By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – There were local players Steven Later looked up as a kid back in his native Winnipeg. Nowadays, as a pro defenseman, he points to Chris Pronger as a blue-liner he admires.
“But it’s pretty hard to be that guy,” Later admits, referring to the Anaheim Ducks veteran.
Never one to model himself after someone else, Later is having a good time with the Reading Royals just being himself. Since being acquired Jan. 12, the unique 23-year-old has quickly become a fan favorite in Reading.
In 21 games for Reading, Later has 11 points and 70 penalty minutes and has skated to a plus-8. He’s displayed plenty of passion for his new club, playing through injuries, celebrating wildly after goals and being quick to stick up for teammates.
“The guys are awesome,” Later said. “It’s an easy team of guys to get along with. Everybody knows their role. (Head coach Karl Taylor) keeps it pretty simple. He tells you what to do, and if you don’t do it you’re not gonna play. So it’s an easy team to play with.”
The Royals are 15-6-3 since Later joined the team. At 6-4, 200 pounds, the shaggy-haired defenseman has mostly been asked to focus on his D-zone responsibilities.
Later has the potential to chip in offensively, though. He’s also added some grit to the lineup (four fighting majors) while becoming a key facet of the power play and the penalty kill, both of which have improved during the second half of the season.
“We’ve tried to keep him focused on playing good defense and less worried about creating offense,” Taylor said. “I think that’s taken a weight off his shoulders, and he’s enjoyed it.
“He loves to play hockey. You can see it on the ice. He competes, he enjoys it. He’s a guy that has fun with it, but he’s pretty serious about his performance. Since he’s been here, he’s been outstanding.”
Taylor sent forward Tom Boudreau, a call-up from the MAHL, to Bakersfield for Later two months ago. No offense to Boudreau, but it might be one of the biggest steals since Boston got Cam Neely for Barry Pederson.
Later never meshed with Bakersfield Condors coach Marty Raymond, who reportedly had enough when Later skipped a gym session Jan. 9, the day after a 4-0 loss to Phoenix.
“I got no hard feelings about Bakersfield,” Later said. “We saw things differently, and that’s how it goes. It’s a business. They were trying to make their team the best they could, and that’s all right. I’m fitting in well here, it seems like the coach likes me, so I’m really happy.”
Despite what happened in Bakersfield, Later’s potential was too great to ignore. During his final season at the junior level, Later racked up 63 points and 220 penalty minutes in 70 games to help Wheaton reach the WHL finals.
Later began his pro career the following season (2005-06) with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, but wound up in the ECHL with Pensacola after 11 games. He spent last winter with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, where he had 17 points in 43 games and was suspended by the league on four occasions.
Sometimes all a player needs is a change of atmosphere.
“It’s not like I’m a genius for making the trade,” Taylor said. “I took a chance and it worked out because I had nothing invested, basically, in him. I told him that the first day. I said: ‘Look, I have nothing invested in you, I can cut you right now and it’s not going to make any difference to me. You’re going to determine how long you stay here.’ So far so good.
“He plays hard. He’s a pretty complete player. His skating is just OK, but he has good hands and lots of skill. He’s a very confident player at this level. He’s a very good player. He could turn out to be the guy that you try to add for the playoff run. We were fortunate to get him.”
Chemistry has been a key piece of the puzzle for the Royals this season, and Taylor has risked disrupting that cohesion whenever he’s brought in a player. Later seemed to fit in quickly, though, almost as if he’d been with the team for months.
Last Wednesday against Elmira, he was one of the Royals that stood up for goalie Terry Denike during a skirmish after time expired. Later was part of a line fight Feb. 2 between Reading and Elmira. A week later, he could be seen talking smack to Jackals agitator Chaz Johnson as the officials tried to get both teams off the ice following a 7-1 Reading win.
“He’s funny,” Royals defenseman Rob LaLonde said. “We call him ‘Big Dawg’ on the team. He’s the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet off the ice. But he’s got a little bit of a mean streak in him (on the ice). He brings toughness out there.
“Guys like that always fit in, guys who are willing to sacrifice for the team and at the same time be able to joke around in the dressing room.”
At home in that dressing room, Later seems to have finally found the right place to be himself.