By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
Copyright © The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – After Tuesday night’s 5-2 victory over the Alaska Aces, Condors coach Marty Raymond said he feared the secret was out.
What Condors fans had noticed from his first game with the team is now league-wide knowledge: rookie left winger Connor James is an impact player.
The ECHL named James Rookie of the Month for October as he netted a shorthand goal and three assists to help the Condors to a 3-0 start. James started the month of November even more impressive, getting two goals and adding an assist in the win over the Aces.
And if it weren’t for the National Hockey League lockout, it is unlikely that James would even be skating for the Condors.
A ninth-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2002 draft, the 5- 11 and 185-pound James was assigned to the Condors via the Kings through their American Hockey League affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, just before the ECHL season started.
The Condors don’t have an affiliation agreement with the Kings (Reading, Pa., is owned by the Kings and is their primary ECHL affiliate) but with extra players to place due to the lockout, the Kings called on the Condors.
Condors coach Marty Raymond, who already had Kings goaltending prospect Yutaka Fukufuji in camp, was more than happy to leave a roster spot open for James.
“I think we’re lucky to have him,” Raymond said. “The trickle-down effect is that the American League is very powerful so we’re just happy to have him here. With Fukufuji here Connor was a normal fit for us.”
James, who capped four years at the University of Denver with a national championship in April, said he’s just happy to be playing professionally.
“They have a great team in Manchester and if you’re going to get cut it might as well be from a top team,” he said. “I didn’t know if they were going to send me to Reading or here. They sent me here and I have no complaints. I don’t mind playing in California, that’s for sure.”
James, 22, brings the energy of a Jack Russell Terrier to the ice and that alone makes him exciting to watch.
“Connor has super speed and he creates stuff,” Raymond said. “What I like about him, on nights where he isn’t as effective offensively he still works hard and has a great attitude. He personifies our hockey club.
“He never stops competing. He will make mistakes because he’s young. But with the ice time he’s getting he’s improving every day. That’s what the Kings wanted (lots of ice time for him.)”
In addition to regular shifts, James also is a key cog on the penalty kill as well as the power play.
“I love how there are only three lines (in the ECHL) so you get to play a lot,” James said. “I just wanted to come here and help the team win. We have a good team and I just hope I’m doing my part.”
James only played one year in juniors, for his hometown Calgary Royals, before heading to Denver on a scholarship.
“For me, being a smaller player, I wanted to cover my ground and make sure if something happened and I couldn’t play hockey any more I’d have something to fall back on,” James said of his decision to attend Denver. “Plus, my parents were big for me going to school and I’m happy I did.
“It was the best four years of my life. Not just the hockey but the lifestyle and everything that goes with college. I can’t complain.”
Certainly, it would be hard to complain when one has a hand in winning a national championship and walks off the graduation stage a couple of months later with a degree in finance marketing.
James said the championship was an unexpected bonus to the end of his collegiate career, which he thought had come to a crashing halt a few weeks earlier.
“Right before the playoffs, in our last (regular season) game I went into the boards hard and broke my fib right above my right ankle,” James said. “I thought that was going to be it.”
But the Pioneers kept advancing through the playoffs and James continued rehab with the trainers. When the Pioneers reached the Frozen Four it was time to test the ankle.
“The trainers made a big brace, attached it to my skate and it was strong enough and supported my ankle enough that I was able to play,” James said.
Denver beat Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals and James assisted on the lone goal in 1-0 victory over Maine two nights later.
“We scored a goal in the first period then held on,” James said. “We took two penalties in the final two minutes, were down 5-to-3 and they pulled their goaltender for a 6-on-3 advantage. We got lucky, got the puck out (of the zone) and time ran out.”
Four games into his pro career, James said he’s only focusing on the present, not what might be.
“I don’t want to set my sights (on getting a call up to the AHL) because then I think you’re cheating the team,” he said. “I’m here, I want to help this team win and right now that’s my No. 1 priority. If I get called up that’s great. It’s a good thing but that’s not my goal.
“This is a good team, we have a good bunch of guys and coming to the rink is fun right now.”