Undrafted, the Ken Appleby story

On June 26th, 2015, you couldn't buy a ticket at the BB&T Center, the place where the Florida Panthers played their home games, and the site of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. During the night, Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chareli took the stage and delivered the eloquent soliloquy hockey fans had long awaited.

"The Edmonton Oilers would like to select, with the first pick, from the Erie Otters, Connor McDavid."

Next were the likes of Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner and a number of other prospects realizing their lifelong dreams. In total, seven rounds and 211 selections were made between June 26-27, but none of the names coming over the speakers included the description, "from North Bay, Ontario..."

Ken Appleby was a lot of things. He was an Oshawa Generals starting goaltender, Robertson Cup Champion for winning the OHL playoffs, Memorial Cup Champion, and a regular topic on Don Cherry's Hockey Night in Canada, but he wasn't an NHL drafted goaltender.

That didn't matter to him though. In the closing moments of the draft, with his family sitting in the stadium's seats, the thoughts going through his mind weren't of pity and self-loathing. Instead, they were dominated by the notion of opportunity.

From the time his parents, Brian and Tina, put him in skates at the age of five, Ken yearned to be a goaltender. After two years of pleading with his dad to strap on the pads, Appleby stepped between the pipes for the first time at 7-years-old.

By the time he was 13-years-old, Appleby was a striking 6'2" and blended that size with a level of athleticism in goal that had many, including his agent Jason Harshaw, intrigued.

Expecting to get drafted in the 2011 OHL Draft, Appleby camped out in his living room with his family, his sister Brianna's camcorder set-up in front of the monitor, waiting to catch the big moment.

After watching the first round pass him by, Appleby received the phone call he long awaited. With the 35th selection of the OHL Draft, Appleby became a General.

"Right when we heard my name announced, it was a big shock because I did not expect to go second round, but it was a cool feeling to experience that," Appleby says.

For quite some time, the Oshawa Generals had been watching Appleby, says Mike Lawrence, the Generals' goalie coach at the time.

"Interviewing Ken and the family, we knew that he was a blue collar kid from a blue collar family and the math equation was pretty much that he was just going to out work people," Lawrence says.

"You can tell he's not a kid and he was like that when he was 15. For me, I knew I was getting a mature kid. In a sense, he was already a man of 50."

Appleby thought this was his big ticket to the NHL. Little did he know that the road ahead was paved with tier-two junior hockey and a back-up role for two consecutive seasons, no dream of an NHL caliber goaltender.

"Growing up I was normally a starter or was getting quite a bit of starts anyways, and then to go into a situation where you're not playing much and you have to wait weeks at a time before your next start was difficult to get used to," Appleby says.

Appleby struggled in his first two seasons, picking up the scraps and playing irregular minutes. When the coach did call on Appleby in his second season to start game four of the 2014 conference finals against his hometown North Bay Battalion, he was ready.

With the series on the line and many of his family and friends in the crowd, echoes rained from the packed house at the North Bay Memorial Garden Arena.

Only these chants weren't of encouragement. They had a distinct purpose. A methodic, if not childish, ring to them.


His laughter at the mere mention of the chants—an occurrence he's now grown accustom to—exemplifies the mental fortitude Lawrence saw on draft day.

"It doesn't bother me," he says. "At first I was kind of surprised to be getting it from my hometown when we played against North Bay, but it's just the way of the game."

Failing at his first chance as a playoff performer and missing his second consecutive NHL draft came with an upside: Appleby had the net to himself the next season. His success relied now only on himself.

Appleby never looked back, producing a 2.08 goals against average to go with a tidy 92.4 save percentage.

Alongside Appleby, the Generals succeeded as a first-place team, and marched through the playoffs, defeating the ever-so-dangerous Connor McDavid in the finals to advance to the Memorial Cup, junior hockey's most prestigious tournament.

For years, Appleby had watched teams in the Memorial Cup thinking, "man I would love to be there right now," but this time he was the one competing.

The Rimouski Oceanic, Kelowna Rockets and hometown Quebec City Ramparts all felt the wrath of the surging hot Generals, who went undefeated in the round-robin. They earned themselves a bye to the Memorial Cup Championship, playing the Rockets for the second time.

One game, winner-take all, and it came down to sudden-death overtime. Just a minute in, it was Generals forward Anthony Cirelli who found the puck and delivered it to the open net.

A thick bearded Appleby raced from his net 200 feet away, threw off his gloves and helmet, like his teammates, and jumped onto the pile of now-champion Generals. His first thought was, "holy shit, we just won the Memorial Cup."

"It's something that if someone would have told me we would win the Memorial Cup starting out in that year, I probably would have told him, ‘you're crazy,'" he says.

Appleby had reached the pinnacle of his junior hockey career, but he didn't have much time to bask in its glory. He and his family planned to attend the draft in Florida, despite Ken's hesitations that he wouldn't be drafted as a 19-year-old prospect.

"Why wouldn't they draft Kenny?" Appleby's dad Brian wondered. "He's a Memorial Cup winner, he's a Robertson cup winner, he's won all these records this year, so somebody's got to use a draft pick and say ‘we want him.'"

As Appleby predicted, his name didn't get called. A moment like this could be debilitating for an NHL hopeful, but not for Ken.

"I looked over my shoulder to my left where Kenny was sitting and he wasn't there," Brian says of the closing minutes of the draft. "I looked up and he was standing beside his agent on his cellphone talking to management from one of the NHL teams. He got seven invites, right there on the spot."

One of those teams was the New Jersey Devils, led by general manager Ray Shero, who arranged to meet Appleby and the family after the draft to explain the Devils' current goaltending situation and extend him an invitation to development camp in the summer.

Hope was on the horizon, but not without major clouds blocking its way. Appleby had been to development camps the year before with the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks, but no contract offers came his way. He knew the difficulty that lay ahead for an undrafted goalie to make it into the NHL.

Still, he attended the Devils' development camp, along with the St. Louis Blues' camp, dreaming of the chance to sign on the dotted line.

Appleby took a step closer to that dream as he made it to the Devils' main training camp in September, before being sent to the Albany Devils, New Jersey's AHL affiliate, later that month.

Days later, cuts were made. Appleby wasn't one of them.

In the shadows, Shero negotiated a deal to sign Appleby to a three-year entry-level contract. Appleby was finally a professional hockey player.

"It was definitely a lot of relief and weight lifted off my shoulders, but at the same time, it was a little more weight put on my shoulders to know that it's only the start of the journey and that there's still a lot more hard work to come," he says.

Assigned to the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL, the third tier of American professional hockey, Appleby has skated off the ice at the Memorial Cup carrying his success with him to Adirondack, New York. In 22 games, Appleby boasts a 2.22 goals against average to go with 14 wins and a three shutouts. He's even added a shutout in the three games he's played in the American Hockey League, the last tier before the NHL.

At 20, he now has a real shot at the NHL. At least one unnamed NHL scout profiles him to be an NHL backup one day.

For now, he's living in the moment, trying to learn how to cook and do all the things a young adult should do, without Googleing himself and getting caught up in his own hysteria.

He hopes he can get a couple call-ups to the AHL and become a mainstay by the end of his contract, before signing a new one.

He understands the gravity of his situation. Many Canadian kids dream of making it to the NHL. Very few can say they did.

Then again, few can claim they shut down Connor McDavid, or won both the Robertson Cup and Memorial Cup, or became a professional hockey player.

Rarely can anyone check off all those boxes. Ken Appleby can.

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