Hard work and dedication led to Mark Van Guilder’s NHL debut

By Jim Diamond

Mark Van Guilder got the best news of his life early Saturday, so of course, he wanted to share that news with those closest to him.

His first call to his girlfriend went unanswered. He called his mom and she was busy. Then he tried his father.

“He was fishing and I said, ‘Hey dad, what’s going on?” Van Guilder said. “He said, ‘Hold on a sec, hold on a sec. I’ve got a fish on the line,’ so he put me on hold real quick. Then I told him and he was pretty excited.”

It should be noted that the Van Guilders are from Minnesota, where it is perfectly acceptable to put someone on hold due to a fishing-related reason.

Van Guilder celebrated his 30th birthday January 17th. It was an off day for the Milwaukee Admirals spent traveling between San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the less than glamorous manner in which American Hockey League teams get from city to city.

Per hockey-reference.com, Van Guilder will become just the 129th skater to make his NHL debut after their 30th birthday.

To prove what a ruthless place an NHL locker room can be, one of Van Guilder’s teammates accused him of being 45 following Sunday’s skate.

Ever since completing a solid four years at the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 2008, Van Guilder has spent his time in both the AHL and ECHL. Van Guilder has made 443 regular season and playoff game appearances for the Milwaukee Admirals, Hamilton Bulldogs, and Cincinnati Cyclones all the while keeping alive the dream that one day he would make it to the NHL.

“If you would have told me five or six years ago that I’d play a game in the NHL, I probably would have laughed at you,” Van Guilder said after Sunday’s morning skate. “I think I fell in a great situation with this organization. I’ve been pretty fortunate with the coaching staff and players that have been around me. It’s been kind of a work in progress, but it’s worth it.”

Just this season, he has seen teammates not yet of legal drinking age in the United States called up to Nashville. It didn’t matter. He just kept grinding along. That’s what he does. That’s why the Predators signed the Roseville, Minnesota native to a two-year, two-way deal last offseason.

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In 66 games this season with Milwaukee, Van Guilder has equaled a career high in goals with 14 and added 14 assists.

“It’s a great story,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “One of the things I think that we try to do right here in Nashville is send the right message, and he’s a guy that has worked his way up through the Coast League, and he’s been a great leader down in Milwaukee for our young guys.”

Trotz also noted that Joel Ward, now playing for the Washington Capitals, who the Predators play Sunday night, took a similarly long route to get to the NHL.

“I get extra pleasure out of seeing guys get that opportunity because they’ve earned that opportunity to come up,” Trotz continued. “They haven’t been entitled. They haven’t been high draft choices or anything. They’ve just worked at their game to get better and been pros no matter what the circumstance. To me, that is something that we don’t put enough substance to at times and give enough credit to those types of individuals.”

Early Saturday, Van Guilder realized all of the three games in three night battles, long bus rides, and terrible road food were all worth it when he was told about the recall at the tail end of a routine team meeting in Milwaukee.

“Coach (Dean) Evason was just kind going over different points; the weekend, the game the next day, and then he said, ‘Oh yeah, one more thing, Van Guilder is going to Nashville,” Van Guilder said. “It just caught me off-guard, but I think he was just having fun with it. It was pretty awesome. Just the reaction of my teammates was the best part.”

Van Guilder did finally talk to his family members and friends and has a caravan of sorts coming down to watch his NHL debut Sunday night. His girlfriend made it, his sisters are coming, his brother is bringing his family, and some other friends are coming as well. Unfortunately his dad has to work, so he will be watching at home. Van Guilder did mention that they had to lie to his mother about having enough flight points to get her here for free or else she might not have come. That’s an acceptable lie in this case without question.

The recall may just be for one day. The Predators don’t play again until Friday, giving their wounded forwards some time to heal. Even if Van Guilder is back in Milwaukee on Monday, he still will have achieved that goal of making it to the NHL. No matter how long it took or how hard he had to work to get there, it was worth it. It is something that no one will ever be able to take away from him.

That smile on his face proves it.

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