How Luke Schenn saved his NHL career: ‘Coaches asked me: Are you going to retire?’

The boos were deafening at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, as the Senators’ biggest rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, stepped up to the podium at the 2008 NHL Draft. Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher had completed a trade with the New York Islanders just minutes before moving up for the fifth overall pick.

With “Leafs suck” chants reverberating around the arena, Mike Penny, Toronto’s director of player personnel, announced their selection of Luke Schenn from the Kelowna Rockets.

Boos transformed into cheers and applause as fans recognized a young man on the cusp of his NHL dreams. Eighteen-year-old Schenn, already broad shouldered, confident and jovial, stepped on the stage and donned a Leafs jersey and ball cap.

That’s when the weight of being a top-five pick in Toronto’s pressure cooker market first blindsided Schenn.

“I remember I had the jersey on the stage and I went off to do a (TV) interview in the back and the first thing I got asked was: ‘The Leafs haven’t won a Cup since ’67. What are you going to do to change that?'” said Schenn.

“Right away I was like, Holy, what am I in for all of a sudden? I haven’t had this jersey on for longer than 5 minutes. That’s when it kinda hit me that there’s pressure in the market.

“I don’t really think at the time being drafted I knew what I was getting into.”

Schenn made the Leafs out of training camp at 18 and was immediately thrown into the fire.

“When he got there, he was sort of a fan favorite,” recalls Schenn’s father, Jeff. “It’s not even just that he was drafted (high) but his character’s never changed. Oh God, I remember in his rookie year he fought Chris Neil twice and that’s just always what he’s done.”

Schenn was solid as a first-year pro. There were ups and downs, but he averaged 21:32 per game and was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team.

“Being 18 and being a shutdown defenseman’s not the easiest thing in the league to do,” Jeff said with a laugh. “I’m not taking anything away from anybody but it’s a natural ability for the young guys that are offensive minded to take the puck and go and Luke, more of his game was battling guys, lining up back in the day when he was 18 against Alex Ovechkin.”

Unfortunately, Schenn’s game began to stagnate. The expectations of becoming a franchise defenseman were understandable given his draft pedigree but probably weren’t fair given his track record.

“I got drafted out of the WHL and I didn’t even play on the power play, I didn’t even have 30 points in the WHL,” explained Schenn. “Right when I got into the NHL, I think there was an expectation that you wanted to be more complete, rounded and put up a few more points. That kind of goes with the tag of being a high pick.

“It took me a lot of figuring out to know who I was and what made me successful. You look around at the players getting drafted around you and I think in my year it was Doughty (No.2) and Pietrangelo (No.4). You’re compared to guys like that and so in my head I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I gotta play more offensively,’ and I kinda got away from what my own identity was.”

Things got worse when Randy Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson as Leafs head coach during Schenn’s fourth NHL season. Schenn, who played 22:24 per game the season before, averaged just 15:17 under Carlyle down the stretch. Carlyle even scratched Schenn once, strangely asking the young defender to play meaner despite the fact that he was top-10 in the NHL for hits in addition to already racking up six fighting majors.

Schenn was traded that offseason to the Flyers for James Van Riemsdyk.

“What happened in Toronto? He was just ready for a change,” explained Jeff Schenn. “I don’t think from a coach’s perspective (Luke) was the right guy.

“He did have a really good first couple of years and then sort of things changed a little bit and maybe they were expecting more than what he was.”

Luke loved his time in Toronto, but it was time for a fresh start.

Playing in Philadelphia for the next three and a half seasons gave Luke the special experience of playing with his brother, Brayden. They lived in the same apartment complex and drove to practices and games together.

Luke’s performance on the ice was riddled with ups and downs, however. He once again wasn’t living up to lofty expectations and was eventually dealt alongside Vincent Lecavalier in 2016 to the Los Angeles Kings. Luke signed a two-year deal that summer with the Arizona Coyotes, but he was still struggling.

“(I) had some coaches along the way where they don’t want you to have the puck,” said Luke Schenn. “Just get it and they say don’t stick handle it, just move it, just defend, just defend.

“That gets in your head and all of a sudden the game’s changing and guys are handling the puck and making plays around you and you’re still around this situation where you’re told not to handle the puck and it looks like you can’ t make plays because that’s what you’ve been told for six to seven years.”

The game seemed to be becoming too fast and skilled for Schenn. Now in his late 20s, having used up second and third chances, Schenn’s NHL career was in jeopardy. Rock bottom came the following year in 2018-19, when the Ducks waived and demoted him to the minors. He was pushed to consider retiring.

“I’m not going to lie, at the time it sucks,” said Schenn. “You’re thinking this is the end. You just cleared waivers and all 30 teams passed on you.

“I remember coaches asked me, ‘Are you even going to go to the minors? Are you going to retire?’ because at that time I was 10 years old and had never been to the minors. That’s when you rely on your support system, which for me is my wife, my brother, my parents, family and then on top of that Dallas Eakins (head coach of Anaheim’s AHL affiliate at the time) was unbelievable to me when I went down there.

“He basically said, ‘Help us win some games here and we’ll help you get back to the NHL.'”

Luke had a young family and was now making two-hour drives for AHL practices and games in San Diego. Brayden encouraged Luke to consider working with private coach Adam Oates. So Luke made the call.

“I figured out I kinda had to evolve and a lot of it was puck handling, trusting my skating more, trying to put myself in thinking the game and putting myself in better positions on the ice,” said Schenn.

Schenn was traded to the Canucks a couple of months later. He started in Utica and after talking to Ryan Johnson and Trent Cull was given permission to bring Oates out to continue their work together.

He was called up in mid-February and the rest is history. Schenn resurrected his NHL career, became a fan favorite in Vancouver and then signed in Tampa; he won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Lightning.

Along the way, Schenn had a lightbulb moment with his offseason training.

“After a season you don’t like, you’re always told you need to have a great summer in the gym,” Schenn explained. “You (are told you) need to go back and get faster in the gym. You’re beating yourself up in the gym and it’s not translating on the ice, that was my first thing I realized I’m skating in the summer but it wasn’t with purpose.

“It was more like skating because I’m a hockey player and I should skate rather than working on handling the puck or different ways to defend or different ways to read a play. I spend a lot more time in the offseason on the ice now than I did in the past and you want to be strong in the gym, but at my age, strength isn’t the focus — it’s more puck handling.”

During one conversation in early 2022, Jeff reflected back on that nightmare day in 2018 when Luke was demoted.

“I said, ‘Do you have any regrets going to talk to that guy who maybe said it was time to retire?’ And his thing was, ‘Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. I learned a lot about myself.’” said Jeff.

“You can take it and say screw you, whoever that may be, or you can take the best out of it and that’s what I was really proud of him for,” he continued. “Luke could have quit really easily, but that’s not the guy he is. He always said, ‘I’ve got five more years in me.'”

The allure of joining the Lightning in 2019 was strong. Luke was close friends with Steven Stamkos and there was a clear path for a chance to win a championship. But once those boxes were ticked, Luke had his eyes set on returning to Vancouver.

Schenn’s transition back to the Canucks last season was a bit of a shock. He was a healthy scratch for six of the first nine games and was second guessing his decision to return.

“Last year was a weird start,” said Schenn. “I didn’t get back from Tampa until August and then you turn around and you’re right here and training camp was just really not what I thought as far as a lot of different things.

Schenn’s transition back to the Canucks after his time in Tampa — where he won back-to-back Cups — was a bit of a shock. (Kim Klement/USA Today)

“It took me a little time to kind of figure out what my role was, where they saw me, trust the decision I made to come back here — you’re thinking about other choices maybe you passed over to come back here — and that was a lot of it too was: ‘Did I make the right choice?'”

Schenn was resilient just as he always has been and it paid off. He found his stride next to Quinn Hughes and wasn’t just an everyday defender but now a top-four piece. Off the ice, he was a leader and the point man for bringing guys together for big dinners.

“I always tell guys at the end of my career, that’s maybe my No. 1 most proud thing is I’ve never stayed (in) for room service,” Schenn said with a smile. “A lot of guys are always (getting) room service, but to me the best part of the NHL besides winning is getting out with your teammates and getting to know them, telling stories.

“I look back and I’ve played with some unbelievable players. I don’t remember 95 percent of the plays they made, or the games they had or the good or bad. I remember them as people and the stories that were told and the laughs that we had.”

Schenn’s big role for organizing dinners goes back to his time in Tampa Bay.

“In Tampa in the playoffs, the team would always set up dinner the night before at whatever restaurant the guys wanted,” said Schenn. “The biggest thing was me and (Ryan) McDonagh would always organize the menus. We would make the menus for the team services guy to send in and there was heavy pressure from all the players on what we’re going with.

“The guys always trusted me and that was always a big thing was the night before the game, how pumped the boys were for the meal, to get in and enjoy each other’s company, have some laughs and just feel so loose, not even think about a playoff game the next day whether it’s Cup Finals or semifinals, it’s always just trying to keep the guys light.”

Rule No. 1 of dinner with Luke Schenn? No individual meals allowed.

“I always make the boys go family style, we put everything on the table and so we order a bunch of stuff for the table and guys always die laughing like, ‘I want my own meal’ and I say, ‘Not with me. We’re all sharing tonight, having a glass of wine, telling stories, having some laughs,’” said Schenn.

Schenn, who turned 33 earlier this month, continues to play some of the best hockey of his career. He’s found a clear role and identity as a player, worked tirelessly with Oates to improve his poise with the puck and short first passes and learned how to evolve his offseason training to continue sharpening defensively.

“It’s interesting because a lot of guys are on the decline when they get into their late 20s and 30s. I actually feel the opposite where I’m actually figuring out different ways to improve things and putting in the work,” said Schenn.

Could the 18-year-old Schenn who donned a Leafs jersey on stage in Ottawa as a top-five pick ever imagine this was the roller-coaster journey he was signing up for?

“Never in a million years,” said Schenn. “When you get into the league you always think your career’s going to be a straight arrow and you retire exactly how you envisioned your career, which I’ve learned is definitely not the case.

“I’ve experienced lows where you’re in the minors for the first time in 10 years and I’ve experienced highs where you’re lifting the Cup over your head and everything in between. I’m lucky for every step along the way.

“In saying that, I don’t feel like I’m close to being done yet. I feel like I’ve got a long way to go. It’s funny I (was) the oldest guy at training camp and on the team but I certainly don’t feel that way.”

(Top photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

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