By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Mike James doesn’t mind when his Johnstown Chiefs teammates jokingly refer to him as “The Rat.”
They aren’t ripping on James or accusing him of being a tattle tale.
The nickname actually refers to the feisty second-year left wing’s uncanny ability to gnaw at an opponent’s emotions, agitating and angering a player to the point of no return.
“He knows he’s not a finesse player or a 50-goal scorer,” said Chiefs forward Steve Hildenbrand, who also played two seasons with James in the junior Ontario Hockey League. “He works hard on the little things, getting to the net or getting a shot.
“He’ll fight. He’s not a heavyweight. He sticks up for his teammates. He gets under people’s skin. It gets to the point that people just can’t take it any more and he ends up fighting.”
The 6-0 and 185-pound James might not be a heavyweight, but he still ranks fifth among ECHL rookies with 106 penalty minutes, a total that surprisingly leads the Chiefs as franchise penalty-minute record holder Jeff Sullivan remains on IR.
But James isn’t one dimensional.
His seven goals and 19 points rank among the Chiefs’ leaders, and he’s played a key role on the team’s top line throughout the season.
The intangible is James’ ability to stir up emotions on both benches, often drawing penalties or sparking his team with his actions.
“As soon as I came here I knew if I wanted to play in this league or the AHL, I’d have to play that way,” said James, who appeared in only 20 games last season because of injuries. “I’m not the most skilled guy but I work hard and I can get under guys’ skin, and I’ve put up pretty good points too.”
For example, James and Reading’s Reagan Rome fought with 25 seconds remaining in the second period of Sunday’s 4-1 Johnstown win at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. The two players have a history.
“I start getting under his skin every game we play,” James said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Royals defenseman. “He always asks me to fight. I was pretty tired at the end of a shift. He asked me to fight. I had never fought him before. He’s pretty tough. I dropped my gloves and we fought.”
So, what does James say to aggravate these guys?
Bakersfield coach Marty Raymond recently telephoned Chiefs coach Toby O’Brien and relayed a humorous story involving James and Condors veteran Guy Dupuis, a 15-year pro closing in on his 1,000th career game. Bakersfield visited Johnstown on Jan. 8.
“Marty Raymond told me that Guy Dupuis, who is one of the oldest guys in the league, every time he was on the ice, James was telling him, ‘Get off the ice, Wrinkles,'” O’Brien said. “Dupuis told Raymond that he’s seen a lot of things and heard a lot of things, but never that.
“James just gets under your skin. But what I like about him is he’s willing to back it up. A lot of times the agitator, when push comes to shove, bails. James doesn’t do that.”
Last season, he had a goal, four points and 73 penalty minutes during an injury-plagued debut. Because James only appeared in 20 games, the 22-year-old from Windsor, Ontario, still is considered a rookie.
“He’s turning himself into a good hockey player,” O’Brien said. “There aren’t many guys out there that do what he does and still have the ability to play on one of our top lines and on the power play with the skill James does.”