SAN JOSE, Calif. -- On March 16, 2010, Casey Wellman chose the Minnesota Wild over two dozen other suitors.
The college free agent, a sniper at UMass, immediately catapulted to the top of the Wild's lonely prospect list.
That was two months before the Wild drafted Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker. That was a year before Jonas Brodin and Zack Phillips were drafted, a year before the Wild traded for Charlie Coyle.
So Wellman soon was the forgotten man. With the prospect pool deepening, Wellman had been all but written off ... until resurfacing recently with big goals in the two Wild victories to start December.
His confidence, after a tremendous start to his season with the minor league Houston Aeros, is soaring. And that's good timing, since the Brentwood, Calif., was back home Tuesday night. He grew up in the San Jose Junior Sharks system, and picked up an assist on his first game in the Shark Tank against his favorite team as a kid. The Wild won 2-1 as Wellman picked up his fourth point in four NHL games.
"I used to go on the ice during intermissions of Sharks games and play," said Wellman, 24, whose favorite Sharks player was former Wild teammate Owen Nolan. "Those were really fun. You'd score a goal, and when you hear your name on the intercom as a 7-year-old, that was awesome."
Even more awesome? Friends and family got a chance to see him play in person for the first time since he signed with the Wild.
Brad, a former major league infielder, and Jodi Wellman came to Minnesota the day after Casey signed in 2010, but he didn't play that first game and his parents had to return home after spending the previous 10 days in Massachusetts. Last year his parents flew to Houston but, as bad luck would have it, Wellman was injured and didn't play.
"I haven't seen my family in a long time," Wellman said before the game, "and my parents sacrificed a ton for me to get to this level."
He was away from California because of the Aeros' long drive to the Calder Cup Finals, a run that included several clutch goals from Wellman, who had a Game 7 breakaway with 1:21 left to beat Milwaukee. He returned to California for only a month before showing up in Minnesota in July because he decided that if he was going to invest himself into becoming a better player, he needed to spend the summer working out with Wild teammates.
Wellman didn't make the Wild out of training camp, but the hard work paid off. He was seventh in the American Hockey League with 11 goals when recalled Nov. 27.
"As much as you don't want to be down in Houston -- you want to be up here -- it was good for me last year to go down and play for (now Wild coach) Mike Yeo," Wellman said. "He really helped me develop my game with battles and being harder on the puck, and Torch (new Aeros coach John Torchetti) has continued that."
Like most collegians learning the pro game, it took Wellman awhile to learn that only cream-of-the-crop goal scorers such as Dany Heatley can routinely beat goalies with shots from the tops of the circles or off the rush. Most goals in the NHL come from near the blue paint, and that's where Wellman scored with the Aeros.
And where his only two NHL goals have come from.
"His quickness has been a big positive, and he's all over the puck and he's going to the net," Wild linemate Matt Cullen said. "He stops at the front, too. A lot of guys peel off, but he's not afraid to get in the dirty areas."
Yeo worked hard last season with Wellman, stressing being better without the puck and being stronger carrying the puck, to eliminate turnovers. He is utilizing his speed better, both when he has the puck and when he needs to support his linemates.
But a fast start doesn't make an NHL career.
"Most players have to hone their craft in the minors, so it's still a process for him," Aeros General Manager Jim Mill said. "You don't have two or three good games and score a couple goals and just 'make it.' It's fluid, just like when he was reassigned this year -- he wasn't earmarked as an American Leaguer either."
So, Wellman is not officially a full-time NHLer. He's a day-to-day NHLer, and one of those days was when the born-and-bred Californian returned to his home rink.
Wellman is one of four active California-born players in the NHL, and one of 27 in league history. Maybe he can be a trailblazer for young Sharks fans, showing a former San Jose Junior Shark can play in the big show.
"I love California," Wellman said. "I'm proud I'm from here and playing hockey. Hockey is definitely getting bigger and bigger, and hopefully people here are excited for me."