By Doug Reese
FLORENCE, S.C. – Pee Dee Pride right winger Ben Knopp spent all last season in the American Hockey League changing his game.
He learned to play the body and keep the other team away from scoring chances.
He learned to dig in the corners and get the puck out of his end.
He all but abandoned the mentality of a top-line forward in favor of a checking role.
Then, when the NHL went into lockout and many borderline AHL players were forced out, he suddenly had to return to his old job – the one he’d been told he didn’t do well enough to advance.
Knopp returned to his ECHL home in Dayton, Ohio, where he’d spent most of his rookie season.
He was still in the system – the Bombers are an affiliate of Knopp’s draft team, the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets – but a step down from where he played in 2003-04.
The demotion from his contract team, the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, wasn’t the hardest part. Knopp was more worried the skills he’d set aside weren’t going to be easily rediscovered.
“I found (being sent down) frustrating personally, not because I’m playing in the ECHL, but because of the style of game I want to play when I’m down here,” Knopp said. “Last year, when I stayed in the American league, I wasn’t an offensive guy. I played on the third and fourth lines, and I checked a lot. I forechecked and dumped it in all the time and had to check against some of the other teams’ No. 1 and No. 2 lines. My job and my line’s job was just to stay even and bring a spark.
“But when I come down here, I put pressure on myself to be more offensive and score goals and do things that I did when I was in juniors and the reasons why Columbus drafted me.”
The Blue Jackets took Knopp with the fourth pick of the third round (69th overall) in the 2000 NHL entry draft – just after a 30/30 (goals/assists) rookie season of juniors with the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors.
The 6-1 and 190-pound Knopp spent the next three seasons, two more with Moose Jaw and one with the Kamloops Blazers, putting up solid numbers. He finished with 96 goals and 103 assists in 208 junior games – just shy of a point a game.
When he finally arrived in the pro ranks, Knopp spent most of his time in the ECHL – 53 of the 65 games in his rookie season.
The next season, he spent all 63 games with Syracuse. He posted seven goals and five assists as a third- and fourth-line forward, and grew accustomed to his duties and AHL life.
So it’s not so surprising the readjustment to the ECHL has been rocky.
“It’s tough, when you’re used to playing up there and making more money,” Pride coach Perry Florio said. “You’re one little break away from being in the NHL. It’s tough mentally. It’s an emotional roller coaster to know you’re that close one day and then you feel like you’re a million miles away the next.
“That’s probably the biggest thing that Ben’s faced. It’s not his physical ability. It’s the challenge of, ‘OK, I’m down in Dayton or I’m down in Pee Dee. What do I have to do to get back up there?’“
Knopp’s ECHL return started OK. Dayton got off to a 4-3 start this season, and Knopp got called back up to Syracuse in early November.
The Crunch returned its 22-year-old prospect, however, the day before Thanksgiving. Knopp tallied no points and four penalty minutes in five games. He returned to a Bombers squad in the midst of a plummet to the bottom of the North Division.
Things got no better in Dayton, another call-up never came and the offensive numbers Knopp had been hoping for didn’t come through – he tallied eight goals and 10 assists in 36 games. In early February, with the Bombers already out of Kelly Cup contention, Dayton coach Don MacAdam decided to make some changes.
One of the roster moves sent Knopp to a Pride team in even greater need of new blood.
Pee Dee, once a division contender but suddenly on the bubble for the Kelly Cup Playoffs, was coming off an eight-game road trip sporting a team record nine-game losing streak. Florio made three trades of his own Feb. 10 – the lone off-day between the trip and the team’s first home game in nearly three weeks.
Florio sent Jeff Szwez, a purely offensive-minded skill forward, to Dayton for Knopp, who was taking his first pro venture outside the Blue Jackets’ system. Despite the prospect of joining a new team midseason, he looked forward to the change.
“The team in Dayton – it was an amazing group of guys, and I had a lot of friends there – but it was my third year in the Columbus organization,” Knopp said. “A lot of those guys I’d played with for three years almost.
“But we weren’t winning, and they needed a spark. … I needed a change, too. I wasn’t playing to the best of my ability, and I wanted to be in a different situation – just a change of scenery to get that fire back.”
What Knopp got – following a plane ride the morning after his deal and the day of his first Pride game – was a thoroughly fresh start. He knew no one in the Pee Dee.
“This is probably the first time in my life I came to a new team where I knew nobody,” he said. “I hadn’t played against very many of these guys, and I never played with any of them. It was a completely new setting, new roommates, and a new team. And in a lot of ways that’s good.”
The revamped Pride with Knopp and fellow forwards Steve Cygan and Steve Hildenbrand produced immediately. Pee Dee ended the losing streak and earned its first point in three weeks with a 3-2 shootout loss to Greenville at home the day of Knopp’s, Cygan’s and Hildenbrand’s arrival. The next night at the Lions’ Den, Knopp scored the biggest goal of the Pride’s season – an easy tap-in into an empty net for a 1-0 overtime victory over the East Division-leading Charlotte Checkers.
The goal ended Pee Dee’s excruciating 10-game winless streak and, not surprisingly, tipped off a euphoric celebration on the ice and in the stands.
“That’s why we play the game right there – to be in those situations,” Knopp said of his first Pride goal. “Perry didn’t hold me back at all. He just put me right out there. Those are the situations I like to be in.”
The weight-lifting goal also provided a welcome icebreaker for a player in locker room full of strangers.
“It’s nice to do that, too, coming to a new place with new people and new teammates,” Knopp said.
“You don’t really know anybody, and it’s nice to do something good and feel like you’re helping the team right away.”
Knopp’s Pee Dee honeymoon, however, was short-lived.
He didn’t score again for seven games, and the Pride dropped four straight after two more home promising wins. Knopp did manage two assists during the scoring slump and, more importantly to Florio, continued to find the goal – if not the net.
“The thing about Ben is he’s been getting chances every night,” the coach said. “I think he had 35 shots in the seven games he went without a goal.”
Then, last weekend, Knopp and Pee Dee pulled out of a potential playoff-busting fall.
First, Knopp sparked another streak-ending postgame celebration with the shootout clincher in a 5-4 win Saturday night over the arch rival South Carolina Stingrays. Then, he ended the goal drought officially with an insurance marker, and an assist, in the Pride’s 6-1 rout of the Augusta Lynx on Sunday.
The win brought Pee Dee within seven points of the eighth and final American Conference playoff spot – another improvement for Knopp over the dismal three months in Dayton.
“At least we’re in a race here,” he said. “In Dayton you were basically counting the days till you’re done. Here we’re in a race, and every game counts. That’s where you really see how your team comes together. It’s up to everybody in there. I’m excited that at least we’re trying to get something done. And in our eyes we’re going to make the playoffs. That’s how we’re looking at it every day.”
Knopp realizes the Pride might need him to produce more on the score sheet if they’re going to continue winning.
But scoring isn’t the only skill he brings.
Florio said Knopp has consistently provided a solid all-around game – call it a fortunate side effect of his time in the AHL.
“The only way I was going to stay (in the AHL) is if I was doing other things – playing the PK and dumping the puck and being physical and being a guy you can rely on to check opposing forwards,” he said. “That part of my game developed a lot.
“I adjusted my game. The negative side to that is, when I came down here, I had to adjust again and go back to what I was doing. I took a year off thinking offensively, and then I had to go back to that. But I’m not giving any excuses, because those are things that I’m doing for myself, personally. I’m trying to work on those things all the time.”
Now, he’s just working in a better situation – on a team with a fighting chance at the playoffs.