For Colorado Avalanche rookie forward Samuel Henley, even appearing in one NHL game seemed something of a long shot throughout his playing career. He was never drafted and wasn't a star player in his final junior season with the Val-d'Or Foreurs, who were led by Detroit Red Wings star prospect Anthony Mantha.
He was signed to an entry-level contract by the Avalanche in 2014 as something of a stopgap prospect for an organization short on forwards in the AHL. Yet, there he was Thursday night, playing on NHL ice for the Avalanche against the Columbus Blue Jackets. By all accounts, it was a well-earned look for the hard-working Henley, whose game is admittedly very simple. The work to get him to this point was not something lost on him after his NHL debut.
"It was a tough point starting from junior where I wasn't drafted," Henley said, reminiscing about his pathway to the NHL. "I had to work hard just to control myself, to prove myself. Of course, I don't have an offensive game and I was just working on my details. I've had a lot of good coaches and teammates that have really helped me and just made me work hard every day."
The effusive praise of those around him was a common theme throughout the postgame scrum surrounding the 23-year old rookie forward as he couldn't stop crediting the people around him for his success on the night, which included his first NHL goal on his first shot. It was a game-tying goal late in the second period and provided the Avalanche new life heading into the third period.
Even though the Avalanche ultimately fell 3-2 to Columbus, the big-bodied Henley was already looking ahead while acknowledging there was much to learn from the loss.
"I was a little surprised," Henley said of the NHL experience. "I mean, it's really fast and I thought I didn't play my best game. I got a goal but we still lost the game so it's a bittersweet feeling. I'm glad the first game is over but I'm disappointed not to win that game."
As a team, Colorado has now lost the first four games of their season-high five-game homestand, having accumulated just one point en route to a 0-3-1 record. The final game of the homestand is Saturday night against the Dallas Stars. Henley, while still new to the room, says he looks around and sees a club capable of winning more than they have to this point.
"Of course, we're dealing with a losing stretch right now but the guys are very nice here and they really want to win," Henley said. "They're winners here. I can tell just by being around them....they're really working hard to win."
For Henley, he sees this as just the beginning, even if in reality his stint in Colorado may be short-lived. He's already living the sponge life, soaking up as much of the information from the guys around him as possible.
"There's a lot to learn," Henley said while allowing himself to crack a smile. "The veterans here, just attitude wise and work ethic, help me and go into the game calmly. It's a really fast game and really detailed game, too. I was just trying to worry as much as possible, too, and like I said, I didn't play my best."
While he may not have felt this was his strongest performance, Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar felt he got what was advertised when they decided to call Henley up over some players with more experience and higher ceilings.
"He did what we thought he would do," Bednar explained. "Ran out there ran into some people, played with energy. Good for a kid to come up in his first game and he just keeps it simple, funnels pucks to the net and gets himself his first NHL goal. Good showing for him."
All of this came after the expected nerves of a youngster making his NHL debut, an especially sweet accomplishment for someone of his humble hockey beginnings. The emotions might have gotten the best of him at times but should the club continue to provide him with opportunities, he's confident it'll only get better for him.
"I was really nervous, really excited as well," Henley said about hitting the ice in an NHL rink." I think I was thinking a lot and I know my next games I'm going to be better every game. I know I have a lot learn from the guys here. I was just nervous and excited."
The Avalanche have been looking for a kickstart to not just their anemic offense but their lackluster overall play as well. For one night, an NHL longshot stepped into the spotlight and took a lap of success. Maybe, just maybe, there's more to come in this underdog story.