Undrafted, McLeod and Fiddler still succeed in NHL
In the two years Predators forward Vernon Fiddler was eligible for the NHL Draft, the League's teams selected 530 players.
Fiddler wasn't one.
In the two years Predators forward Cody McLeod was eligible for the NHL Draft, teams picked 583 players.
McLeod's name never came up.
So it seems somehow fitting that the two passed-over players - who've since combined for an unlikely 24 seasons and 1,533 games in the NHL - are now Predators teammates on the same feisty fourth line.
As the Predators attempt to scratch and claw their way to a playoff berth, the 36-year-old Fiddler and the 32-year-old McLeod are two of the players who will do much of the scratching and clawing. Fiddler is an edgy, irritating center and McLeod is the hard-hitting, fist-throwing winger on his left.
Both players say they gained motivation from their draft snubs of yesteryear, and both believe that lessons learned while playing in out-of-the-way stops like Arkansas, Roanoke, Va., and San Diego still benefit them today.
"It doesn't matter where you start - your pedigree doesn't necessarily mean everything. You've just got to be stubborn," said Fiddler, who's tied with Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz for the most NHL games played (861) among active undrafted players. "The lesson you learn is never to take no for an answer unless you've completely fought everything out of your system. Sometimes you get told 'No' once and you just believe those people and you shut it down. But I think if you keep going and going, there's opportunities out there for lots of people."
Fiddler admits, however, there were times following his draft-eligible years (1998 and 1999) when even he considered a different career path. He'd earned college scholarship money while playing as a junior in the Western Hockey League, so he thought about putting it to use.
It was Fiddler's parents, Bob and Patricia, who urged him to stick to the ice a while longer.
"My mom and dad were always like, 'Go chase your dream for a couple of years - even until Christmas - and see what you think of it,'" Fiddler said. "They told me to work harder than the other guys. They were the ones that made a believer out of me when I didn't even believe in myself."
Fiddler's climb toward the NHL began in the hockey hotbed of Little Rock, Arkansas, where he played a few semi-pro games for the long-since defunct Arkansas RiverBlades in 2001. That stint earned him a contract the following year with the East Coast Hockey League's Roanoke Express, which in turn led to a promotion to Norfolk of the American Hockey League and to - lo and behold - a handful of interested NHL teams in the 2002 offseason.
"I just remember sitting at my kitchen table with my mom and dad that day, and I'm trying to pick which team to sign with," Fiddler said. "I remember saying to my mom and dad, `Wow, what's going on here? All of a sudden I've got NHL teams that want me.' It was really emotional for my mom and dad because it's every kid's dream to play in the NHL. I'll never forget that day as long as I live. It was pretty special."
He chose the Predators, who eventually called him up to play his first NHL game in November of 2002.
"I had to tell my dad three or four times on the phone that I was called up to The Show," said Fiddler, who was 22 at the time. "He kept saying, 'Called up to where?' I said, 'Dad, I'm going to play a game in L.A. You guys have to be there.' They were."
McLeod, too, took the road less traveled on his way to the NHL.
Not only was he passed over in the 2002 and 2003 drafts, but - after completing his junior-hockey eligibility - he came away from a 2005 Boston Bruins training-camp tryout without even a minor-league contract.
"I was there three or four days, and I scrapped quite a bit and did everything I could to get some attention, but things didn't work out," McLeod said. "I wasn't ready to give up on my dream. I knew I just had to keep working and keep plugging, keep proving myself to someone."
McLeod eventually latched on with Lowell of the AHL, spending the bulk of the next three years in that Massachusetts city along with other minor-league stops such as San Diego, Albany and Lake Erie.
The Colorado Avalanche took a chance on the aggressive, energetic McLeod in 2006, signing him to his first NHL contract. But McLeod was 23 years old before he played his first NHL game for the Avalanche in December of 2007.
Unlike many players who are recalled to the NHL, McLeod never returned to the minors after that first contest, the Avalanche thrilled with the blend of grit, nastiness and leadership he brought to the team for 10 years.
"There was definitely ups and downs along the way - and there still are - but I think it's all about mental toughness," McLeod said. "You just have to keep grinding away and working hard, and things will eventually work out, I believe."
Over the course of the last several weeks, a young-ish Predators team in search of veteran leadership acquired both McLeod and Fiddler in separate trades.
Who could ask for more character, the moves illustrated, than two players that have forged so many successful seasons in the very League that spurned them years ago?
"I've always thought it came down to just how bad you wanted it," McLeod said. "When you're an undrafted guy, you have to have the mindset that you're going to do whatever it takes. There has to be no quit."