James Sheppard has his fingers crossed and his phone at the ready. As of this moment, however, the veteran forward does not have a professional tryout offer from the Vancouver Canucks or any other National Hockey League team for that matter. So the wait for that call continues.
The 28-year-old Halifax native has been working out at Rogers Arena for much of the summer and was again skating there with Canucks veterans in an informal workout on Thursday morning. His hope is to land an invitation to training camp in Whistler in two weeks, but right now he’s simply an unrestricted free agent without a place to play.
“I still think I can play here (the NHL) and I want to play here and I’m going to work hard to prove that I can play here,” Sheppard told Canucks Army. “I’m kind of open-minded right now. As you get older, things become more important to you, and my goal is to play in the NHL right now. I think I have what it takes, and hopefully someone can see that.”
Sheppard spent last season with the Kloten Flyers in the Swiss A-League scoring 11 goals and 14 assists in 37 games. Prior to that, he logged 394 games in the NHL with Minnesota, San Jose and the New York Rangers recording a career-best five goals and 24 points with the Wild in his second NHL season in 2008-09. At 6’1” and 215 pounds, he has the size to play in the NHL but has never come close to meeting the expectations of the player taken ninth overall in the 2006 Draft – which, coincidentally, was held in Vancouver.
Here he is ten years later desperate to do whatever is necessary to prolong an NHL career at a crossroads.
“The draft was a long time ago and things have changed quite a bit since then,” he says. “I’m older. You always look back and say ‘what could have been and what should have been’, but you know I could have been a completely different person and someone I wouldn’t want to be. I like where I am right now in my life and who I am. I’m just kind of living day by day doing this whole tryout thing, but I’m relatively happy to be where I am right now.”
Sheppard, in Vancouver with his girlfriend who lives here, refused to address the Canucks situation specifically and didn’t offer any indication of how far discussions had gone between the team and his agent. He’s been down this road before as recently as last September when he attended Columbus Blue Jackets camp on a professional tryout.
With so many NHL regulars taking part in the World Cup, Sheppard has heard the chatter about teams bringing in veterans to fill out roster quotas for preseason action. He says he’s not concerned about any of that. He doesn’t care why he gets a chance; he simply wants someone to give him an opportunity to show he still belongs.
“When I was in Columbus last year, they said to me we’ve got a full roster, and there’s not many spots, but you can come train with us, skate with us and you can try to get into a couple of games,” he explains. “When they cut me, they did it early and they told me they had nothing to offer me. There were no hard feelings. I appreciated the opportunity. The whole PTO thing is a little strange, but I’m not a businessman when it comes to contracts and one-ways and two-ways and salary caps. I just have to focus on being my best and make their decision a little more difficult.”
So the waiting game continues, and Sheppard says he’ll sit patiently awaiting word from his agent on any development in this story. A return to Europe is a possibility, but not a priority. Sheppard has lived the good life in the NHL and wants another taste.
He’s a longshot to say the least, but he’s okay with that as long he gets a shot.
“In my mind, I have one goal and it’s pretty hard to have a set-in-stone Plan B when you’re doing this type of thing,” he says of scrambling for a place to play. “I’m not going to stress over the what ifs. I’m just focussing on doing this part of it.”
Staying in shape and skating are the easy part for a hockey player. Waiting for a phone call that may never come – that’s the tough part for James Sheppard these days.