LAS VEGAS — Jay Beagle can still remember the hurt. Beagle was 18 when he was released from a tryout with his hometown Calgary Hitmen of Canada’s Western Hockey League. His hockey-playing career was potentially ending before it even had a chance to take off.
“I’ll never forget walking out of the room after being cut,” Beagle recently recalled. “My grandpa and dad (were) standing there and they were trying to pick me up after being cut from a dream of playing for the Hitmen.”
Beagle was crushed. His father and grandfather told him to keep chugging along.
“That was a big moment in my life and my career,” Beagle said. “They stood by my side, they encouraged me and that kept me motivated.”
Beagle would ultimately spend two seasons skating for the Tier-II Calgary Royals — a notch below the WHL’s Hitmen — before spending two years at the University of Alaska-Anchorage as a grinding forward. The NHL wasn’t exactly around the corner.
“The best part about playing in Alaska,” Beagle said, “is that when I got to the minors, the bus rides didn’t seem so bad.”
With his academics slipping, Beagle left school after his sophomore season in 2007. He was 21 when he tried his hand at pro hockey. He signed with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads for a few hundred dollars a week in March 2007, hoping to use the end of the season to make enough of an impression that he’d be brought back the following year. If it didn’t work out, Beagle was prepared to become an electrician.
Eleven years later, Beagle is a spark plug for a Washington Capitals team on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup. The Capitals lead the Vegas Golden Knights three-games-to-one with Game 5 Thursday from T-Mobile Arena (8 p.m.; WFED 1500AM).
“This is why we play the game,” Beagle said. “It’s the dream we all have growing up — to be able to contribute and have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup Final.”
‘IF YOU LIKE HIM, SPEND THE MONEY’
Beagle is now 32 but he remains the same hard-working, blue-collar grinder that caught the Capitals’ attention during that 2007 cameo appearance with Idaho.
Longtime Capitals scout Steve Richmond had been tipped off on Beagle earlier that season and kept him on the radar. With Idaho facing the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL conference semifinals that spring, he decided to see him play in person. There was one problem.
“I tried to book a last-minute flight and it was really expensive,” Richmond recalled.
Richmond ran it by Brian MacLellan, at the time the Capitals’ Director of Player Personnel.
“There’s this kid from Alaska,” Richmond told MacLellan. “It will cost a fortune to see him and I can only see him one game. Should I go?”
“Well, if you like him,” MacLellan told him, “spend the money.”
“Looking back,” Richmond said more than a decade later, “it’s the best money the Capitals probably ever spent.”
Richmond flew to Nevada, figuring he was the only scout at Vegas’ Orleans Arena paying any attention to Beagle. He was quickly sold, watching this undrafted, hardly-sought-after kid fighting off veterans, taking big faceoffs, and playing a prominent role in the playoffs in a pro hockey league.
“He was terrific,” Richmond said. “He was big, he could skate. The thing I liked about it, he went to the net. He had had no fear. He was a factor.”
Richmond met Beagle after the game and wined and dined him.
Well, he sort of wined and dined him.
Of all the establishments at one’s disposal in Las Vegas, Richmond met Beagle at a TGI Fridays in the lobby of the Orleans Hotel. Eleven years later and some two miles away at T-Mobile Arena, Beagle could potentially raise the Stanley Cup on Thursday.
“This is as big as it gets,” he said. “It’s the biggest game of our lives. You wait your whole life for an opportunity like this.”
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
The distance from the Orleans Hotel to T-Mobile Arena may be a mere two miles, but Beagle’s journey with the Capitals has been a long and winding road.
It started with the meeting over potato skins and mozzarella sticks at the chain restaurant with Richmond inviting Beagle to the Capitals’ summer development camp in northern Virginia.
It wasn’t a contract. There were no promises. It was simply an opportunity. As the Capitals prepared to trot out some of their more coveted prospects at the 2007 summer camp, they needed a few extra bodies to help round out the numbers. Enter a free agent like Beagle.
By the time the Capitals camp started, Beagle was a month removed from winning the Kelly Cup with the ECHL champion Steelheads.
“The Steelheads were awesome,” said Beagle, who had a goal and three points in 18 playoff games. “It was great exposure. If I went to a team that missed the playoffs, or barely got in and lost first round, you don’t get exposure and who knows where you go from there with your career.”
The title was nice, but the camp was bigger.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life (as) that summer,” Beagle recalled. “As soon as we won the Cup, I went straight into training. I came into that development camp like it was a main camp. I came into camp in great shape and I was going to give it everything I had.”
It may very well have been Beagle’s only chance at catching the eye of an NHL team. He played like it and the Capitals noticed.
“I had called his coaches in Calgary in the Alberta junior league and his coach in Anchorage,” Richmond said, “and the first thing each coach said was, ‘Hardest working player on the team.’ And if you have the hardest working player on the team and he’s got some talent, which Jay had, you knew he had a good chance to play.”
Soon after the camp, the Capitals signed Beagle to an American Hockey League contract, which later became a two-way deal with the NHL club. Beagle would spend parts of four seasons with the Hershey Bears, winning back-to-back Calder Cup championships in 2009 and 2010 and earning the occasional NHL call-up.
By the start of the 2011-12 season, as he approached his 26th birthday, Beagle was a full time NHLer. He has gone on to play more than 550 regular-season and playoff games for Washington, and is quietly the third longest-tenured player in the organization, behind only Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“You smile every time you see him step up on the ice — 500-plus times in the NHL,” Richmond said. “I don’t know if there are too many undrafted free agents that play that many games with one team, really. None that came out on a tryout, that’s for sure. For a kid coming out on a tryout when nobody on the staff knows him, except me at the time, to end up where he is right now, good for him.”
A RARE TRIFECTA WITHIN REACH
Beagle has stuck around thanks largely to hard work and his serving as a glue guy that does the little things necessary on a championship run. He has been a fixture on the Capitals’ fourth line for years, while serving as a key cog on the penalty kill and consistently ranking among the NHL’s top faceoff men.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Beagle could become the first player to complete the trifecta of winning the Kelly Cup (ECHL), Calder Cup (AHL) and Stanley Cup (NHL).
“He’s made for the playoffs,” said goalie Braden Holtby, teammates with Beagle since 2009 with Hershey. “I’ve seen Jay play in the playoffs for a long time. That guy is an absolute warrior. He’s a gamer — he shows up every single game and does the little things right. He’s probably one of, if not the most, respected guy in our locker room.”
Beagle has come a long way from the summer camp tryout, to the occasional call-up to one of the most trusted players on a team on the cusp of winning the Stanley Cup.
He also recognizes that this could be his final chance with the only NHL team he’s known. Beagle is in the final year of his contract and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
“It’s pretty cool to look back on,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with the opportunities. It’s just amazing. I believe in God and I believe that God has definitely put me in places in for reason. Looking back, it’s just undeniable. It’s been pretty special and obviously Steve Richmond had a huge part in my career because he invited me to that development camp.”
Richmond is in his 16th season with the Capitals and now serves as the club’s Director of Player Development. George McPhee, Richmond’s roommate in 1984 when they both played for the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers, hired him in Washington in 2002.
“Every scout and coach and GM always has their favorite players,” Richmond said. “Obviously, I have a special interest in Jay because I was there from the beginning. Every time I see him play, I smile. My wife does too because she knows the story. She’s a big Jay Beagle fan. But who isn’t a Jay Beagle fan?!”
“He’s an ultimate pro,” said teammate T.J. Oshie. “He comes to the rink every day and puts in twice the effort and twice the work as everyone else.”
It was that work ethic that earned Beagle an invite to the Capitals summer development all those years ago, and has allowed him to flourish with a Stanley Cup in sight.
“It’s crazy when you look back it,” said Beagle, who has two goals and eight points in 22 games this spring. “It’s been a great journey and I want to continue that journey. This organization has given me so much and it’s a great organization to be a part of. It’s been an awesome ride.”
“It’s a great story,” Richmond said. “But he wrote it. We were just taking notes. He was a great find for us and he’s a great inspiration for anybody who plays hockey, just what hard work will do for you.”
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