By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
When Mike Nesdill was a youngster in this American southwest desert city, his baseball coaches would be incredulous when he told them he had to miss practice on the diamond because of a conflicting hockey practice.
After all, who grows up playing hockey down here?
Well, Nesdill for one.
The Victoria Salmon Kings defenceman returns to his hometown today as Victoria opens the 2008-09 ECHL regular season against the Phoenix RoadRunners at U.S. Airways Center.
“Not many people get to play their first pro game in their hometown and this is going to be really special and I’m so excited to see what I can do as a pro . . . this is like a dream and words can’t describe it because I never dreamed I would be playing pro games in my hometown,” said Nesdill.
Fresh out of NCAA Bowling Green, Nesdill will have numerous family and friends in the stands as well as the kids from the youth camps he coaches down here during the blazing summers.
The RoadRunners, of course, were very interested in Nesdill and went after him especially keenly when he finished his collegiate career at Bowling Green last spring. Yet the six-foot-two, two-way defenceman chose Victoria, which is an indication of the growing regard in which the defending West Division-champion Salmon Kings are held heading into the 2008-09 season.
“I sensed a better opportunity in Victoria with the support and coaching staff they have,” said Nesdill.
“It’s been a winning team [the past two seasons] and because of that, the organization has gained a good reputation. Plus, I’ve lived in Phoenix my whole life and wanted to experience something different.”
Nesdill has been doing that since he left his home city to play for the centralized U.S. Under-16 and Under-18 teams in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the likes of Ryan Kesler, Mark Stuart and Patrick Eaves. That led to the NCAA athletic scholarship to attend Bowling Green, where Nesdill played four seasons, including his freshman campaign with then Bowling Green senior and former Victoria Salsa junior goaltender Jordan Sigalet.
Nesdill became interested in the sport when his dad, Tom, began playing goal in recreational hockey with a group of transplanted Canadians in one of the few rinks in this burgeoning desert metropolis.
“It’s different in Phoenix than what Canadians are used to because football, baseball and basketball are so much bigger than hockey,” noted Nesdill, 24.
“But it’s not so uncommon anymore to see kids playing hockey as the sport has grown here.”
Just as Nesdill hopes to grow as a player.
“I’m like all the other players in the ECHL — I want to prove myself in the ECHL and get to the AHL,” he said.
And from there, who knows?
Developing players such as Nesdill is what the ECHL — which opens its 21st season on Friday — is about.
With seven players from last year’s Victoria squad playing this season in Europe, Nesdill will be asked to fill some of the skill sets that have left the team. Along with the likes of the mobile Canucks-contracted Patrick Coulombe, veteran Gary Gladue, Dylan Yeo and assistant captain Matt Kelly, Nesdill will be given an opportunity to quarterback the power play from the point.
“He [Nesdill] has such a quick release of the puck that his passes will help get things started on the power play,” envisions Salmon Kings head coach and GM Mark Morrison.
“That will be important because we have a different style of team than last season. This is more of a grit team that will battle hard.”
So Morrison will look for his mobility and puck movement this season where he can find it, which is why he was so attracted to Nesdill during the summer signing period.
“I like to do a little bit of everything — move the puck forward offensively while also taking care of business on the defensive side,” said Nesdill.
It’s the kind of blend for which every team strives but so few achieve.
“We have a good group of grinders who are mixed in with the talent and skill players,” said new assistant captain Tim Wedderburn, who comes to Victoria with ample AHL experience.
“We will be a tough team to play against.”
New Salmon Kings forward and former Florida Panthers draft pick Sean O’Connor agrees.
“We don’t have the scoring touch like they had in Victoria had last season,” said Oak Bay-native O’Connor, who returns tonight to U.S. Airways Center, where he led the RoadRunners in goals last season. “But we have three solid lines and a solid defence that is going to make it hard to get traction against us,”
Starting tonight in Phoenix against the Sharks-affiliate RoadRunners, the Salmon Kings play 14 of their first 20 games against squads in the West Division.