DENVER — Sixteen games into what appears to be his big break in the NHL, 28-year-old rookie Greg Mauldin on Tuesday absorbed another reality pinch.
His locker stall at the Colorado Avalanche's practice facility used to belong to legendary center Joe Sakic.
"I'm really honored," Mauldin said when told of the significance of the corner stall. "Obviously you look up to him. If you didn't look up to him, you better find a new line of work."
Mauldin, who is playing left wing on Colorado's third line with center Ryan O'Reilly and Daniel Winnik, finally is making a consistent living in the NHL, after six years of minor-league uncertainty. Between brief tastes of "the show" in 2004 with the Columbus Blue Jackets and last spring with the New York Islanders, Mauldin spent the 2006-07 season in Sweden and with the United Hockey League.
Before joining the UHL's Bloomington PraireThunder, he thought about joining the Army.
"I was part joking, but part serious. My dad was in the Navy and I just didn't know what to do," Mauldin said. "I spent all summer training really hard and I had no opportunities."
Instead of signing up to dodge bullets, "I hit the reset button on my hockey career," he said. "I mentally toughed it out. I quit thinking about my career going backwards, going from the NHL to the American League to the United League. It was tough to swallow, to go from the top all the way to the bottom. But it humbled me too, and reminded me of how hard I used to work and what got me to the NHL in the first place."
Mauldin was born in Holliston, Mass., and starred in hockey since he was 6. He accepted an NCAA scholarship at Massachusetts-Amherst and was a seventh-round draft pick of the Blue Jackets after his freshman year in 2002.
He signed with Columbus after his junior year, and played six games for the club before the end of the season.
"He was one of the elite players in Hockey East at the time, and usually when you're one of the top guys you're most likely going to play in the NHL," said Winnik, who played for New Hampshire when Mauldin was at UMass. "You can see that now. He's relentless on the puck, never gives up, and is just a great team player."
Mauldin signed with Colorado as a free agent in the offseason and was reassigned to the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, on Sept. 23, about 10 days before the opening-night roster was set.
He was recalled Nov. 11 after forwards T.J. Galiardi and David Van Der Gulik were placed on injured reserve. In 16 games, Mauldin has four goals, nine points and a plus-8 rating.
Van Der Gulik came off IR on Monday and was reassigned to Lake Erie. Galiardi is traveling with the Avs and close to returning to the lineup, but Mauldin is expected to remain with the Avs.
"When you think of Mauldy, you think of perseverance," Avs coach Joe Sacco said. "He stuck it out through some tough times, and when you do that, sometimes things happen for the right reasons.
"I didn't foresee him staying as long as he has. We've had some other injuries pile up as well, but he came in, played well and took advantage of an opportunity. He's one of those guys you can just rely on. He's dependable. I know what I'm going to get from him night in and night out."
Back home in Holliston, Joanne Mauldin is a proud mother. Greg's father died in 2000 of cancer.
"I'm so proud of him and I told him his father's watching him and so proud of him too," Joanne said. "This has been Greg's dream, and I've watched him every time he hasn't been called up. He never gets discouraged. He'll just say, 'It's not my time.' "
Mauldin's time has come.
"A lot of my buddies compare me to the movie 'The Rookie' and stuff, because I'm the older guy finally getting his chance," Mauldin said. "I really do like movies like that ... because I like to see guys getting their chance and making good. For me, personally, it's just awesome, knowing all the work I've put in.
"I'm happy I stuck it out, obviously. I don't think I was really ever going to quit, but I just often thought, 'What's going on with my life.' I couldn't be happier with where I'm at right now."