By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Twelve days after he was hired as the Florida Everblades new coach, Malcolm Cameron made a bold statement: “I’ve already made an agreement with someone I’m very excited about.”
For the next month, Blades fans wondered who the “big signing” would be. They had already heard about a couple of players from Texas coming to Florida with Cameron, the former coach of the Texas Wildcatters. The “big signing” had to be someone else — someone more exciting, right?
Then, on July 15, 2008, the Blades finally made an announcement.
From the press release: “Florida Everblades president and general manager Craig Brush, along with head coach Malcolm Cameron, announced today that the team has signed forward Kevin Baker to a contract for the 2008-09 season.”
There he was on the Blades’ Web site, wearing his Wildcatters uniform and a sort of half-smile, as if he were humoring the photographer.
Blades fans’ reactions were decidedly understated.
“Was this the ‘BIG’ signing they were talking about?” one fan posted on the Daily News’ Blades Blog. “Nothing against Baker, but it really was not a surprise or that BIG a signing.”
Nobody knew then how big Baker would be.
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Now, they do. How could they miss it? Baker finished the regular season leading the league with an astounding 57 goals and 45 assists in 70 games — setting the pace for the league’s first-place team all the way to the Brabham Cup, or regular-season championship.
The Blades’ playoff drive to the Kelly Cup starts Friday at 7:30, with a first-round game at Germain Arena against fourth-place Gwinnett, and you can bet the Gladiators have devoted plenty of practice time to one specific thing: stopping Kevin Baker.
Press release after press release during the season has shouted his name: ECHL Player of the Week, Player of the Month, Leading Scorer, First ECHL Player to Score 50 Goals Since 2000, New Record-Holder for Power-Play Goals in a Season. Capping it all off, on Thursday he was named the MVP of the league.
It’s pretty clear now that Baker was a “big signing.”
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Baker says the rush has never gone away when he puts that puck in the net. It’s almost like an addiction — that squeeze in his heart that makes him catch his breath, the excitement that rises up out of his stomach and makes him yell and shake his stick in the air.
“It’s awesome,” he says, shaking his head and smiling with the unadulterated joy of a pure goal-scorer. “I love it. I treat every goal the same way. … Every goal’s a game-winner or an overtime winner. Every time it’s the same thing.”
Said Cameron of Baker: “Some guys like to score goals. He needs to score goals.”
So Baker has scored, throughout his career. But despite netting 81 points in 68 games during his second year of major-junior hockey, Baker started to be branded as a guy who could score in juniors but just couldn’t skate at the NHL level.
But the negative comments of some scouts didn’t stop Cameron from recruiting Baker, and after two seasons of coaching the former ECHL All-Star in Texas, Baker was one of the first people that Cameron called after he was hired by the Blades. Baker said he didn’t hesitate when Cameron mentioned coming to Florida.
Some Blades fans saw Baker, along with Cameron, as a Texas interloper, though.
On Jan. 2, criticism of Baker took center stage before the Blades game against Charlotte at Germain Arena. A fan held up a sign that read: “Baker. Captain/All-Star? Last 2 games: Checkers 13/Blades 1. Baker +/-(-6). 8 SOG. Goals 0.”
Baker stayed quiet. He figured he’d let his play speak for itself and scored a power-play goal that night, and then added two more goals the next night: Nos. 25 and 26 of the season.
In response, a fan posted on the Daily News’ Blades Blog: “With enough practice Baker can fill in for the guy that wears blouses and chucks the shirts into the crowd between periods.”
When asked then about the criticism, Baker played it cool.
“I don’t let that stuff get to me,” he said.
But later, he admitted it had.
“To tell you the truth, I felt a lot of pressure coming down here, especially coming from Texas,” he said. “I just wanted to show what I could do and how much I wanted to be an Everblade. (The criticism) kind of hurt … It’s like, I’m on your team now.”
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Change may have been hard for Blades fans to take because not only did Baker become the club’s new captain and effective “face of the team,” but he also took that mantle from fan favorite and five-year Blades veteran Ernie Hartlieb.
Still, there’s one key reason why Baker is suited for the captain’s role on this year’s Blades team, and it’s not just about his numbers. Baker’s long relationship with Cameron gives him instant credibility that some players may not have with the sometimes intimidating coach.
For instance, with most players and even fellow coaches, Cameron is all business. All hockey, all the time. But with Baker, it’s different.
While Cameron has helped Baker to play with more emotion, Baker helps Cameron by letting the coach know where the players stand and when they need Cameron to take down the intensity a notch or two.
“I’m not afraid to tell (Cameron) if I think what he’s doing is wrong,” Baker said. “I’m kind of the voice of the players in that way. Sometimes the guys need a day off, and (Cameron) doesn’t think we do, and I’m able to go and talk to him about it.”
Baker’s teammates respect the veteran’s commitment to the team. Throughout the season, Baker has been loyal to them. He made it a policy to turn down AHL call-ups, something that’s unheard of in the ECHL.
“That’s a whole other level of leadership and commitment right there,” said teammate and fellow former Wildcatter Colin Nicholson.
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For now, this year’s “big signing” isn’t thinking about what might have been in the NHL, or even about what some Blades fans might think about him.
Instead, it’s all about his first-ever championship. Baker’s OHL Belleville Bulls lost in the Memorial Cup Finals in 2000, as did his Acadia team in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport finals.
That incredible rush he gets when he scores a goal? Well, Baker thinks the one thing that might feel better than that would be winning a first-ever Kelly Cup for the Blades this year.
“That would really be the ultimate for me,” he said. “That’d be awesome. This place would erupt.”
When Baker talks like that, it’s hard to believe this is his first season as a Blade — and harder still to think he wasn’t always considered a “big signing,” especially given the fact that he scored more than 20 percent of the Blades’ goals this season.
Maybe the right word to describe Baker’s signing would’ve been “huge.”