By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – For Derek Damon, everything matters.
No hockey practice can be wasted, no game is unimportant.
He doesn’t take days off. Heck, he doesn’t even take evenings off.
One night at Germain Arena last February when he was injured, Damon did as much as he could with his teammates before the game. Then, suit, tie and all, he ran upstairs to broadcast the game with radio announcer Kevin Reiter.
He bolted off the elevator, nearly crashing into fans as he went, so he wouldn’t miss a second of the broadcast.
He seemed a bit inconsiderate, preoccupied.
But really that’s not what it was. It’s just that when Derek Damon says he’s going to do something, by God he does it. Any way he can.
You can see it in his face. He’s one determined, focused guy.
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The kind of guy that if you could pick your star player’s personality, you’d probably select Damon’s.
His Florida Everblades teammates sometimes call their leading scorer D’Emotions.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve,” coach Gerry Fleming said. “He cares and he competes every day. I enjoy him as a player.”
Roommate and close friend Jarret Lukin knows Damon doesn’t hold anything back from his teammates. If someone is not playing hard or is making mistakes that hurt the team, more than likely Damon will say something — even from the bench.
“Sometimes there aren’t a lot of fans at some arenas out there, and we need that voice,” Lukin says. “We know it comes from the heart.”
It also comes from a guy who has been the heart of this year’s Blades team. Damon has 23 goals and 43 assists in 45 games this season, outpacing his point total of 48 in 56 games last year.
Thirty-five of his points are on the power play, where he anchors the ECHL’s 12th-best unit.
“He’s having an unreal season,” Fleming said. “As Derek’s going, our team’s going.”
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Of course not everyone appreciates Damon’s intensity right away. Even Lukin said it took time for him to warm up to Damon.
“And that’s pretty rare for me,” Lukin said, smiling. “I try to be a pretty welcoming person, but I just couldn’t figure it out.”
Midway through last season, Lukin moved into an apartment shared by Damon and former teammate David Brine.
“He just kind of looked at me … I couldn’t tell what he was thinking,” Lukin remembered of Damon’s focused expression.
Damon probably was thinking about hockey. The sport has been his life since he was a child in Maine, competing for ice time in an area where arenas are few.
Maine’s lack of homegrown hockey talent became evident in Damon’s senior year of high school. He was named the state’s best high school player after leading St. Dominic’s to the state championship after its first undefeated season in 26 years, but the University of Maine didn’t want to offer the hometown kid a scholarship.
Instead, he played two years in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, tallying an unbelievable 75 goals and 60 assists in 65 games for Exeter (N.H.) in his second year.
After that, the Black Bears told Damon he could come and walk on at Maine.
And then he earned a scholarship, helping the Black Bears to two Frozen Fours and one national championship game.
Damon was the Big Man On Campus again, but this BMOC was without a pro contract. He played three games with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters after his senior season, but they weren’t interested in signing him to a contract.
So in the fall of 2006, Damon made his way to Estero. He scored 20 goals and had 28 assists in 56 games, adding seven playoff points.
After a stellar training camp with the New York Islanders during the summer, Damon figured he too was done with the ECHL.
He waited for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers — the Islanders’ AHL affiliate — to offer him a contract. They waited until the final day of cuts. Then they told Damon, “No.”
For other players, that might have been it. Twenty-seven years old, college degree, plenty of Glory Days memories to reminisce about while working a job that doesn’t involve black eyes or skate sprints.
Instead, Damon got on the phone immediately to Fleming, who was sorry for Damon but ecstatic for the Blades. Fleming’s club badly needed scorers, so Damon was in Florida in just a few days.
Why did he decide to stick with it and come back to Florida this year?
“It’s that shot of playing in the NHL,” he said. “Even though I’m 27 years old, there’s still that sense of belief. … It’s just who I am. I’m very passionate about playing and winning.
“Things I’ve done with hockey in the past … like getting a Division I scholarship at age 20 … well, maybe it took me a little bit longer, but I made it.”
The decision seemed to pay off for Damon earlier this season, when he was called up to the Albany River Rats for 15 games and given an AHL contract.
He thought that meant he’d stick in Albany, but then, in his own words, Damon “didn’t play as well as I should have,” and was sent back to Florida. When Albany wanted to recall him in February, he couldn’t go because of a knee injury.
So Damon has stayed in Florida, doing the only thing he knows how to do: produce, game-in and game-out, as the team’s top center.
A clear example was March 14, when he blasted a shot past Columbia’s goalkeeper with three seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
“I kinda like to be that guy … to have the pressure on me … to get the big play or goal when we need it,” he said.
Good news for the Blades, a young team still finding its identity.
Damon “sure does have a lot of responsibility on him this year,” Fleming said.
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Nearly a year removed from an American Conference Finals Game 7 loss to the Dayton Bombers, this year’s Blades have a decidedly different look.
They’re more blue collar, more prone to fight, to score those gritty goals that you wouldn’t find anywhere on a highlight reel.
But maybe that’s not surprising given the guy who’s leading it all.
Fan favorite Ernie Hartlieb is probably “the face” of this year’s Blades, but when it comes to crunch time, the blue-collar, gritty, stick-with-it Damon is the heart.
It takes him a while to think up a reason he might stop playing pro hockey.
“I guess when nobody wants me anymore,” he said, shaking his head and frowning at the thought. That steely, focused look Lukin remembers comes into Damon’s eyes again.
He can’t really even bear to imagine what that would be like, to give it all up.
So he stands up, walks over to the wooden table, raps on it twice with his knuckles.
“Gotta knock on wood,” he says, with barely a hint of a smile and that focused look in his eyes. “I hope that never happens.”