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."