Detroit — It was supposed to be a realization of a childhood dream, but instead turned out feeling like a punch to the gut.
Dennis Cholowski was expecting to play in his hometown of Vancouver last January with a bunch of family and friends watching and cheering in an arena where the Cholowski family had been Canucks season-ticket holders.
It was supposed to be great, memorable occasion. An unforgettable memory.
Then, the day before the Wings were to face the Canucks, coach Jeff Blashill informed Cholowski the young defenseman would not be playing. Cholowski was going to be a healthy scratch, as Filip Hronek drew into the lineup.
Was Cholowski expecting it?
“Not really,” Cholowski said. “The past few games (before the benching), I had made a few mistakes and I was like ‘I got to pick my game up a little bit.’ But I didn’t really expect it. But it happened.”
Days later, Cholowski, who definitely had been struggling, was sent to Grand Rapids and ultimately finished the season with the Griffins.
Make no mistake about it, though. That healthy scratch, in his hometown, was something that caught Cholowski’s attention.
If Cholowski didn’t know there was something wrong in his game, he did then.
“A big wake-up call, eye-opener, whatever you want to call it,” Cholowski said. “It was tough. But it only made me better and stronger. I came back this year with a good attitude and a positive mindset.”
Whatever the intention, it all worked. Cholowski went to Grand Rapids and straightened out his game, and put in numerous hours during the summer working on his shortcomings.
It wasn’t a given Cholowski was headed for a return to the NHL in October when training camp started.
But, for a second consecutive year, Cholowski basically played so well in training camp and exhibition season that the Wings couldn’t send him down.
This time, it doesn’t appear Cholowski is headed back to Grand Rapids anytime soon.
“He’s a better defensive player today than he was a year ago,” Blashill said. “One, he’s stronger. Two, he recognizes it. Sometimes as a young player, especially a guy who probably got drafted high because of his offensive ability, you think that’s how you have to play.
“But in the end, you’ll never outscore your mistakes in this league, so you have to make sure you do a real good job of producing offense in an efficient matter and he’s done a much better job of that.”
Last season, especially as his play regressed and confidence melted, Cholowski was guessing wrong on plays and taking unnecessary chances.
That hasn’t been happening nearly as much this young season.
“(He’s) managing his game as much as anything,” Blashill said. “It’s understanding when to make plays and when to punt. I also think he’s gotten better with his hardness defensively and his aggression defensively.”
Blashill said that before Saturday’s game against Toronto, a game the Leafs exposed the work in progress of Cholowski’s game.
Leafs forward Dmytro Timashov knocked Cholowski off the puck in the first period, gathered the puck, and found Nick Shore for a game-tying goal.
It was the type of play that indicated Cholowski still has much to learn.
“It’s a balance, a process for sure,” Cholowski said. “I kind of had to learn it the hard way, being sent down and having to work on it. Right now, my mindset is to keep the puck out of my net first and then concentrate on the offense.
“I feel a lot more comfortable, having a year under my belt. I just feel more relaxed and calm.”
Playing in Vancouver — Cholowski is from suburban Langley — will be a lifelong achievement.
Cholowski went to hundreds of games at Rogers Arena, and cheering his favorites — twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and the the line of Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi.
Cholowski was devastated when the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 to Boston.
“Pretty heartbreaking,” Cholowski said. “It was fun to watch those guys play, and now be able to play against (the Canucks) is pretty cool.
“It’s huge, going to be a lot of fun. Being able to skate on the ice against the team I grew up watching — it’ll be pretty cool, for sure.”
Cholowski will make sure to do one thing during the game.
“Look up to the far corner where we used to sit,” Cholowski said. “It’ll be kind of weird to see somebody else sitting there. It’ll be a cool moment for sure.”
Red Wings at Canucks
► Faceoff: 10 p.m. Tuesday, Rogers Arena, Vancouver, British Columbia
► TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Wings (3-2-0) open a three-game western Canada trip…The Canucks (2-2-0) are led by C J.T. Miller (four assists, five points) and D Quinn Hughes (three points), a Michigan product. …Thus far, Vancouver’s power play has been weak (7.1 percent), but the penalty kill has been superb (92.3 percent).