There are many words that could be used to describe Jaxan Kaluski’s journey to, and through, the Western Hockey League. The one that might be most fitting, however, is determined.
Determined to prove that he could play in the WHL after going undrafted in 2014. Determined to return from an ankle injury, which sidelined him for nearly an entire year. Determined to show he was worthy of a bigger role than he had been given. And determined to be a leader.
For Kaluski, it all started on an outdoor rink in Lloydminster, Alberta.
“I got started on a man-made rink behind my house that my parents always took me to when I was three or four years old,” he explained.
He then began his minor hockey in the Initiation age group, which he started a year earlier than kids usually do. Something he jokes is the highlight of his hockey career to date.
For some kids hockey becomes more of a chore than a hobby after a certain point, but that was never an issue for Kaluski.
“I always wanted to play,” he said. “I only really had one other sport that I liked, which was golf. So it worked out pretty perfectly that there was never any interference.”
Lloydminster, aptly known as “The Border City”, straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and has a population of roughly 31,000 and boasted an impressive crop of hockey players in the 1999 and 2000-born age group.
The 2013-14 Lloydminster Heat bantam team was a force the likes of which the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League hadn’t seen in quite some time. Not only did they cruise to a 31-1-1 record, they also scored 230 goals while giving up just 45, a number that hasn’t been matched or beaten since.
“We honestly didn’t have too many close games,” Kaluski said. “The only time we had close games was when the entire team had a terrible weekend. It seemed like the only time we lost games was during tournaments. I don’t know what it was with us and tournaments, we just didn’t really perform that well.”
The 2013-14 team featured names like Zane Franklin, Bryce Kindopp, Ty Smith, Chase Wouters, Kobe Mohr, Jantzen Leslie, Orrin Centazzo and Ryan Schoettler. All told, players on that roster would go on to play, to date, 2,074 WHL games while scoring 454 goals and totalling 1,232 points in the WHL.
Scouts filled the rinks everywhere that team went, but Kaluski tried to keep his mind off the scouts and focus on what he could control.
“I don’t think it was too bad for me because I didn’t necessarily believe that I had a chance to get drafted,” he admitted. “So I didn’t think about it too much, but I’m sure there was pressure for guys like Franklin and Kindopp who were expected to go.”
The Heat, as expected, steamrolled the competition through the AMBHL playoffs and claimed the league title.
As Kaluski mentioned, tournaments were an Achilles Heel of sorts for his club, and while their run at the bantam provincials came down to the wire, it was a crushing loss to the North Shore Winter Club (NSWC) in the final game.
“They were another team that a lot like us,” he recalled. “They had some exceptional players who just dominated. We scored with six seconds left to send the game into overtime, and it got to double overtime before Nolan Kneen scored the winning goal.”
The 2013-14 NSWC team had a stacked roster in their own right with players such as Jordy Bellerive, Kneen, Justin Almeida, Jackson Shepard, Jackson Leppard and David Tendeck.
Kaluski admits he still followed the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft as it happened, hoping someone would take a chance on him in the later rounds.
Being the last cut from the major midget Lloydminster Bobcats team for the 2014-15 season, Kaluski spent that year playing for the minor midget team finishing with 19 goals and 10 assists in 32 games. He also played six games for the major midget team and recorded five points.
“We all tried out for the team and I ended up being the last cut for the Midget AAA team,” he said. “I had to play for the U16 team, but ended up being really good for me because I played a lot of minutes and more of an offensive role than I had in bantam.”
Kaluski then cracked the AAA roster for 15-16 and was reunited with a bevy of the players that were on his dominant bantam team from two years prior.
“We knew we were going to be good right away, just seeing the names that were at training camp,” he said. “I almost cracked the Junior ‘A’ team, but I came back to the midget team and then we kind of just kept getting lucky with guys returning. Franklin came back late, Kindopp came back late, Leslie came back late. We got our starting goalie back from the AJHL too. The pieces just kept falling back together.”
While not as dominant as the 13-14 bantam squad, the 15-16 Lloydminster AAA Bobcats were no slouches with a 26-5-3 record, easily finishing in first place in the Alberta Midget Hockey League. They took their game to another level in the playoffs, losing just once on their way to the league championship.
After dispatching the champions of the BC Midget Hockey League, the Valley West Hawks, the Bobcats were off to the National Midget Championship tournament, the Telus Cup, in Quispamsis, New Brunswick. Though Kaluski says their comparatively-easy road to the AMHL title may have hurt them at Nationals.
“In the league finals we won 10-0, 5-0 and 3-0,” Kaluski said. “We had our struggles at the Telus Cup. Our group seemed to have a tough time shaking off the excitement of the tournament. There were good teams, so it wasn’t like it was going to be a cake walk, but we hadn’t really seen competition like that up to that point.”
After a solid 3-1-1 showing in the round robin, the Bobcats lost 5-3 to the eventual-champion North York Rangers in the semis and 2-1 to the Lac St. Louis Lions in the bronze medal came to return home empty handed.
It was earlier that season that Kaluski was listed by the Moose Jaw Warriors, and would eventually sign with the club following an intra squad game ahead of the 2016-17 season. Though it wasn’t far into the season that Kaluski found himself in unfamiliar territory.
“We were playing Seattle and I just stepped out of the penalty box after serving a five-minute major for another guy,” he recalled. “I chipped the puck in and just went after the guy in the corner. I hit him and my foot hit the boards straight on, and I guess just the force in which my foot hit the boards shattered the bone. It was a harmless play.”
November 5 was when Kaluski’s season came to a crashing halt. The injury was the first major one Kaluski had ever dealt with up to that point, and while the physical side of recovering from an injury is one thing, he says the mental side is far worse.
“My family was so supportive during that time,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have continued playing hockey after that if it wasn’t for them. I was going crazy. I was just having 15-hour video game sessions at home because I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom on my own.”
He says he spent a large portion of his recovery at home in Lloydminster, but was quick to mention Brooke Kosolofski, the athletic therapist of the Warriors, in her part of his recovery.
Appearing in just 16 games in his 17-year-old season, Kaluski returned to the Warriors for 17-18 and scored his first WHL goal November 21 against Saskatoon.
“It felt like forever since I had scored,” he said. “The craziest thing about that was I got pushed into the net from behind on that play and got injured again.”
Despite the injury, the goal was a gorilla off the back of Kaluski who felt a shift in his mindset and confidence.
“It’s a big weight off your shoulders,” he said. “It’s just trying to change and elevate your game to make people realize you can make an impact. It took me a while to figure out how to play a style that was going to give me an opportunity. Once I figured it out it makes a world of difference; you can skate with the puck without being scared. Some kids figure it out quickly, and that’s why they can excel right away, but for me it took a little while.”
As Broncos fans know, the 2017-18 Warriors club was a formidable one that would finish first overall in the WHL standings. While Kaluski enjoyed his time there, he knew it would be beneficial for him to move elsewhere, and was granted his wish with a trade to the Seattle Thunderbirds at the trade deadline.
The offensive output didn’t change with the move, but it was a clean slate and a fresh mindset for Kaluski that made a world of difference.
“I never figured out how to score in Seattle,” he said with a laugh. “But I played at a different level once I got there. I figured out what my role was and I skated with a lot more confidence.”
Kaluski’s offensive game started to break through in 2018-19 as he posted six goals and 13 assists with the Thunderbirds, but it was staying healthy and playing all 68 regular season games that was a milestone for him.
“I hadn’t played a full season in awhile,” he said. “I was really proud internally about that. It was fun coming to the rink, knowing I had a purpose. Being able to help the team win every single night makes you feel better about yourself.”
On specific night in which Kaluski helped his team win was almost one year to the day he was traded to Seattle, when he recorded a hat trick against the eventual-champion Prince Albert Raiders.
“That was crazy,” he laughed. “I hadn’t really been able to score up to that point. It was one of those nights where the puck just kept ending up on my stick. My grandparents were able to be there for that game so that was a pretty special moment for me.”
That season was the U.S. Divisions turn to venture out East and make their way through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and while the Thunderbirds weren’t a contending team that season, they had a successful trip with a 4-2 record.
Two days after Kaluski’s hat trick the Thunderbirds hammered the Warriors 7-2 at Mosaic Place, which was a memorable experience for him.
“Certainly don’t have any hard feelings towards the Warriors,” he stated. “But you always want to beat your old team. We had traded what we thought were three of our best players at the time. We got a hot goalie out of the AJHL in Roddy Ross and started meshing together better a little bit more. We went on a bit of a crazy run in the the second half because we were pretty far out of the playoff picture at one point.”
Leading up to that road trip the Thunderbirds moved players like Zack Andrusiak, Liam Hughes and Reece Harsch to get younger and build for the future.
Heading into 2019-20, Kaluski returned to the Thunderbirds but was realistic in his thought process about his chances of being one of the three 20-year-olds on Seattle’s roster.
“I knew it was going to be an uphill battle,” he said. “We had Matthew Wedman who had just been drafted and scored 40 goals, so I knew he was a lock. Jarrett Tyszka was also a drafted guy, who didn’t end up coming to camp, but I thought he was a lock. We had an import guy in Andrej Kukuca who put up a lot of points the year before. And then we even brought in two guys in Connor Bruggen-Cate and Baron Thompson, so we had six guys heading into camp and I was pretty nervous.”
While Kaluski did start the season on the Thunderbirds roster, and played in two games, he got the sense something was coming and approached management.
“There was three of us to start, but Wedman hadn’t come back from his NHL camp with Florida yet,” he said. “We were waiting on that and it was pretty nerve wracking, so I went into (Thunderbirds General Manager) Bil La Forge’s office because I just got the feeling something wasn’t right. I had a conversation with Bil and he was pretty honest with me in saying that when Wedman came back that I was probably the odd man out. I just felt it was the best decision at that point to walk away because I wanted to play for a team that fully believed in my capabilities, no matter where it was.”
Kaluski’s final game with Seattle came September 27, and Wedman returned to the team three days later.
He returned home to Lloydminster and suited up for his hometown Bobcats for six games. The six games were all losses and saw Lloydminster outscored 33-12. Even though leaving Seattle was on his own terms, it didn’t make the pill any easier to swallow.
“I wasn’t too worried about the record at that point,” he said of his brief time with the Bobcats. “But I just wasn’t really mentally into it. It didn’t help that we were struggling and it just wasn’t the best fit for me.”
Kaluski then received a call from Dean Brockman about potentially joining the Broncos as a 20-year-old, which he accepted.
But it wasn’t the first time Kaluski had heard from Swift Current.
“I had a chance to go there when I was driving home from Seattle,” he said. “But I just think my attitude and my pride got the best of me at that moment. I just wanted to be close to home and ride things out, but I wasn’t having too much fun in Lloydminster so thankfully I got a second chance to go to Swift Current.”
That second chance came early in November when Kaluski officially joined the Broncos, but that wasn’t before Kaluski reached out to an old teammate who had a connection to the Broncos.
“I just wanted to know what I was walking into a little bit,” Kaluski said. “I talked to Chase Wouters about Dean and everyone I asked had nothing but good things to say about him. He’s an amazing personality and a very caring guy. I enjoyed working with Dean and playing for him.”
Wouters played for Brockman in his first two years in the WHL, when Brockman was the head coach of the Saskatoon Blades.
It didn’t take long for Kaluski to make an impact on his new club as he recorded two goals and two assists in just his third game with the Broncos, a 7-3 win against Moose Jaw on November 16.
“It’s one of those things you never expect to happen,” he said. “It was just one of those nights where the puck goes off your stick and into the net or off your stick and to an open guy who puts it in.”
Kaluski knew he wasn’t joining a championship-calibre team in the Broncos, but wanted to come into the organization and be a difference maker both on the ice and in the locker room.
He was given an opportunity to really take charge on January 20 when he was named the 33rd captain in Broncos history.
“It was probably about a week after the trade deadline,” he said of when he was approached about being captain. “I didn’t really know if we were going to name a new captain at that point. I had a conversation with Dean and we talked about how it would make Ethan Regnier feel, naming a new captain so soon after he was traded. I talked to Ethan and he was totally on board with me taking the ‘C’ from him.”
Despite the lack of on-ice success from the team while Kaluski had the ‘C’ on his jersey, he was hoping to make an impact on the organization by instilling a new mindset within the group of players that they could carry on to the following season.
“My story is a little bit different than some players in the league,” he said. “But there’s a lot of listed kids on that team that are playing a role that they may not have gotten on another team. I just wanted to help them realize that this is a great opportunity for them. It was definitely a challenge when you want to be the go-to guy and you’re putting pressure on yourself but aren’t having the team success. I wish we could have snuck out a few more wins, but all in all it was a great experience for me.”
The Broncos finished with a 10-48-2-3 record before the season was ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kaluski has now graduated from the WHL with 173 games to his credit, but is optimistic for the future of the Broncos based off what he saw during his short time in Swift Current.
“I really, truly hope that they can turn it around and start pushing towards a brighter future,” he said. “There’s some pieces there right now and it looks like they had a successful draft. I think the pieces are there, it’s just a matter of having a good culture in place. I hope going forward it can become a place that people love to play, because those small towns are amazing to play in, it’s like a different world. The coaches want it bad and they’re getting close. I hope next year they can take that next step.”
With four years in the WHL under his belt, Kaluski had plenty of options at his disposal following his 20-year-old season coming to a close. He decided on the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon as his landing spot for his post-secondary career.
He says Broncos assistant coach Scott Dutertre, who coached at U of S for a number of years, played a big role in him landing with the Huskies.
As always, Kaluski is prepared to earn his stripes and show that he belongs amongst one of the top programs in Canadian University hockey.
“It’s probably going to be a challenge because there are a ton of players on that team who are unbelievable players,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of work to earn my role and earn my opportunity, but winning makes everything a little bit easier.”
No doubt Kaluski is determined to show he can skate with players at that level, just like he always has.