By Don Stewart
Berks County, PA – Leaning on his stick after Wednesday morning’s practice, an upbeat Eric Werner pondered his pro hockey fortunes.
Those fortunes seemed to have turned against the 24-year-old defenseman, who was sent down to Reading Feb. 28 after spending the entire season with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs.
To some players, getting demotions to the ECHL can be worse than getting ditched by a girlfriend, especially when they feel their NHL dreams are within reach. Royals such as Doug Christiansen and Ned Lukacevic admitted suffering from AHL hangovers after being sent down to Reading this season.
Werner had every excuse to be lose motivation after the Monarchs reassigned him to the Royals. But in three games last weekend, the tough Michigan native played with the same fire he showed as Reading’s top-scoring defenseman during the 2005-06 season.
He had a pair of assists and was plus-1 in helping the Royals take two of those three games.
“A lot of it is attitude,” Werner said. “That’s a real big part of it. The way I’ve been dealing with it is, things happen for a reason. Wherever you go, to me, as long as I’m playing hockey, I’m playing hockey. It doesn’t matter where I am, what league I’m in. As long as I’m on the ice, I’m gonna give my all.
“You just have to have a good positive attitude. You’re gonna get your chance. A good attitude is the main key, though.”
The next day, Werner proved that inspired play, and some luck, is the best way to earn a trip back to the AHL the Monarchs recalled him Thursday after losing D-men T.J. Kemp and Joey Mormina to injuries in the same game.
Such is life in minor league hockey.
“He’s another one of those guys like ‘Romer’ (Reagan Rome) that doesn’t really belong in the league; he should be in the American League,” Royals assistant coach Jeff Flanagan said Wednesday. “He comes here and our power play is totally different. He’s so patient.
“We like to have him here. Of course we’d like to see him move up. But when he’s here, he’s huge for us.”
Don’t be shocked if he’s back by playoff time. Werner didn’t make Manchester’s clear-day roster, which means he can only play there in case of emergencies such as call-ups and injuries.
So if Kemp or Mormina recovers soon, “Werns” could be directing the Royals’ power play once again. He’s the type of offensive-minded defenseman Reading has been looking for all season.
Kemp was supposed to be that guy, but Manchester called him up during training camp and never returned him. The Royals traded for Tyler Kindle in January, but Kindle asked for his release a couple weeks later so he could retire with the UHL’s Kalamazoo Wings.
Meanwhile, a Werner return to Reading seemed as likely as another season of “The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show.”
The 5-foot-10 University of Michigan product had 10 points in his first 14 games of the year for the Monarchs, who have led their division all season. He wound up with 24 points in 51 games and gradually became a regular scratch.
When the Los Angeles Kings sent 10-year NHL vet Oleg Tverdovsky to Manchester on Feb. 24, it bumped Werner out the Monarchs’ postseason plans.
“I started the season off being productive,” Werner said. “That’s what pro hockey is. You’ve got guys coming down from the Los Angeles organization. Guys under contract there need to play.
“I thought the season was going well, but stuff happens. L.A. is trying to rebuild right now and make some changes, and things happen for a reason.”
Though Werner wouldn’t say it, the Tverdovsky factor probably softened the blow of being sent down.
“Some guys are good at it, some guys are not,” Flanagan said of being demoted. “With ‘Werns,’ how he justified it was Oleg Tverdovsky was sent to Manchester and that kind of bumped him out. You can look at it and say, ‘Here’s a 10-year NHL pro, I can understand why I’m being sent down.’ It doesn’t completely justify it, but it makes it a little easier.
“He’s not upset. He knows he can play at the American League level. I think he knows that next year he’ll get that chance full-time.”
Or maybe it’ll still happen this year as the result of a little karma earned by a positive attitude in the face of a negative situation.
“Just because you’re sent down to the ECHL doesn’t mean your life is over,” Flanagan said. “It’s a good place to develop and move your way back up. (Former Royals) Shay Stephenson and Rich Peverley played in the NHL this year. It’s not the end of the world by any means.
“I think ‘Werns’ knows that, too.”