LONDON, Ont. — Two years ago Nick Ebert was the NHL’s Mr. Irrelevant – selected dead last in the seventh round by the Los Angeles Kings with the 211th pick.
Time has taken away the sting of waiting while his peers were chosen before him. Winning a championship with the Guelph Storm has also helped boost a self-esteem he says was shaken after the draft.
“It’s tough being drafted last,” said Ebert. “It’s not fun, I’ll tell you that, it’s a little harsh. But it happened and I think I had the right attitude about it.
“I’m not going to give up; I’m going to keep moving forward.”
On the blue line for Guelph, Ebert has never been more relevant. Now fully stocked with self-assurance, he’s been playing a key role for the Storm on a team where the defence corps quietly and effectively shut down the opposition.
“There was no looking back for me once the playoffs started,” said Ebert, who turned 20 last week. “It’s the most intense hockey and I think when the game is on the line, that’s when I’m at my best. I thrive in moments like this, that’s for sure.”
For months now heading into the post-season, the headlines have been garnered by the Storm’s potent forwards – the Kerby Rychels, Robby Fabbris, Zack Mitchells and Tyler Bertuzzis – all offensive stars in their own right.
The back end gets nary a mention outside of Leafs prospect Matt Finn, the team’s captain.
But it was that defence that kept the Edmonton Oil Kings at bay in Guelph’s 5-2 victory over the WHL champions in Game 2 of the Memorial Cup on Saturday.
Ebert, a great skater who has never been afraid to jump into the play, contributed two assists and was responsible defensively.
“I’d be hard pressed to find another player in our league – that I’ve seen in a while - that skates so well,” said Storm head coach Scott Walker. “He’s an extremely smooth skating player. He doesn’t exude a lot of energy when he takes off and gets back so he can stay fresh because he’s a smooth skater.
“He’s an efficient skater and he’s been a huge asset to our team.”
The native of Livingston, N.J., was originally drafted by Mississauga in the first round of the OHL draft with a lot fanfare, though he refused to report. He was traded before the start of the season to Windsor where he spent three-and-a-half seasons. Ebert lived up to the billing in his rookie season with 11 goals and 30 assists in 64 games, but in his second season – his draft year – the shine had worn off.
“It was a tough year,” admits the 6-foot, 205-pound defenceman. “I had a slow start, but I’m not going to let that bother me and linger. I know what I can do and I’m very confident in myself.”
In November, he and Rychel were traded to Guelph in a blockbuster deal. The move was exactly the kick in the pants Ebert needed to refocus his energies. With the Storm he found some of the scoring touch from his first year with 33 points in 38 games.
“It wasn’t really a new start, but it gave me a little jump,” said Ebert. “I had been in Windsor for almost four years so it was very different for me. It was good for me and I took advantage of it – I never really looked back after the trade. We’re playing well right now and we’re winning.”
No one knows Ebert’s ebbs and flows better than Rychel, his best friend. The pair billeted together in Windsor and continued to live in the same home once they were traded to Guelph. The 19-year-old first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets says he’s noticed a marked difference in his teammate.
“He’s a really good guy and he’s really determined,” said Rychel, who scored twice in the victory. “He had a really good rookie year and then he kind of tailed off in the second year, but if you look at him right now he’s probably one of the best defencemen in the tournament and you have to give a lot of credit to him for that.
“You can really tell he’s stepping up.”
At present, Ebert is still unsigned. The Kings have until June 1, to get him under contract or he’ll become a free agent. The Memorial Cup has been known to boost a player’s profile, so a good tournament could potentially help him land a deal with either the Kings or someone else.
“It’s a big spotlight,” said Ebert. “If I perform well, there’s going to be an opportunity for me after this. I’ve just got to keep focused and keep playing hard and hopefully things will fall into place.
“Right now, it’s all or nothing.”