By Sharie Epp
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah – Kiel McLeod wound up his junior hockey career on a high — a great senior year with the Kelowna Rockets, a Memorial Cup appearance, a second-round pick in the National Hockey League entry draft. Like thousands of other young stars, he thought a professional progression to the bigs was almost a given.
In the real world of pro hockey, it’s just not that simple. It’s about performing on demand, getting noticed by the right people at the right time, playing for coaches and GMs who will foster advancement, political influence, and just plain luck.
“I think when you’re young, you take things for granted a little bit,” the Salmon Kings captain said yesterday after the team’s off-day practice from their ECHL conference semifinal against the Utah Grizzlies. “When you’re young, I think you’re a little naive.”
McLeod has been terrific for the Salmon Kings, since he arrived at the beginning of last season. Despite moving down to the ECHL after going through three seasons and five teams in the American Hockey League, McLeod was just happy to leave some of the rat race behind and focus on playing hockey.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” McLeod said. “I came to Victoria and played the way I wanted to play.”
“I started playing with confidence.”
A natural leader, McLeod is one of those respected guys who’s always at the rink early. On the ice, he’s a six-foot-six inches and 235 pounds of intimidation for defencemen, adept at creating offensive opportunities.
He stayed in Victoria over the last off-season to work more intensely with athletic therapist Dave Zarn, rather than dwell on the disappointments of his AHL career.
“It was a little bit of a tough pill to swallow, but it’s hockey,” McLeod said. “You realize that every night you’ve just got to try to be your best, whether you’re 23, 24, or now 25 [in Victoria]. That’s what I want to work at.”
McLeod was focused on getting the Salmon Kings the West Division title in February, when “out of the blue,” he got a call from the Albany River Rats of the AHL. A friend, a now-retired former agent, had been talking to Rats coach Tom Rowe, and the next thing McLeod knew he was off to Albany.
“Everyone in the organization was very supportive. They said, ‘No way can you pass something like this up,'” McLeod said. “I got a chance to play a lot of minutes. It was great.”
McLeod amassed 13 points, and was a plus-7 on the ice during 20 regular season games with the River Rats, a Carolina Hurricanes affiliate. In the Calder Cup playoffs, which ended for Albany on Tuesday when they lost Game 7 of their East Division semifinal series to the Philadelphia Phantoms, he added two goals and an assist.
“The coaching staff was great. I learned so much about positional play — little tricks of the trade,” McLeod said.
McLeod had a “good” meeting with Rowe, before he left, and an article in the Albany Times Union yesterday predicted he would be one of the “handful of restricted free agents whom the organization likely will try to keep.”
The River Rats will make decisions after their June meetings. In the meantime, McLeod didn’t hesitate to hop on and plane and join the Salmon Kings in Utah.
“They’ve been so good to me, I felt I’d do whatever I could to help them succeed.”
In the third game of the best-of-seven series against Utah on Thursday, McLeod had two goals and an assist.
The Salmon Kings were up 5-1 before they floundered, and gave away six straight goals in a 7-5 loss to the Grizzlies, who now lead the series 2-1.