Family wisdom and hard work carried Ottawa Senators rookie Mark Kastelic to the NHL

OTTAWA — The best piece of advice Mark Kastelic received from his grandfather was being told it's not where you start, it's where you finish.

Wise words from a wise man who had plenty of hockey knowledge to share with his grandson.

Pat Stapleton had an impressive NHL career playing 635 games with the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins. The mobile defenceman was also a member of Canada’s Summit Series team in 1972.

Unfortunately, Stapleton, who died in 2020, missed the chance to see his grandson play on hockey’s grandest stage, but his memory and wisdom remain close at hand.

The 23-year-old Ottawa Senators forward would love to cement a full-time role with the NHL club this season, but understands the importance of looking at the big picture.

“That's something I've always thought of throughout my career,” said Kastelic. “Whether I make the team or not, that's always the goal, but nothing's going to discourage me from getting to where I want to be.”

The road to the NHL hasn’t been easy for the six-foot-three centre. Kastelic, a native of Phoenix, Ariz., was drafted in 2019 in the fifth round, 125th overall by the Senators, but at the time he was in his fourth year of junior with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen. He had gone undrafted twice, after being first eligible in 2017.

Kastelic says being overlooked tested his resolve.

“I think everything works out for a reason,” Kastelic said. “It just made me work a little bit harder, even in junior, to kind of get to where I am now. A lot of guys want to get drafted on the first year they're eligible, but it helped me with my mental toughness and just to stay confident and my dad is a big part of that, as well as my grandpa.”

Kastelic often calls on his father, Ed, who played 220 games for the Washington Capitals and Hartford Whalers, for support and guidance.

“He's one of my biggest supporters and he's got a lot of knowledge for the game as well,” said Kastelic. “He wants to see me succeed so we're always bouncing ideas off each other and as well he's just been a sense of support for me. Whenever I need to calm down or just pick me up he's always there for me and he's always one phone call away so it's great to have.”

Kastelic got his first look at the NHL last season when he played 16 games and contributed two goals and two assists and showed the Senators he could be a solid depth player down the middle.

“It kind of just gives you a little taste of what the league is all about,” he said. “It shows that you’ve got to be consistent night in and night out.”

Senators coach D.J. Smith, who has been impressed by the rookie's work ethic and his commitment to the game, has no doubt Kastelic will be an everyday NHLer — it's just a question of when.

“He's too big, he's too strong and his will is too good and you can see he's got a presence out there,” said Smith. “Guys over time aren't going to enjoy playing against him. It's just what's the best for his career? Is it right now?”

Smith says balancing a player’s development with the club’s needs can be challenging at times.

Smith has already seen improvements from the player Kastelic was last season and says you can’t help but cheer for a guy who works as hard as he does, but at the end of the day he could be a victim of the system.

Kastelic is in the third-year of an entry level contract and wouldn’t require clearing waivers to be reassigned to Ottawa’s American Hockey League affiliate in Bellville.

“I think to be brutally honest, if he's 28-years-old right now he's on the team for sure,” said Smith. “It's what's best for his long-term development.

“I think confidently in its purest decision, ultimately on who's going to be here at the end, is that if he required waivers, I don't think that we'd be able to take that risk,” said Smith.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022

Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press