The intangible Scottie Upshall and the secret of surviving a PTO

Scottie Upshall, who missed the entire 2018-19 season, celebrates a goal for the St. Louis Blues. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

You won’t be able to locate Scottie Upshall’s greatest assets on HockeyDB.com. They’re not tracked at NaturalStatTrick.com, and his figures at CapFriendly.com don’t exactly leap off the page.

At age 35, Upshall is the archetypal glue guy. Which is, at least in part, why he’s been able to stick around for 16 years in the pros despite only reaching the 20-goal plateau once and bending the net fewer than 10 times in nine of his seasons.

Upshall is the Good Guy in the Room so many of his peers aspire to be or, failing that, be around. It’s one thing that, in his twilight, a rejuvenated Upshall can log defensively responsible bottom-six minutes — kill a penalty, block a shot, throw a hit, not be a minus — but he brings a level of wisdom, optimism and, well, fun that can boost a dressing room.

The St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and now Dallas Stars have all welcomed Upshall on a professional tryout at recent training camps.

In an era where a hockey player’s value can be scrutinized on a spreadsheet, Upshall is a staunch believer that intangibles matter.

“Look at all the teams that have all the tools but may be missing that. Edmonton was one of them,” says Upshall, whose PTO with the Oilers in 2018 was only derailed by a serious knee injury.

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“Keeping guys loose in the room throughout the year, playing in front of a crowd that’s hard on you — there’s so many teams driven by younger stars who don’t know how to take on a full 82-game season and continually show up and have a smile on your face, show up and work hard, show up and forget about the last game but focus on the next one.”

When Upshall’s beat-up knee finally cried for surgery last September, it robbed the Fort McMurray, Alta., native of his shot to suit up for his hometown Oilers and forced him to miss the entire 2018-19 campaign.

“It was a long road. It was challenging. I was pretty down when I first got hurt last year in Edmonton trying out,” Upshall says. “It was looking like it was going to pan out.”

Upshall’s surgeon promised the winger he’d return stronger than ever if he poured his energy into rehab. When he flew to a Minnesota sports laboratory last month to undergo a series of tests during his nine-month check-in, the doctors were blown away.

“They said, ‘Have anyone call me if they’re concerned about your leg. It looks 100 per cent. You’re in great shape. Now it’s up to you to go make a team,’ ” Upshall says.

“I took care of what I needed to do and find myself here again in September with a tryout to play in the NHL, which is a dream still at this age. I’m just really fortunate for my health and this opportunity.”

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Words can't describe the feeling I had today working out and doing testing in front of the DR who put my knee back together! Almost 9 months ago I was forced to sit out an entire hockey season for the first time in my life. My body was telling me it was just too much! Thanks to Dr Laprade and his team, with the help of many others, I am back and ready to compete at a professional level again! I could not of done this without the treatment and workouts from @dramstutz @c_latto4 and @farleylisamarie (to name a few). Endless hours of hard work, pain, and grinding, I've put myself in a spot to live my dream again. Playing in the NHL is AN HONOR, and when it gets taken away from you, you do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get it back! Thanks for all the support from everyone along the way, you have no idea the strength that a lil love and support can give a guy! Here's to another YEAR of health, hockey and LIVIN baby!! #MrPTO #humNow #freeagent

A post shared by Scottie Upshall (@supshall9) on

With a clean bill of health and a mandate to keep pace with a young league trying to accelerate past him, Upshall tested his knee in full-throttle practices against the likes of Leon Draisaitl and Tyler Seguin at Matt Nichol’s BioSteel camp in Toronto before hopping a flight to Texas.

“I gave him an out on every drill,” Nichol reveals. “I said, ‘I understand about the injury history. If there’s anything you don’t want to do…’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m doing everything.’ I said, ‘It’s not a bravado thing. I haven’t trained with you all summer, so you get an out.’ He wanted no passes. He did every single rep, every single drill and has been great.

“He’s a warrior. He’s not afraid to get in there and grind.”

Upshall is the eldest of the 16 NHL grinders on the bubble who entered this weeks’ training camps without guaranteed employment. The collection of PTOs includes a 34-year-old Troy Brouwer (838 NHL games) striving to hang on in Florida and a 26-year-old Tobias Rieder hoping to make noise in Calgary after going goal-free in Edmonton.

Consider the alternatives for the afterthought UFA after Labour Day: (a) move to Europe and give up on that boyhood dream of hoisting the Cup, (b) retire, or (c) stay in shape, play hard-to-get, and pray that you’ll secure a last-minute, prove-it contract with an organization that gets desperate.

“Well, good luck. If they think they deserve a one-year deal without trying out, good for them,” Upshall says. “It’s kinda been the way of the world. All I gotta say from being on a PTO three or four times now, the world is not easy when you’re on PTOs.

“Just getting an opportunity to showcase — that’s what it’s about at this age. The tide has turned. Back in the day, guys would be handed deals because of their track record. Now, it’s a different game.”

It’s a game Upshall has mastered (so far), and one he’ll need to dominate this month if he’s to out-battle entry-level forwards and fellow PTOs Corey Elkins, 34, and Stefan Noesen, 26, for a spot on the Stars.

“He’s worked extremely hard. If you follow him on Instagram, he posts workouts every day,” says Seguin, flashing a sly grin. “He’s working hard in the gym. I know him off the ice. He’s a great person. So I’m looking forward to see what he can do at camp.”

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Work. @omgfu

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What Upshall can do well is identify which teams would even consider him for a PTO. He didn’t reach out to all 31 to offer his services but rather handpicked a select few that align with his attributes.

By trading for Andrew Cogliano and signing UFAs Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, the Stars are an emerging contender aggressively trying to sprinkle experience and maturity into their roster, more leadership into their culture.

And — this is key — Upshall waited until the back half of the summer to make his pitch.

“In the history of PTOs, I’ve found that the longer you wait, the more teams will say, ‘OK, we’ll have you at camp. Just come on in and we’ll see how you are.’ You strategically look for teams that might need what you bring to the table. That’s why it worked in St. Louis [for three seasons],” Upshall explains. “You have a mission, you have a path, you know what the job is.”

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Upshall sees Dallas GM Jim Nill building a championship contender in the mold of the last great Red Wings’ run, a mix of young and older components driven up-ice by a rock-solid and mobile defence corps.

He has two weeks to go hard in exhibition, be a good teammate, practice every day like it’s his last one, and showcase his leadership. Ironically, that means supporting, befriending and offering advice to the very wingers he’s trying to swipe a job from.

“Oh, yeah. It’s a grind. You might go in and not feel part of the group, but I know what the process is,” Upshall says. “All the intangibles of being a 15-year NHL veteran need to come out in two weeks.

“The NHL is just as much about being fast, skilled and physical as it is a mental game where you need to enjoy it. It goes by fast. I enjoy every moment of it. I’m happy to be here still, and I’m happy to be healthy. Let’s rock ’n’ roll.”

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