Mark Kastelic doesn’t want to hear about his chances in the upcoming National Hockey League Entry Draft.
It is the furthest thing from the 18-year-old’s mind as he goes through the grind of his third season with the Calgary Hitmen.
“I honestly haven’t thought about it that much compared to last year. Maybe I thought about it too much last year and it got in my head, I think it effected me,” said Kastelic. “I’m just trying to focus on my game in the present moment and worry about getting wins for my team, and whatever happens after that, happens.”
The skilled centre might not have a choice later this summer if he continues on his current trajectory that has him playing the best season of his career.
Everything is coming together this season for Kastelic, who doesn’t come from a traditional hockey town, but has a long family tradition in the National Hockey League.
Growing up in Phoenix, Ariz., Kastelic played for the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes bantam AAA programs, as the Phoenix Coyotes predated him by three years in the area.
It didn’t take Kastelic long to start skating. As a kid, he couldn’t be bothered by the year-round baseball and football programs that dominate the Grand Canyon State. Hockey was his first love seen as his father, Ed Kastelic, suited up in 220 NHL games for the Washington Capitals and Hartford Whalers from 1985-92.
That, and he lived nearby to one of the seldom rinks in the desert.
“Hockey was in my blood. My dad is a big reason why I got into it,” said Mark, who’s grandfather, Pat Stapleton, played 635 games for the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
Grassroots hockey is nowhere near as flush with kids and teams as it is north of the border. Quite often Mark was forced to play up an age level with kids as a way to get more ice time.
He also traveled great distances with the Jr. Coyotes, which is how the Hitmen first laid eyes on the power forward.
The Jr. Coyotes competed in the John Reid Memorial Tournament in Edmonton. That year, the tournament featured many current Western Hockey League stars such as Stelio Mattheos, Michael Rasmussen and Jordy Bellerive.
That is where the Hitmen’s former general manager Mike Moore saw Mark tie for the team lead with five goals and six points in five games.
The Canadian Hockey League might seem like an odd path for someone from the desert, especially with the emergence of the U.S. Hockey League over the recent years.
But like he did when Mark was growing up, Ed provided his two cents about which hockey path to follow.
Before Ed broke into the NHL, he played 204 games for the powerhouse London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, notching 34 goals and 79 points.
“We both felt in a similar way about which path he should take with his hockey. He has relatives in Canada and he also thought his skills and his game meshed with the style of the WHL a lot better than the college route,” said Ed.
The decision was easy once Hitmen selected Mark 41st overall in the second round of the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft.
Surprisingly, Mark is not the first Arizonian to play for the Hitmen. Curtis Kelner dressed for two season and 69 games from 2005-07, recording six points.
Leaving the warm rays of Arizona wasn’t as big of a hurdle for Mark as it would be for most locals.
In the winter, the Phoenix area population explodes with Canadian snow birds — the Calgary Flames have turned the Gila River Arena into a home game when they take on the Arizona Coyotes. But Mark warmed up to the reality of living in the north. He wasn’t even bothered by the -25 degrees Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit) weather that labeled Alberta during the holiday season.
“It was a bit of an adjustment at first. I just got back from the Christmas break when I was playing golf in shorts and a t-shirt, but it didn’t even bother me that much. I’ve spent three years here now and I love it. The team has treated me great, I’ve had great billets and I love the city,” said Mark.
Getting acquainted with his surroundings is certainly paying off, but there was a lot of sweat equity put in behind the scenes that allowed the 6-foot-3 forward to reap the benefits this season.
He began to receive exposure when he played for the United States team that captured the silver medal at the 2016-17 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in the Czech Republic.
“That was truly an awesome experience to go over seas and put on a Team USA jersey. It was a huge step in my career and something I am really proud of,” said Mark.
With the national team, Mark benefited from the opportunity to practice each day with some of the best players from the United States and work under a new coaching staff.
“When Mark first showed up, you could tell he was a big player and heavy on pucks,” said Team USA Head Coach Clark Donatelli. “As the week went on, Mark got better and better, and turned into a pretty good skater, which helped him on the bigger international ice. Those guys in the Hlinka can really scoot, and he was able into the offensive zone and pin them up against the boards.”
Though Mark was left off Team USA’s roster for the recent World Junior Championship, he mentioned that it would be a dream come true to make the team next season.
“Like all players his age, Mark has to work on his skating and puck skills,” said Donatelli. “The one thing he has that you can’t teach, is his high compete level. He worked really, really hard in practice each day and is a very coachable player. You only have to tell him something once and he will pick it up. You can tell that he is serious about hockey.”
The hard work in practice didn’t translate onto the score sheet, as Mark went scoreless in four games, but he was able to take away valuable lessons from the tournament, along with a silver medal to boot.
“It definitely helped me develop my game by playing against the top competition. I learned a lot that has carried over to this year,” said Mark.
So did packing on nearly 10 pounds of muscle over the scorching summer in Phoenix while working with his personal trainer, his dad.
“We work as a team when trying to get a workout plan for him. He’s still young in his exercise years, so I provided some ideas and he found out what worked best for him,” said Ed, who has spent years as a personal trainer and strength coach for hockey players.
The two debate more than just which dumbbells to use. They also broke down a proper sleep schedule, nutrition and tempo for training. Ed also recommended that he run up the steep hill that was home to the water tower by his old Desert Vista High School.
Already a load to deal with before last off-season, the added muscle turned Mark into a problem for willing combatants trying to dislodge the puck.
“The size really helps me in front of the net, I can take extra whacks and maintain control. Being a physical player, the added size really helps me deliver and receive bigger checks,” said Mark, who clocks in at 213 pounds these days. “But it’s also helped be stay healthy and sustain the rigors of the long season.”
A productive second season with the Hitmen, the added size and success at the international level earned him an invite to San Jose Sharks development and rookie camp this past summer.
It’s fairly common practice by NHL teams to bring in undrafted players to their summer camps. Often times, players perform well and earn a contract out of camp. It’s happened to a few WHL players over the past few years. Ondrej Vala (Kamloops Blazers) with the Dallas Stars in 2016, Parker Kelly (Prince Albert Raiders) with the Ottawa Senators in 2017 and Bellerive (Lethbridge Hurricanes) with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, all landed contracts from NHL summer camps.
“Mark attended our development camp this summer and his size and smarts stood out to us as a group,” said Sharks Director of Hockey Operations Doug Wilson Jr. “His dad was a really good player and that knowledge for the game has definitely been passed along to Mark. He was one of the stronger players in camp in terms of faceoff prowess, and we would like to see him take his offense to the next level. The other players really seemed to enjoy his company and we look forward to seeing him again at our rookie camp in September.”
Mark didn’t land a contract this summer, but he was able to learn from the coaching staff and NHL veterans that floated in and out of the facility, implementing tactics into his game this season.
He’s already set career high in goals with 14. He is also one pace to shatter his 35-point benchmark he set in 67 games last season. Like many players around the league, Mark saw the hottest stretch of his career come to a halt when he ran into the Moose Jaw Warriors Jan. 5 at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Before that, Mark has sniped goals in six of his last seven games.
“The big thing for him is that he really started to simplify his game. Coming into this season, he had a lot of internal pressure as one of the returning guys to help make this team successful,” said Hitmen Head Coach Dallas Ferguson. “He tried to do everything at the beginning, before realizing that he can be responsible, but he had to do it his own way and couldn’t do everything at once. He’s not over-handling the puck on the rush; he’s getting to the net, shooting more and finishing more of his checks. We’ve created an identity for him and he’s honed in what he can do well to help out the team game.”
He was named an alternate captain this season and continues to see his burden of responsibility grow as the Hitmen ship bonafide veterans out the door prior to the trade deadline.
“Seeing those other guys leave [via] trade, I took it as a challenge to be a better leader and I think it’s brought out the best in me. I don’t feel any extra pressure; I always wanted a bigger role on this team,” said Mark.
None of that seems to bother him. The endless passion still burns bright regardless of the obstacles in front of him during this trying season. More than anything, he just wants to see his Hitmen start to put together some wins.
Whether Mark likes it or not, the trade deadline will effect his ability to drag this team into playoff contention during a rare down year for the club.
That won’t change his effort level. He will still be slamming into bodies, scrapping in the faceoff circle, blocking shots and putting as many pucks in the net as he can.
If he is able to continue to produce at a level that satisfies his deepest expectations, he also might not have a say in hearing his name get called during the NHL Entry Draft later this June.