Cholowski, Smith have qualities Red Wings could use

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Traverse City — The defenseman was too small for a while, but always a gifted skater.

The forward has long had the size, and works to improve his foot speed.

Two 18-year-olds, Dennis Cholowski, who has grown, and Givani Smith, who is getting quicker, are drawing a lot of attention at the Red Wings development camp this week. And it is not only because the Wings picked them in the first two rounds of the draft two weeks ago.

As management looks down the road, at least a few seasons, Cholowski and Smith eventually might provide attributes in short supply on the roster.

A mobile, puck-moving, offensively-minded defenseman like Cholowski is an uncommon product in Detroit since Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retired in consecutive seasons four and five years ago, respectively.

A power forward who can score and relishes body-checking and throwing the occasional punch or two when it matters is what Justin Abdelkader began supplying two years ago, with 23 goals followed by 19 last season.

Previously, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan offered that arsenal of skills for nine seasons, including three Stanley Cups. But he stopped playing for the Wings a decade ago.

In the current course of their development, Cholowski and Smith require more experience.

Cholowski will get it at St. Cloud State, where the hockey program has four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and coaches have been taking a look at the young defenseman since he was a little boy.

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said he will be happy if Cholowski plays for the Huskies three or four seasons.

Smith is likely to return for a third season in the Ontario Hockey League, playing for Guelph. But he speaks confidently of pressing his case for a roster spot with the Red Wings as early as this season.

Putting the work in

What got both to this point is a passion for hockey married to opportunity in programs in Canada designed for elite young athletes, and a willingness — indeed, desire — to invest considerable time and effort.

As he pulled off his skates after a practice, Cholowski said opportunity presented itself early when a former NHL player became his coach with the Vancouver Selects.

“During spring hockey in my younger I days I got to play for Cliff Ronning,” Cholowski said. “He is a great player and a great guy.”

Ronning had a 16-season NHL career with seven teams.

“His practices were so high intensity, and he was playing with us,” Cholowski said. “He’s such a great player. He’s 50 years old and he’s still incredible.”

Another key figure in his development, Cholowski said, was John Craighead, coach and part owner of the Langley Knights, where Cholowski played bantam. Craighead played five games for the Maple Leafs and later the Detroit Vipers.

“He was another coach who was with me all along the way, and they’ve stuck with me this entire time,” Cholowski said.

For Smith, opportunity came at the PEAC (Premier Elite Athletes Collegiate) in Toronto.

“We were on the ice every single morning for about an hour and a half and then go to class,” Smith said. “And after class was over, I went over to my winter team and practiced with them and played games.

“So I was on the ice a lot and practicing like every day, and that led me to this point and to be the player that I am.”

It is a lot of work and long hours at one pursuit for a young teenager. Smith said it is the fun of the game that helped create the drive.

“It definitely was the enjoyment,” he said. “Playing hockey, you obviously want to be your best. So, it’s fun being good and learning and getting better. It was fun for me doing better.

“All the skill coaches came in (at PEAC) and helped us through the way.”

Follow the plan

Their advice for kids who aspire to play hockey at an elite level is to persist and dedicate long hours.

Cholowski said his detractors only motivated him.

“Growing up I was never really the biggest player,” he said. “But I always had the ability to skate. That was my biggest asset.

“In bantam, I kind of got left behind a little bit, and didn’t grow. I was drafted pretty low in the WHL (Western Hockey League).

“And the last couple of years, I really sprouted up quite a bit. I haven’t really grown into my body, quite yet.

“It was, you know, just try to keep working hard and stick to what my assets are, and what’s carried me to this point.”

Smith said he would urge younger players to invest the time.

“The best advice I’d give to them is that if you’ve got a goal and that’s to play at a major level of hockey you’ve got to put in the work that other people don’t do,” he said.

“So, when practice is over, you’ve got to still be on the ice, at least five or 10 minutes, or working hard in the gym — just getting better than the guy or girl beside you.”

And that is Smith’s program for this summer and his goal to gain speed.

“You know there’s so many new techniques, now. But right now, this summer, I’m working with a figure skater, Barb Underhill, and she’s great at what she does.”

Underhill, with partner Paul Martini, were the 1984 world champions after a four-year stretch as Canadian national champions.

“She’s helping me and it’s really made a difference,” Smith said. “It’s only been a couple of weeks.

“For me, this whole summer I’m really working on speed. I’ve got good size, NHL size. So I can fit in that aspect.”

For Cholowski, despite the growth spurt, the priority remains gaining size and getting more rugged.

“Getting bigger and stronger and engaging in battles a little more, and I think college hockey will definitely help with that,” he said. “Being able to play against older guys will, for sure, help with that.

“Just working my way up. It’s a long process.”

The path to playing for the Red Wings someday at Little Caesars Arena is unlikely to be short for Smith or Cholowski.

But it helps to have fun, and grasp opportunity.