Jordan Eberle always has been the little guy who compiles big stats.
When he was 9 years old, Eberle scored 216 goals in Hockey Regina's Tier 1 novice league. He was so proficient that a Boston youth team recruited the diminutive Canadian kid to play two tournaments every summer.
Eberle continued to compile off-the-chart stats. When he was 15, he led the Calgary Buffaloes to the Triple-A bantam Canadian national finals.
But the following year, eligible for the prestigious major junior draft, Eberle wasn't selected until the seventh round by the hometown Regina Pats.
“Back then, people selected you on how big you are,” Eberle said. “(Barons teammate) Colten Teubert was the first overall pick that year. He was 6-foot-4. I was 5-foot-3. Everyone knew I could score and was a skilled player. But they didn't think I could do it at the next level.”
Eberle, a 22-year-old right winger who is playing with the Oklahoma City Barons during the NHL lockout, took the Western Hockey League by storm.
Over the next four seasons Eberle led Regina in scoring. He compiled 310 points, including 155 goals.
Last week, the Pats retired Eberle's No. 7 jersey.
“Seeing your name raised to the rafters was pretty special,” said Eberle, who is second in the AHL in scoring. “It's such an honor. That's the team I grew up watching as a kid, the team I wanted to play for.”
It was a memorable night for the small kid with big skills who, four years after being overlooked in the WHL draft, was selected in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers.
“There always were doubts in scouts' minds whether I could play because of my size, but I just used that as motivation,” said Eberle, now 5-11 and 184 pounds. “Plus, the game changed. I think I've paved the way for a lot of guys.”
The game changed in 2004-05 when the NHL, in an attempt to increase scoring, started enforcing penalties to prevent “clutching and grabbing.” Tighter rules benefitted smaller players like Eberle.
“It freed them up. They had more room,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “They didn't have to worry about fighting through bodies. It helped smaller players play at a high level.”
Highly skilled at age 3
Eberle's father, Darren, coached Jordan in youth leagues. He said his son's talent was apparent as early as age 3. As Jordan grew older his skills stood out.
“He did things that kind of left your mouth open,” Darren said. “He could really skate. And his puck handling, it was like he had a string on it. He could literally dangle (the puck) inside out. He was always the top player in his age group.”
It was the year Jordan scored 216 goals that he showcased his skills in a summer event in Regina. The Vancouver Vipers' coach attended the tournament. He invited Eberle to play with them in the Edmonton Brick Tournament, which featured some of the top teams in North America.
In the finals, Eberle had four points, including the game-winning overtime goal against a Toronto team led by Steven Stamkos. Kevin Lowe, now the Oilers' president of hockey operations, presented Eberle with the MVP trophy.
“We have pictures of all that, the MVP trophy being held up by this little guy,” Darren said. “The rest is history.”
The Boston Ice Men scouted the Brick event and invited Eberle to play for them. Summer tournaments turned into family vacations to Detroit, Toronto, Montreal and Boston the next two years.
By the time Eberle was 14, the family had moved to Calgary, Alberta, but Eberle moved back to Saskatchewan to attend Notre Dame boarding school, a famed private hockey institution that's produced numerous NHL players.
“It taught him about being on his own at a young age,” said his mother, Lisa. “He had three roommates, but he had to grow up a little faster. They can get a little homesick. But it was good for him.”
Size isn't everything
Despite Jordan's success during his formative years, his father Darren was unsure whether his undersized son was ready physically when the Pats selected him in the junior draft. After all, Jordan would be going against some defensemen who were a foot taller and weighed 70 more pounds.
“You hoped he would continue to develop and have fun with it,” Darren said. “It wasn't like all along I said, ‘Oh, my kid is going to someday be in the NHL.' He never was very big. But you could tell he had a special talent from Day 1.
“It was at Regina when he started to show he could play in a big man's game and carry his skills to that level.”
An NHL All-Star last season, Jordan Eberle has developed into one of Team Canada's top players in international competition. He's led the Oilers in scoring his first two seasons. Last summer, he signed a six-year $40 million extension.
It all started with a four-year career in his hometown. His entire family attended last week's jersey retirement ceremony. In his speech, Jordan thanked his grandparents, Al and Lynn, who he lived with those four years playing for the Pats.
“Normally, the way it works is you don't get your jersey retired until you're a lot older,” Eberle said. “If we do this 20 years down the road, maybe my grandparents aren't still with us. It was really special for them to be there to see it.”
Regina is the oldest major-junior Canadian franchise. Eberle became the ninth Pats player to have his jersey retired.
“All of us, me, my wife and all our kids, were born and raised there in Regina,” Darren said. “I saw a lot of the previous jerseys go up. It's always a special night. Obviously to have your own son's jersey go up, and to have all your family there, was an awesome feeling.”
Quite a journey for a player scouts felt was too small.
“I never was touted as an NHL player because of my size,” Jordan Eberle said. “As the years went on I showed I could play at every level and gained more confidence. Those four years in Regina were pretty incredible. It helped get me where I am today.”