Tucker Poolman: From NAHL tryouts to the Winnipeg Jets

Tim and Sid talk about the extensions for Paul Maurice and Kevin Cheveldayoff with the Winnipeg Jets and why they can’t just be happy to be in the league anymore.

PENTICTON, B.C. — Tucker Poolman is raining sweat after a long workout at the South Okanagan Events Centre Saturday morning. How hard is he sweating? A moat forms around him as we speak outside the Jets room.

Work? Don’t worry about how hard Poolman works. Or whether he’ll go away.

Tucker Poolman never goes away.

Meet the unlikely Jet, a kid from East Grand Forks, Minnesota who went undrafted at 18, then unnoticed at age 19 before the Winnipeg Jets took him in the fifth round as a 20-year-old. Today he is a six-foot-four, 217-pound right-shot defenceman who looks like a heck of a find — even though he was right under the nose of 30 National Hockey League teams all along.

“The draft? It wasn’t really on my radar. I was working to find a junior team,” he said. “I tried out for a few teams.”

That’s like saying Michel Petit and Brent Ashton played for “a few NHL organizations.”

Fresh off his 18th birthday and without a sniff at the NHL draft, Poolman put his equipment bag and a few sticks in the trunk and got after it. He auditioned for the Alexandria Blizzard of the North American Hockey League, a town 300 kilometres south over the Minnesota border.

That didn’t work out, so he found a tryout with the Coulee Region Chill, an NAHL club some 800 km from home, in Onalaska, Wisconsin. Couldn’t stick there either.

So he went back home and tried out for the Fargo Force, a United States Hockey League team just down Interstate 29. “Thanks for coming,” they said.

“Then I tried out in Wichita Falls, on the Texas-Oklahoma border,” he said. “They said, ‘Yeah, you could come back.’ I just kept tryin’ out until they said I was on the team for sure. I didn’t want to take any chances.”

Coming off surgery on both shoulders this summer, Poolman is scheduled to play in the Jets Young Stars finale against Calgary Monday morning. On Saturday, the Jets fell to the Oilers 3-0. Stuart Skinner carded the shutout for the Oilers.

After that first elusive year in the NAHL, the journey took Poolman to the Omaha Lancers in the USHL, and by the end of his second season there he was 21, had 41 points in a 58-game season, and had about a year of university completed in his spare time.

For almost any hockey playing kid who grows up in East Grand Forks, the dream is to skate out of the tunnel at The Ralph — Ralph Engelstad Arena — as a member of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, just across the Red River. Poolman’s mother had graduated from UND, and his Dad played football there, and taken a job as the hockey team’s strength and conditioning coach.

His work in the low minors earned him a scholarship, and more importantly, extended a hockey career that had reached the coals for another chapter.

“Going from thinking maybe I had a couple of years left in hockey in my life, to buying myself another four years was exciting To being my dream school? It was fabulous. I gained more and more belief.”

He left with an NCAA Championship ring, a degree in economics, and as property of the Jets, as close to a hometown team as he could name.

“He’s as close to local as you’ll get, other than coming from Winnipeg,” said Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger said. “He’s a Grand Forks kid, played for Brad Berry, who played for the Jets 1.0 and coached the (Manitoba) Moose 1.0. His Dad is the strength and conditioning coach there…

“He’s been able to prove himself at all the levels moving forward, but based on age, sometimes you’re window gets a little shorter.”

Lots of undrafted players succeed. Even some 24-year-old rookie camp attendees make it, eventually.

Poolman’s goals? They are, like the young man, humble.

“I’ll come to training camp, try to keep up to the veterans there. Be a sponge and absorb everything. Try to get the most out of each day.”

He’s on a two-way deal and likely destined for the AHL Moose. But the NHL isn’t just a possibility now, it’s more likely than not he’ll find a game in the bigs.

“I’ve had to have the same mindset since I left for my first year of junior. A little bit of desperation, some hard work, and try to be optimistic.”