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Rising tide in Raleigh

Three years ago Kai Kantola was projected to be taken in the 2006 National Hockey League Entry Draft. In doing so he would have been the first Raleigh, N.C. native to play in the NHL.

After going undrafted, Kantola signed to play for the University. Since then he has been making the most of his opportunities as a Falcon and even with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Last week, the upcoming senior participated in the Hurricanes prospect conditioning camp just 10 minutes from his parent’s home in Raleigh. The camp is normally reserved for the team’s draft picks and unsigned free agents. Kantola was one of only a few collegiate players invited.

‘I got the call earlier this summer and to be honest I was surprised,’ he said. ‘You got to be ready for anything.’

The physical forward had already been training intensively once the season was over in the spring.

At the prospect camp Kantola learned how to prepare for a professional player’s lifestyle.

‘It was a lot more than on ice stuff,’ he said. ‘They taught us how to eat, how to train and even deal with the media.’

Waking up at six in the morning for 12 hours of lectures, working out and skating was nothing new to the forward. Last summer Kantola, who is studying international business, had the chance to skate with several of the top Hurricane players for a few weeks.

NHL Hall-of-Famer Ron Francis, who as an assistant coach for Carolina deals with player development, has kept his eye on the hometown Kantola.

‘I just liked the energy level and the fight in his game,’ Francis recently said to the News and Observer, Raleigh’s newspaper. ‘He was battling, he kept working, he wasn’t afraid to go to the net. I’ve gotten to know him a little bit and talked to him last summer at our hockey school, so I talked to our General Manager, Jim Rutherford and told him I thought it would be good to bring him into the camp and give him that education process a lot of kids don’t get. Now we’ll see what he can do with it.’

Kantola said working with some of the team last summer helped build his confidence to better his game and take it to the next level. One of the areas Kantola said he worked on at the camp was his footwork and speed.

‘A lot of time I felt sore, but you just got to push through it,’ he said.

Kantola said he has been motivated to play professional hockey ever since he first laced up skates at age four. While his family does not have a significant history in the sport, Kantola credits his older brother Ari, for getting him into the game.

‘I have come this far and as a local guy, it would be great to make it with [the] Hurricanes program,’ he said.

Falcon teammate David Solway said as a hometown kid, Kantola and his family must be pretty excited.

‘Obviously the staff and management for Carolina are giving him a chance and it would be cool if he made it,’ he said.

Solway is from Wisconsin, a state perennially known for a hockey pedigree, unlike North Carolina. However, in recent years the hockey circuit is seeing talent come from all over the country.

‘Hockey is growing even in places like the Carolina’s that are traditionally not hockey hot bed’s,’ said University hockey player Kyle Page.

When Kantola’s family moved to Raleigh from Toronto in 1994, the state of North Carolina only had one ice rink.

In 1997 the Hartford Whalers relocated to Raleigh, becoming the Hurricanes and since then the sport has taken off. The Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup the same year Kantola was overlooked at the draft.

He said he chose to play for the University over all other offers because he felt the most comfortable considering all the circumstances.

Kantola has always looked on the bright side of not being drafted, especially after having the opportunity to partake in the Hurricanes camp.

‘Perhaps it was a blessing because since the draft, I have had the chance to mature both on and off the ice, developing as a player and a person,” he said.

Each season as a Falcon, Kantola has improved his production offensively. Page has witnessed Kantola’s work ethic over the years at the University and how he is doing everything to take the next step.

‘Kai came in a tall and lanky kid but has put a lot of muscle on, gotten more physical and quicker,’ he said.

Kantola said he was grateful for the opportunity to work on his strengths and weaknesses at the Hurricanes camp. He said he will apply the invaluable knowledge he learned to his final season at the University.

‘Kai is going to be counted on to produce for the team to succeed,’ Solway said. ‘He continues to improve and his experience at the camp should help.’

With a 6-foot-1, 190 pound frame, and an introduction into the professional game, Kantola will bring his physical game to the orange and brown this winter.

Page said Kantola will have a key role for the team this upcoming season.

‘With the experience Kai has gotten at the pro camp, he will be a big influence to the large incoming freshmen class,’ he said.

Kantola plans to graduate next spring and then hopes to sign a free agent contract to play professionally but until then he is taking it one day at a time.

Kantola File 2003-2004: Invited to play in Finland [both parents Finnish] for a U-16 tournament, played well then asked to play for a club team. 2004-2005: Played for the Fargo-Moorhead Jets in the North American Hockey League [NAHL] while a senior in high school. 2005-2006: Played for the USA Junior team in the Viking Cup, an international tournament held in Calgary, Alberta, while continuing to play for the Jets. 2006-2010: Played for the University

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