SAN JOSE — C.J. Suess had to come a long way — figuratively and literally — to make his NHL debut on Friday night.
The 25-year-old from Forest Lake, Minn., took the slow lane to the big leagues, playing two seasons in the United States Hockey League, four in college and the past two seasons in the AHL before opportunity came knocking with the Winnipeg Jets.
Getting to his first game was quite a journey as well.
He got the call Thursday afternoon following Manitoba Moose practice in Winnipeg, jumped on an evening flight to Minneapolis, slept a few hours in the Twin Cities, grabbed an early morning flight to San Francisco, then made the hour-long drive to San Jose and arrived at the SAP Center on Friday about 20 minutes before the morning skate.
"A little hectic so far," Suess said with a big smile a few hours before puck drop against the Sharks. "It’s something you dream about your entire life and it’s really exciting."
The real highlight, he said, was being able to break the news to his mother, Cheryl, who was his primary caregiver in life.
He paid tribute to her a few years ago by legally changing his birth name of Franklin to her maiden name of Suess. And now she got to watch it proudly displayed on the back of an NHL jersey.
"It was unbelievable. You always dream about being able to make that call to your parents," he said. "It’s everyone who makes an impact on your life, in the hockey world. You think of your family, your friends, your teammates, your old coaches, you think of everybody. It’s really thanks to them that I’m here."
Suess was picked by Winnipeg in the fifth round (129th overall) of the 2014 draft. He’s always been an intriguing prospect, with a mix of grit and skill along with decent size at 6-0, 200 pounds. He’s also shown his versatility by being able to play centre and wing.
He turned pro in the spring of 2018 after four years with Minnesota State, joining the Moose for the stretch drive and notching a goal and an assist in six games. He had an impressive training camp with the Jets that fall and got off to a great start with the Moose, with eight goals and four assists in 26 games. But a shoulder injury that required surgery ended his season.
"It was a different process I wasn’t used to. Having a big injury like that was something I hadn’t gone through before in hockey. Really, just finding ways to do my rehab and stay busy was the biggest part of it. Staying in shape and being ready to come into camp and make a difference," Suess said.
Suess once again impressed in Jets camp this year and was one of the final cuts. And while both he and his Moose teammates are off to a sluggish start — Suess has one goal through eight games and the Moose are 1-7-0 — he earned the call-up this week with the Jets struggling to fill out a lineup card with healthy bodies.
"It really goes back to training camp. He missed a lot of hockey last year and he had a good camp and he was here right at the very end. There’s some respect for that. The Moose have had a bit of a grind here. But his work level and his skating and his professionalism are strong," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Friday.
Maurice credited Winnipeg’s annual summer development camp with helping to get a player such as Suess ready for his NHL close-up.
"I never put a lot of stock in development camps or their value, and that changed since I’ve been to Winnipeg, because we’ve had a real nice program for them. These guys come in and they work hard. They have to learn the game, right?" Maurice said.
"There’s a whole other level of hockey that these guys who come out of amateur or wherever, like he’s a student of it, he’s worked hard to learn the game and to be right as a centreman. Because that’s a heavy position, right? There’s a big learning curve on that. He’s done a nice job of that."
The Jets have had numerous blows to their lineup in recent days, especially up front. Centre Adam Lowry was serving the last of his two-game suspension Friday night.
Winger Patrik Laine is battling a nagging lower-body injury and missed a second straight game. Winger Mason Appleton is out for at least a month with a broken foot bone, while centre Mark Letestu has been diagnosed with a heart condition that will sideline him for at least six months.
"Awesome for him. The guy’s put in a lot of time and kinda took the long route of going to school for four years. I think any of those college guys that come up, I’ve got a soft spot for. Great to see him here," said forward Andrew Copp, who played his college hockey in Michigan before joining the Jets.
"You see guys come up with that kind of energy, that kind of enthusiasm to play in their first game, it kinda ramps everybody else up."
As camp began this year, Suess sensed opportunity could come knocking with so much turnover on the roster. Now it’s a matter of doing everything he can to stick with the big club.
"You definitely see that, coming in, with spots opened. I try to think of it as the same as the year before. Just come in and do what I can do, nothing more, nothing less. I feel like I did that," said Suess, who skated on a line Friday with fellow recent Moose call-up Logan Shaw and 19-year-old David Gustafsson.
"I think I’ve been good on the forecheck and on draws. I’ve been reliable in the defensive zone, so I think that’s a big part of it. Coming in, in good shape, and having good camps gives you confidence going into the season. I feel like hopefully we can take that forward."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.