Entering his fourth season with his hometown Spirit of the Ontario Junior A Hockey League, Stouffville, Ont., native Will Acton could hardly keep it together when the phone rang around this time seven years ago.
At the age of 19, undrafted and without the pomp of higher-profile experience to fall back on, the prospect of one day suiting up for Team Canada seemed like a distant possibility.
Beating the odds? That’s nothing new to Acton, now an NHL rookie with the Edmonton Oilers. Not only was he chosen to represent Canada East at the inaugural World Junior A Challenge back in 2006, but he was also awarded the captaincy.
“I didn’t really expect the call,” he laughed, “but I’m no stranger to the road less travelled.”
Indeed, his path has been nothing if not unconventional. Of the 25 World Junior A Challenge alumni who started the 2013-14 season on an NHL roster, Acton is the only one who was never drafted.
Detoured or not, his career took flight that year on the international stage in Yorkton, Sask.
“There are a lot of things outside of the game itself, such as the travel, that made it a new and exciting experience for me,” Acton said. “I’d never even left home to play in a tournament before, so I learned a lot that way.”
The eye-opening lessons got even more educational at game time.
“Our game against Russia was most memorable, because it showed me how the game can be played,” Acton said. “Their breakouts, the way they managed the puck, the passes they tried, the formations they used -- their whole mentality and how they approached the game was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It opened
up a whole new world of possibilities for me and my development.”
Canada East advanced to the gold medal game after defeating Slovakia, Germany and Russia by a combined score of 13-3, but lost to their cross-country rival, Canada West, 4-3 in the gold medal game.
“When you’re wearing those colours, you want to come out with a win and end on a high note, so it wasn’t easy,” Acton said. “Still, that game showed what Canadian hockey is all about. It was a close one throughout and they barely got the edge on us, but it was a battle right to the end.
“No matter what, the experience was incredible and I’m extremely proud of that (silver) medal.”
The 6-foot-1, 199-pound pivot spent the past two seasons with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies after completing a four-year NCAA career with Lake Superior State University, scoring 77 points in 144 games.
He signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Oilers this past offseason and, after making his debut on Oct. 1, scored his first NHL goal 13 days later against the Washington Capitals.
With his father, Keith, behind the bench as an associate coach with the Oilers, the moment was as special as they come.
“Those are the moments you grow up dream about,” Acton said. “Regardless of the circumstances (a 4-2 loss), watching the puck cross the line and bounce off the back of the net was an incredible feeling. I had to hide my emotions a little bit, but deep down I was ecstatic.”
Acton has quickly established himself as a reliable performer for his new team. He’s a hard-working student of the basics who plays the simple, responsible game lauded by Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins.
Centering a line with Luke Gazdic and Ben Eager, the 26-year-old is averaging about eight minutes per game in ice time, with more than a third of that played on the penalty kill. He’s undeniably made a strong impression and has learned a lot about what it takes to stick at the NHL level, earning him all kinds of praise from the coaching staff.
“It’s every kid’s dream to play in the NHL, so it’s cool that way,” Acton said. “The other side of it is, there’s lots to learn about where and how to get better in this league. Complacency is a professional athlete’s greatest evil, so I’m not taking anything for granted.
“I’m doing everything I can to earn it. That’s how I’ve always approached this game.”