Justin Kirkland’s dream of a professional hockey career is a big step closer to reality.
The Kelowna Rockets’ forward has signed a three-year entry level contract with the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
“Obviously, it’s a special time for me and my family,” Kirkland said of the signing on Monday.
“It’s a big relief, too. It’s something that I’ve been playing for all along, so to get it done is really a great feeling.”
The 19-year-old forward from Camrose, Alta., was chosen by the Predators in the third round, 62nd overall, in the 2014 entry draft.
With a deadline of June 1 to be either signed by Nashville or become a free agent, Kirkland said there was a definite urgency in his game this season.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound winger responded with a solid regular season, scoring 31 goals and 67 points in 69 games.
He then ramped up his game another notch in the post-season, leading Kelowna with 11 goals in 18 games.
“I thought I kept getting better throughout the year,” Kirkland said. “It was coming down to the wire and I was getting antsy to find out whether or not I was going to be a part of their organization. Now that I’m signed I need to go out and prove that I belong.”
Kirkland credited the Rockets’ coaching staff for his steady improvement throughout the season, enabling him to take the next step in his career.
The signing increases the likelihood that the 6-foot-3, 185-pound winger won’t be back with the Rockets next season. Playing with the Predators is Kirkland’s ultimate goal, while second choice would be playing with Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.
“I’ll be going in with the mindset of sticking around, making it hard for them to send me anywhere else,” he said. “Obviously it wouldn’t be a bad thing to come back and play in Kelowna, I’ve developed a lot here and have enjoyed every minute of it.
“But I want to pursue my dream of playing pro and I feel like I’m ready.”
Kirkland, who will attend the Predators’ development camp in June, also thanked his family, friends, coaches and teammates for helping him move closer to a childhood dream.
“There have been so many people who have helped me along the way,” Kirkland said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”