Toronto — Joe Veleno had to get to Toronto as quickly as possible Saturday after being recalled by the Red Wings.
General manager Steve Yzerman was driving to the game. He offered to give the 21-year-old a lift.
“It just made sense to drive with him rather than going to the airport and taking a commercial flight and having to do the cross-border (testing) stuff,” Veleno said.
So, what does a young player like Veleno talk about in a car for four hours with Yzerman, his boss, a Hall of Fame player and a Red Wings’ legend?
“We talked some hockey,” Veleno said. “There was the Michigan-Michigan State football game. We had that on the radio for a little bit. I ended up sleeping a little bit. I was tired. But we talked a bit. It was nice of him to drive me to the game.
“I was a little shy. I wasn’t sure what to talk about. I’m glad he made up most of the conversation. But once I got to spend a little time in the car I got a little more comfortable. He’s a real good person and real easy to talk to. It made the drive fairly easy.”
There might not be many more drives on I-96 between Grand Rapids and Detroit for Veleno.
With a third-period goal and assist, Veleno sparked a Red Wings comeback attempt in a 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Veleno played five games at the end of last season with the Wings, scoring one goal. But Saturday’s effort is the best Veleno looked in an NHL regular-season game.
“He was good in the third. It took a little bit to get his feet underneath him, which is understandable considering he had a day of travel, but he played well,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “He has strength on the puck, a good skill set, so we thought he could come in and give us our best chance to fill in for the guys that were missing.
“Certainly the way he played in the third gives a coach confidence to put him out there. That’s a good step.”
Veleno was recalled with Tyler Bertuzzi unavailable (unvaccinated, can’t enter Canada), and Adam Erne day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. If the Wings keep Veleno after they return from Canada, they must make another personnel move.
That may not occur just yet. But Veleno is inching closer to a regular NHL lineup spot.
“That was my mentality (Saturday), I wanted to work hard and show what I could bring at this level, and how I can play,” Veleno said. “But at the same time I wanted to play with confidence and have some fun and I tried my best to do those things and be successful.
“It went fairly well. It would have been nice to have a ‘W,’ but it was a good hockey game to be a part of.”
Veleno was essentially the last cut of the exhibition season. He was understandably disappointed. But Veleno went to the AHL with the mindset he would work on his game, and be with the Wings as soon as possible.
“It’s never easy accepting the fact of going down to the AHL,” Veleno said. “I worked extremely hard in the summer and worked on my game and worked on my physique. It was disappointing the fact I worked so hard and wasn’t able to stick around for the opening-night roster.
“When I went down to GR, I had some people around me that helped me through that time and helped me have a positive mindset. The guys in GR helped me a lot and the coaching staff there, to come every day and work hard, have a positive mindset.
“If you do those things, chances are pretty high of getting called back up.”
Blashill said Veleno is making his time in the AHL productive one.
“My message to him was … he needs to control what he can control and that’s going down and making sure that he’s playing great hockey, so that when he comes back up, he makes a statement,” Blashill said. “Guys go down and they feel like they deserve to be up, and I get that. But there’s a bigger picture. Just play. It sounds like he’s done a good job down there.”
Blashill has often remarked how players promoted from Grand Rapids need to show they can make an impact.
“Joe in the third was impactful,” Blashill said.
Regardless of what Veleno’s NHL future holds, getting driven to play in an NHL game by Steve Yzerman is a pretty neat tale.
“I guess I have a story I can tell in the future,” Veleno said.