By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – After Thursday’s practice, P.J. Atherton was told by a teammate that he would have to give up his number 41.
Patrik Hersley, who wore the same number with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, had just been sent down. Because he’s a Los Angeles Kings prospect, Hersley was more important than Atherton.
Of course, it was all a prank.
Atherton has been a very important contributor for the Reading Royals thus far. The 25-year-old defenseman is third on the team with eight points, and he’s plus-3 despite facing the opposing team’s top line each night.
“It’s been great so far,” said the energetic Minnesota native. “Everybody’s been really welcoming. It’s been a lot of fun. The guys are great. So it’s been a real positive experience.”
For the Royals, it’s been nice not having to see Atherton in a Johnstown uniform.
As a rookie with the Chiefs last season, Atherton had two goals and four assists in nine games against Reading. One of those assists was on the game-winner in the Royals’ season-ending 6-3 loss to the Chiefs.
Reading coach Karl Taylor included Atherton on his annual opposing-ECHL-players-to-watch list that he must submit to Manchester. Apparently impressed, the Monarchs signed Atherton to a two-way AHL-ECHL contract this summer.
“P.J.’s a very serious individual,” Taylor said. “He’s very competitive about hockey. He’s a very good person off the ice. He leads by example in that department.
“On the ice, he’s been one of our offensive defensemen. He’s been jumping into the play and creating offense for us. He’s doing a good job of that. We needed that. There was a lot of pressure on him because we didn’t have a lot of guys who could do it.”
It’s a role Atherton enjoys. During his collegiate days at Minnesota, the 6-2 Atherton was asked to be more of a stay-at-home D-man. But as a pro, he’s been given the green light.
“The reins have come off me a little bit,” said Atherton, who had two goals Oct. 20 at Johnstown. “I love it. It’s a blast.”
He said he had a blast at Minnesota. Tough not to have fun when your team is winning national titles.
The Gophers went all the way in 2003, Atherton’s freshman season. They made the NCAA Tournament in each of the next three years, reaching the Frozen Four in 2005.
Atherton roomed with current Buffalo Sabres winger Thomas Vanek as a freshman. He was also teammates with NHL players such as Paul Martin, Keith Ballard and Ryan Potulny.
“It was a really good learning experience playing with guys of that caliber,” Atherton said. “I talk to them all the time. We all work out together in the summer out in Minnesota.”
Of course, Atherton would love to play with or against those guys again. All it takes is the right opportunity. At the moment, though, Manchester’s bevy of defensemen means Atherton really will have to work to move up this season.
Taylor said Atherton has the big things down, such as the speed of the game and reading the rush. But he wants to see Atherton be a little stronger on pucks and eliminate the occasional turnover.
“He knows how to play,” Taylor said. “He’s smart. At times he’ll just relax at the wrong moment and try to make an extra special play when a puck off the glass is a great play.
“So it’s learning to play in game-management situations instead of complicating things at times.”
Atherton agrees that he needs to fine-tune some areas. But having already skated in 16 AHL games, he said he feels he’d be ready to go if Manchester called him up tomorrow.
Not that he’s lost in focusing on the next level. Guys say they’re not looking ahead, but Atherton is clearly having fun as he puts up big numbers for the Royals, some of whom wrote Atherton’s name last week when the team voted on its captains.
So, apparently, Atherton doesn’t have to worry about losing his number.
“I really like our team,” Taylor said, “and P.J. fits in very well with the group that we have.”