By Dave Werstine
Long Beach Press-Telegram
LONG BEACH, Calif. – When Malcolm Cameron took charge of the Ice Dogs last summer, he had a distinct course he wanted to travel, one in which he foresaw young, hungry players carrying the franchise back into prosperity.
As part of the plan, he set out to grab some of the best rookie talent he could lay his hands on to build a solid foundation, hopefully for years to come.
With just over a week left in the regular season and the Ice Dogs’ first postseason appearance in three years firmly in their own hands, it appears that Cameron did a remarkable job recruiting, putting together arguably the best rookie class in the ECHL.
Rookies Marco Rosa, Nathan Martz, Steeve Villeneuve, Cory Urquhart, David Walker and Michael Lambert have played key roles maybe more so than their veteran counterparts in making the Ice Dogs a success once again.
“When I took the job, I didn’t want to have a one-year success story,” said Cameron as he readied the Ice Dogs for their final regular-season home games tonight against West Division-leading Alaska and Saturday against Victoria. “For our team, it was important to have good rookies. I wanted to get a good core of young guys to build the program around. I can’t think of any other team that has six guys this good. We were very fortunate to get them.
“The ECHL is a developmental league, not a destination league. I believe in that and I believe in playing my rookies. I couldn’t be any more pleased with them. I’m very proud. They are the lifeblood of our team.”
It always takes rookies some time to adapt from college and/or junior hockey to the daily grind of the pro game.
The ECHL has a 72-game schedule plus playoffs, which is more than double what college players like Rosa, Martz and Walker played last year and just short of what Villeneuve, Urquhart and Lambert played last year in juniors.
The pro game is certainly more physically and mentally demanding, which can really take a toll on a rookie.
Just not these rookies.
“It’s a tough grind,” said Walker, who played just 28 games last season at Dalhousie University in Canada. “It’s tough, but then you get a second-wind at about 40-50 games, then you feel great again.”
“Playing three (games) in three (nights) or five in six is hard, especially when you only play twice a week in college,” said Martz, who starred at the University of New Hampshire. “Your body is hurting. Your mind is hurting. But you fight through it.”
And with rookies, there is a built-in defensive mechanism of “I’m a rookie’ or “That’s just a rookie mistake’ to help them avoid criticism and get through the season.
But again, just not these rookies.
“They don’t make excuses,” Cameron said. “All the credit goes to them.”
Rosa, a slippery 6-foot-1 forward and absolute magician with the puck, is perhaps the most notable of the Ice Dogs’ rookies. He was an All-Star and is among those vying for ECHL Rookie of the Year honors.
He is fourth in the league’s rookie scoring race with 30 goals and 28 assists, and is third in the entire league with a plus-minus rating of plus-30.
“Marco is a guy who I thought would come in here and be a special player,” Cameron said. “He’s been dynamite since the first game, and he’s gotten better with every game. He plays on the power play, penalty kill, 4-on-4 and on important faceoffs. He’s a very special player, one who I am extremely proud of.”
What he has accomplished in his first year of pro hockey despite coming out of a sub-par college program at Merrimack College is just now beginning to set in on Rosa.
“You really don’t know what to expect in your first year,” he said. “But I prepared over the summer and it’s good to be having such a successful season.”
Martz, a 6-2 forward, was also a prized acquisition, especially after coming off an NCAA Frozen Four appearance in which he was named to the all-tournament team. That meant tons to Cameron.
“He came out of a good NCAA program and was maybe overshadowed some,” Cameron said. “But to me, it’s what you do in big games that count, and he was all-tournament in the Frozen Four.
“He’s been exactly what I expected a gifted passer, playmaker, an unselfish player. He has good hands. If he shot more, he’d score more and he makes tremendous passes for a first-year player.”
Where Martz, who has 16 goals and 32 assists to put him in the top 15 in the rookie scoring race, has really excelled is in plus-minus, where he LEADS the league with a plus-33. That’s practically unheard of, a rookie that responsible on the ice.
“To have a guy like him, a rookie, playing in the last minute of a game and trying to protect a lead says a lot for the respect I have for him,” Cameron said.
Villeneuve, a 6-0 defenseman who split time last season between Halifax and Cape-Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has been a rock on the blue line.
Paired with Ice Dogs captain Dan Watson all season, he has played more than 25 minutes per game a lot for a rookie and has been put out against opponents’ top scoring lines and players, such as NHL All-Star Scott Gomez of Alaska. Much of what Villeneuve, who has four goals, 15 assists and a plus-4, has accomplished has come with very little fanfare, which probably suits the quiet, hard-hitting defenseman just fine.
“He is a heart-and-soul guy,” Cameron said. “He is what I call a warrior. He’s not happy unless he is hitting somebody, and when he is scored on, he takes it personally. One word he doesn’t know is quit. He makes me want to play him, and sometimes I can’t play him enough.”
“It’s always fun to get a lot of ice time,” said Villeneuve in his hearty French-Canadian accent. “I’ve learned lots from Dan and that has made my job easier.”
Walker has been a huge surprise and found his niche as a very versatile player, moving from defense to forward on Cameron’s whim and excelling in either position.
“He’s quickly adjusted from the college game. To be able to do that in the same game, you’ve got to be a mentally strong guy,” Cameron said. “He’s been better than all the other rookies in terms of being mentally sound.”
Walker, who has four goals and 14 assists and is a plus-13, also plays on the power play and penalty kill, and he’s also been there as the team’s enforcer despite his average 6-0, 200-pound stature.
“He goes 100 mph 100 percent of the time,” Cameron said. “He’s passionate and has great work ethic. He’s not huge, but he’ll fight anyone. You can’t measure a man’s heart on a scouting chart, but if you could, his would be the size of the Long Beach Arena.”
Urquhart, like Lambert, was not signed by Cameron, but came to Long Beach via the Ice Dogs’ affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens and their AHL affiliate in Hamilton. Despite that, the duo, which spent the three previous seasons playing together in the QMJHL, has been just as important to the Ice Dogs’ success.
Urquhart, a second-round pick of the Canadiens in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, has spent most of the season in Long Beach, where he has posted 15 goals and 13 assists. Just 20 years old, the 6-3 forward has tremendous upside as a game breaker, and that will show more and more as he and his game mature.
“There’s been a bit of an adjustment period for Cory,” Cameron said. “But you’ve got to remember that he is only 20 years of age. His game is immature and inconsistent. Once he finds that level of consistency, he’s going to be a heckuva pro.”
Urquhart, under a bit of pressure being a high draft pick, sees that and understands that his best years are ahead.
“I put pressure on myself to do well,” he said. “I didn’t expect a lot the first season. I’d like to do better. I’m doing OK, but I am never satisfied.”
Lambert, a fourth-round pick of Montreal in the 2002 draft, spent much of the season with Hamilton and has played just 13 games with the Ice Dogs. But he has been a welcomed addition down the stretch, with four goals and two assists.
Just a couple weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Lambert and his game are very mature for his age.
“I think he has a tremendous future,” Cameron said. “For his age, he is very polished and his game looks more mature than 20, say that of a 6-7-year pro.”
That maturity showed when he was sent down to Long Beach. Instead of moping about the move like some players might, he embraced it.
“It’s better to play here and win some games than be (in Hamilton) and play on the fourth line and sit in the stands,” he said. “It’s better for me here.”
When it comes to recruiting for next season’s team, Cameron, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, will certainly be hard-pressed to equal this year’s rookie class.
“The bar has been raised,” Cameron said.
Yeah, these kids are all right.