TAMPA — After living in a hotel for the past month, Lightning rookie forward James Wright would love a home-cooked meal.
But the 19-year-old would settle for a home with Tampa Bay.
After all, most believed the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native would be returned to his junior team, the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. Wright came to Tampa for rookie camp in September as a fourth-round pick in 2008 who packed enough clothes for a week and already had booked a flight home for several days later.
That flight has been put on hold as Wright impressed so much with his scrappy and smart play, he earned a contract that gives the Lightning nine games to determine whether to keep him or send him to the Giants.
And after five, it sounds as if Wright — pointless but with an even plus-minus while winning 60 percent of his faceoffs in 12:50 of average ice time — will be sticking around.
"Unless there's a huge dropoff in the next couple weeks," coach Rick Tocchet said. "But I don't see it. He just does everything right. He goes in front of the net and does all the little things we need."
While he awaits his fate, Wright is sleeping in a downtown hotel, eating meals along Channelside and receiving care packages of socks and such from his aunt.
And he has been living a dream on the ice, logging serious minutes on the penalty kill and a third line Tocchet said has been the team's most consistent unit.
"I've just been kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing," said Wright, who is playing with Jeff Halpern and Drew Miller. "It's really going by fast. I'm just trying to take everything in as fast as I can."
Wright's parents, Lorne and Lynne, originally booked flights for the Giants' first few games but changed their itinerary to watch their son play his first three home games.
"Every little boy dreams of this," Lynne Wright said. "So it's still like, 'Pinch me.' "
Though Wright put up the best numbers of his junior career (21 goals, 26 assists, plus-26 in 71 games) for the Giants in 2008, his fourth season with them, coach Don Hay didn't believe he was NHL-ready — yet.
"It's unexpected," Hay said.
"We thought he'd be in our lineup this year."
Hay raves about Wright, from his work ethic to his attention to detail and defensive awareness to his versatility.
You can add ambition to the list. Wright said he entered camp with the mind-set that "you're trying to make the team no matter if they have a spot for you."
"I think I surprised myself a little bit but probably not as much as everyone else is surprised," Wright said. "If you're not expected to make it, you just play your best and tell yourself, 'There is a chance.' "
Wright said the jump to the NHL was aided by his experience in team scrimmages and preseason games, Halpern, a veteran center, often giving him tips before, after and during games.
Halpern has been impressed too, noting how if Wright makes a mistake, he won't make it twice.
"He's proving that he cannot just play in this league, but contribute," he said.
Said wing Alex Tanguay: "I don't think he's going to be one of those top scorers in the NHL, but he's certainly going to be one of those guys that every team wants to have on his side. He's reliable defensively. He knows his role. He works extremely hard. Anybody feels extremely confident having him on the ice."
Wright does off-the-ice things well, too. He plays golf and started to teach himself the guitar this summer by watching YouTube videos. He said he can play the intro to Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses and Wonderwall by Oasis.
"I'm starting slow," he said.
Wright has had little time to practice. His day job, after all, keeps him plenty busy. He's scheduled to get his first NHL paycheck Thursday but said he won't be rushing to buy a flashy car. The teenager who has been living out of a suitcase has more practical purchases in mind.
"Probably some more clothes," he said, smiling. "We'll see."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]