kids and we’re just hoping we find one of them who slips through the cracks, much like Dan Cleary did.”
Gelech would love to make that wish come true.
“That’s a role I’m completely comfortable with. Let’s face it, I’m not going to be a Ilya Kovalchuk or Sidney Crosby or a 100-point guy. That’s never going to happen.”
Gelech knows he has to be realistic. Every team needs role players, the Red Wings included.
“I’ve been impressed with the Detroit organization, how everyone from the scouts to the general manager are good people. You can tell they want to win and everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction.”
He sees the same esprit de corps in Grand Rapids. “We stumbled a little out of the gate but I’d rather it happen now than down the road,” he said. “We have a great bunch of guys. I think we’re in for a great year.”