Dennis Cholowski is driving westbound on I-96, talking about his parents.
Since early June, he has been living and training in suburban Detroit, far away from his home in Western Canada. He calls every day, and they visited recently, but they’re still the parents of a 20-year-old who is off in a distant place chasing his dream.
“They miss me, I miss them,” he starts. “But yeah, this is a big summer.”
It is, indeed, a big summer for the Red Wings’ top draft pick from 2016. At development camp in June, Red Wings director of player development Shawn Horcoff said he’d seen the defenseman progressing each year, and that he was looking forward to seeing him at training camp. That’s just weeks away now.
Cholowski is paying his own way to live here right now, as he gets ready to challenge for a roster spot. It’s not cheap. In addition to an extended-stay hotel, he pays $40 a day at Barwis Methods to train five days a week, plus $250 per week for a three-meal-per-day plan. That adds up, and it’s out of his own pocket. Nobody’s subsidizing this for him.
A few other prospects — including 2017 first-rounder Michael Rasmussen and 2016 second-rounder Givani Smith — are also living in Southeast Michigan while they train, so it’s not a situation unique to Cholowski. But it is a good framework to observe all the unseen things that go into preparing for an NHL training camp.
Since Detroit selected him at No. 20 overall, Cholowski has been the source of much interest and conversation among fans. Part of that, no doubt, is because he was included in a draft-day trade that ended up featuring another promising young defenseman — Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun — on the other side. That was out of Cholowski’s control, and therefore not worth his stress. He chuckles when asked if he’s heard comparison talk about the two of them.
The other part of fans’ interest, though, is more productive. Cholowski plays the position at which Detroit appears the most uncertain for the next few years. There are prospects, but no guarantees. He is one of the most intriguing among them.
Sooner or later, Cholowski will get a shot in the NHL to find out whether he’s part of the long-term answer in Detroit. He has come here this summer to try and make sure it is “sooner.”
Every day, he gets up around 6:15 to prepare for his morning workout from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Barwis gym in Plymouth. The workout is hard, so he can’t eat much, if anything, beforehand. It’s different every day, but generally includes cardio plus heavy lifting plus core, all mixed together while running a high heart rate. The first time he did it, he came home, fell into bed and slept for hours. By now, he sometimes has a skate afterward.
Right now, he is in his sporty white Honda, headed to his hotel after one such skate. He has already gotten his early workout in, and now he’s going back to his hotel for some lunch.
It’s not an especially flashy routine, but this is the way Cholowski has chosen to approach this summer: simple, but purposeful, with a larger vision in mind.
Dennis Cholowski has spent his summer doing off-ice work at Barwis Methods in Plymouth. (Allison Farrand/Special to The Athletic)
“When I first meet people, I guess I kind of come across as a little bit shy and a little bit quiet,” Cholowski says, a few minutes closer to home and lunch. “But once I get to know you I am pretty outgoing. I know some people meet me and they kind of think I’m a shy, quiet guy.”
He’s talking about his personality, but there’s a thread between that and what the Red Wings are looking to see from him on the ice, too.
They’ve told him they want him to be more confident and assertive. To be the guy who wants the puck, and leads or joins the rush. To close gaps sooner on defense. To end plays earlier and take the puck the other way.
To an outsider, it sounds a bit nebulous as far as creating an offseason checklist. How do you train your confidence? How do you show it?
Cholowski, though, seems to have an idea of what it will entail.
“It’s kind of just the attitude you have on the ice,” he says. “Trying to be in command, wanting the puck and having it on your stick and being the one to break the puck out.”
He finds the feedback encouraging.
It is interesting, though, that the player he is most likely competing against for the final defensive job in Detroit has more of a reputation for that style. Filip Hronek, who spent last year in Grand Rapids, has some swagger. He’s known to get involved with the offense. The Athletic’s Craig Custance once wrote that he plays with “a bit of piss and vinegar.”
Hronek also happens to be involved in that 2016 draft trade — Arizona previously owned the No. 53 pick that Detroit used to draft him — and, from the sounds of it, he and Cholowski have gotten to be friends.
They have not, though, talked much about their current standing, likely part of a battle to be the Red Wings’ seventh defenseman. Both should be there eventually, but one of them, it appears, could be fulfilling an NHL dream on opening night.
Part of the reason Cholowski started playing to begin with is his brother Frederick — now a classically trained pianist who attends the University of British Columbia. Frederick is a couple years older, so when he first decided to lace up the skates, little brother simply followed.
“I always joke that if I had picked, like, soccer or baseball or football or whatever else, that Dennis would be an All-Star in either one of those sports,” Frederick told The Athletic later over the phone. He describes Dennis as an extreme competitor, and “someone who will work his guts out.”
Cholowski was smaller when he was younger, so it didn’t fully register that he could truly have an NHL future until Central Scouting ranked him a “B”-level player for the first time. Then things got serious.
On his draft night, he had no idea the Red Wings would end up choosing him. He only remembers them talking to him once during the season, and it was brief. There were a few teams that had shown more interest, but, when pick 20 rolled around, his name was called. He had just been hoping to be in the first round.
Cholowski has grown a lot since his draft week. (Draft photo from Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images; portrait by Allison Farrand/Special to The Athletic)
Inside Cholowski’s hotel room in Livonia, the first thing that jumps out is his shoe collection. There are about 11 pairs laid out on the floor, his prized set being the neon Nike VaporMax 2.0s. He’s a shoe guy.
He is also, it turns out, a steak guy. He calls it his guilty pleasure, though when you’re working out as much as he is right now, there’s no real need for guilt. That’s what’s in the premade lunch he microwaves, before sitting down at his two-seat table to chow down. It’s only around 2 p.m., but he’s already nearly put in the equivalent of a full work day.
That’s what it’s going to take to get where he’s trying to go.
For Cholowski, the stakes of not making the Red Wings this year may not actually be too daunting. It’s a lower salary, of course, but playing in the American Hockey League would not hurt his development. If you were placing a bet, that would likely be the safer one. But Cholowski wouldn’t be a competitor if he weren’t trying to chase the big league club down regardless.
Perhaps by design, or maybe simply by nature, there don’t appear to be many distractions. Cholowski has a long-distance girlfriend, Brooke, back at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, where he played one year of college hockey two seasons ago. He has a PlayStation but talks about it like more of an afterthought. Golf seems to be the main social driver. It also probably helps that Cholowski doesn’t drink.
“I’ve never had a sip of alcohol in my life,” he says.
He’s only 20, so that is the lawful answer when he’s stateside. But he’s originally from Langley, British Columbia, where he’s already surpassed the legal drinking age. It isn’t simply a matter of legality.
“I just never did it,” he says. “I mean, my parents didn’t really drink when I was growing up and kind of just taught me not to drink and I just haven’t done it.”
In general, Frederick says his younger brother is inclined to go his own way — which has obviously led him far from home in recent years.
One such experience was his brief foray playing at St. Cloud State, where he had a somewhat forgettable season. He counts that as the biggest challenge he’s faced since being drafted.
“I didn’t have my best year,” he said. “If I could go back and re-play that year one more time … (I’d) just be more outgoing and more confident, just kind of play my game. I mean, I did, but obviously I would have liked to have played better. We didn’t make the NCAA Tournament either. I’d have liked to have done that, see what that was like.”
That, of course, is basically the same thing he’ll be looking to prove when he goes into training camp this time around.
In the time since the draft night, Cholowski feels different mostly in terms of size. He was a young, skinny kid when he was drafted and has seen his 6-foot-1 frame transform from a slight 176 pounds up to 195. He feels a lot stronger. The time training here has no doubt helped with that. He’s coming off a strong season in the WHL, providing some level of validation for his progress.
But he’s also had to grow up fast in other ways, too. Since being drafted, he’s played for two different WHL teams, gone to college for a year and now spent two summers training and living alone in Metro Detroit. It’s been a fairly nomadic stretch, even by hockey standards.
“You get used to it after a while,” he says, and he does seem well adjusted.
Now, he’s here, pushing not just for a roster spot, but for a greater degree of permanence.
Had he stayed in school, he’d have likely followed his father’s track and become a mechanical engineer. That shows up in his personality. He’s a sharp guy who thinks through questions. That disposition probably helps when spending all this time out on his own, with few others to hold him accountable.
By mid-afternoon, that means heading back to the gym for some proper stretching and a special recovery machine for his legs.
As he pulls out of the hotel parking lot and back toward Barwis, Cholowski considers his options for the rest of the day. Soon, he’ll have to pack for the NHL rookie orientation. But the main plan, after another day of the grind, is to relax.
There will be time to answer more questions at training camp. For now, he plans to keep it simple.
“Maybe I’ll have a steak tonight,” he considers, driving off toward the next item on the list.