Cody Corbett was like countless youngsters growing up in Minnesota with dreams of playing professional hockey. He has since joined a much smaller group of players after signing an entry-level NHL contract with the Colorado Avalanche in early March.
“For the last 20 years, it was the best moment of my life,” said Corbett, a 20-year-old Lakeland resident who also attended Stillwater Area High School and played for the Ponies. “This past month has been really crazy. I signed, broke a few team records, and I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of people.”
Corbett and his current team the Edmonton Oil Kings are still competing in Round 2 of the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoffs, but his plans going forward took a dramatic turn for the better in what has been the final season he was eligible to compete in the 20-and-under WHL, which is one of three junior leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League.
“The first year up here was my draft year,” Corbett said. “There was definitely some disappointment and thoughts about not getting drafted. It fueled me and just made me train harder and work harder. Now the last couple summers I’ve really worked hard and I feel like I’m ready for the next step.”
Players who join the WHL sign contracts and receive modest stipends, making Corbett ineligible to play college hockey. Though the league provides college scholarships based on years of service, the options would have been significantly reduced had the Avalanche not joined the picture.
“Coming into this year, I knew this was going to be the year I had to really expose myself and show people what I’ve got,” Corbett said. “I did whatever I could do to do that and play as well as I could all season.”
The three-year contract calls for an average salary of more than $600,000 per season, though he views this signing as a starting point more than a destination.
“The next level is so much faster and everything happens so quick. I just have to continue to work on all aspects of my game,” Corbett said.
Corbett attended camp with the Minnesota Wild each of the past two years, but didn’t result in any offers. It did provide some perspective — and some star-gazing to boot.
“Yeah, it definitely kicked in when at Wild camp I had (Zach) Parise coming down on me with (Mikko) Koivu and (Ryan) Suter was my D partner at the time for the drill I was on,” Corbett said. “It was pretty surreal. Those are the guys I grew up watching, but it was awesome. It’s going to be fun playing against guys like that the next few years.
“It was a good learning experience for me to do camps like that. This fall, I really thought I had a good camp and they brought me in for the main camp. I thought they might offer something up, but they didn’t and I returned to my junior team.”
He’s also been able to tap into NHL Hall of Famer Phil Housley, his former coach with the Ponies who is in his first year as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators.
“I text him once in a while and I saw him in Edmonton (on March 18) when they played the Predators,” Corbett said. “He’s definitely someone I’ve looked up to and he’s one of the great defensemen in the game. It was awesome having him as a coach and I learned a lot from him. He’s always someone I’ll look to get advice from.”
It was those connections that initially made the decision to forgo his senior year at Stillwater and join the Oil Kings so difficult, a move that disappointed some who would rather see his talents contributing to the high school program. It didn’t help that the decision to leave came just prior to the start of the season after he had been elected to serve as captain his senior year.
“I didn’t really think about it ’til I got a call at the beginning of October to check it out,” Corbett said. “I told my parents about it, but my parents weren’t really happy about my coming out of school like that. It ended up being my choice in the end. It was crazy. I had so many different scenarios running through my mind and how it was going to work out in the next three years. My friends told me to do what my heart tells me to do. In the end, leaving Stillwater was the best thing I could have done because it helped me grow as a person and a hockey player. Coming up to Edmonton, that’s when I knew that this was something I could do the rest of my life.”
It was a big decision for someone not even eligible to vote.
“I had to go from being a 17-year-old high school student to being a professional athlete,” Corbett said. “One swipe of the pen and my life had changed so quick. The lifestyle was so different and everyone is so business-like (in Canada). I’m not saying that the Stillwater high school team doesn’t do a great job, but everything is so different up there. I went from playing 25 games in high school to 72 regular season games and another 18 to 25 playoff games and then having practice three days a week in high school and having practice and doing workouts every day here.
“I definitely had a few people question me for leaving Stillwater, but I had a lot of support though, too. There’s always going to be those few people that feel differently.”
It was also the source of much consternation for his family.
“I certainly heard about it after he left,” said Corbett’s mother, Marie Forsell. “I was in tears many times the first two weeks when he was up there, did I do the right thing. What if he hates it and wants to come back? One thing that helped me was that he goes right into a billet (host) family and they get to watch over him a little bit. When you go to college that doesn’t always happen.
“At first, I didn’t even want to go to Target because I’d have to explain why we let him go.”
The list of shattered dreams far outnumbers the success stories for players — and, most often, their parents — pursuing a career as a professional athlete, but Corbett and his support system didn’t dwell on the long odds as much as the path to get there.
“The first thing I heard about is how one in 10,000 (players) might get a scholarship,” Forsell said. “I was a figure skater and if I didn’t have that motivation to become one step better — I would want that up there. That’s some of the motivation for training and skating when you don’t feel like skating or going to the rink. In my gut of guts, I believed he could be there. That day he called and said, ‘well, I’m a product of the Colorado Avalanche,’ that’s exciting for any parent who cheers for their kids in peewee hockey or any sport.”
Corbett has played 232 career games for the Oil Kings while racking up 34 goals and 114 assists. He shattered single-season team records for goals (17) and points (61) by a defenseman. He shares the record for goals in a career by a defenseman and also owns the career points record for a blueliner.
Corbett has not reserved any portion of his new contract for any type of extravagant purchase, which is a reflection of his humble personality and modest upbringing.
“When I come home, I’m going to take my mom and dad and close family and best friends and go have a nice dinner somewhere,” Corbett said.
Even though Corbett now has the best and latest equipment provided, his family faced financial challenges which left him with used equipment from friends, teammates and his older brother, Ty Forsell while growing up. Even after he started playing in Edmonton, his mother would often sit at McDonalds to watch a live stream of Cody’s games via internet.
“I had to work for everything I wanted — definitely, nothing was handed to me,” Corbett said. “I used hand-me-down equipment from my friends and my brother. I can’t say it was rough, but it was just different. I grew up differently than most kids.
“Yeah, they did anything they could, even my grandparents,” Corbett said of his family. “They helped out with equipment and sticks and rides. I can’t say enough thanks to my whole family for helping out.”
Corbett returns to Stillwater during the offseason to train with many of the players at the LumberYard training facility under Stillwater coach Matt Doman, whose team also did some celebrating this winter with the program’s first-ever trip to the state tournament.
“Oh yeah. I follow the team on twitter and have a couple of good friends on the team,” Corbett said. “As soon as I saw them win that game, I went berserk. I had goose bumps. It was awesome seeing them win that game.”
Danford signs contract with the L.A. Kings affiliate in AHL
Another former Stillwater hockey player recently joined the professional ranks after Canisius College senior Ben Danford signed a contract with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League on March 26.
Danford, who appeared in a school-record 158 straight games in four seasons with the Golden Griffins, finished his career as one of the top defensemen in the program’s history. He holds school records for most assists in a season by a defenseman (24) and most assists by a defenseman in a career with 74. He has already appeared in two games for the Monarchs.
“Starting in the AHL is a tremendous opportunity for Ben to showcase his talent and ability,” Canisius head coach Dave Smith said. “It is also a great opportunity for Manchester to see not only what Ben is about as a player, but also as a person. It’s an exciting time to see our relationship develop as coach and teammates to now being a fan of Ben Danford the professional hockey player. Recruits arrive her on campus with the holes of playing professional hockey and Ben, through his tremendous work ethic, has now been able to accomplish that after a terrific career at Canisius.”
Danford was a three-year letterwinner for the Ponies — earning all-conference honors in 2007 — before spending three seasons in the NAHL and then joining the Golden Griffins.
“Honestly, I was just looking for a spot to play Division I hockey and was grateful to do that with a great program and at a great school like Canisius,” Danford said. “Coach Smith gave me a lot of opportunities that helped me grow and develop as a player and that’s all I can really ask for. Everything has been a win-win-for me during my time at Canisius. I wasn’t expecting any of this, but I plan to just keep working hard and giving it my best shot. My Canisius teammates, family and friends keep reaching out to me and it means a lot to have that kind of support.”
— Stuart Groskreutz
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com