BY: Bruce Berlet
Hockey often makes for strange bedfellows, coincidences and ironies.
Growing up in Toronto, one of Owens’ favorite players was center Kris Newbury, who spent six seasons with the NHL Maple Leafs and AHL Marlies before being signed as a free agent by the Detroit Red Wings on July 7, 2009. Less than eight months later, on March 3, 2010, the Rangers traded Owens to the Red Wings for – you guessed it – Kris Newbury.
“It’s weird because I used to watch the Leafs, and he was one of my favorite Leafs,” said a smiling Owens, who participated in the first scrimmage and round of workouts for all the early would-be Whale players Sunday at the Champions Skating Center. “When I got traded for him, it was kind of cool and weird at the same time. I don’t know him, but I hear he’s a great guy. I like the way he plays a lot, so I’m looking forward to meeting him and hopefully playing with him.”
At the time of the trade, the then Hartford Wolf Pack were looking for some veteran leadership and grit up front and gave up a hustling, hard-working young wing who was a fan favorite for playing bigger than his 6-foot, 180-pound frame, often rattling the plexi-glass when he finished a check. Newbury provided immediate dividends, getting four goals and 14 assists in 18 games, though the Wolf Pack missed the playoffs for the only time in the franchise’s 14-year history. He continued his production last season when he led the Wolf Pack/Whale in assists (44) and points (61) in 69 games and earned kudos from Rangers coach John Tortorella while getting one assist and showing plenty of spunk in 11 games during several call-ups to Broadway.
Newbury survived the first round of Rangers cuts Saturday and will be making the trip to Europe on Monday night after a game in Philadelphia in hopes of landing a full-time job in the Big Apple. Owens, meanwhile, is trying to revive a career after not being qualified by the Red Wings and becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Owens was an offensive threat in his final two years of juniors with Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League, capped by 32 goals and 42 assists in 60 games in 2006-07 before getting one goal and two assists in five playoff games with the Wolf Pack. But in two seasons in Hartford, Owens was mainly in a checking/penalty killing role, notching 25 goals and 45 assists in 160 games before being traded. He then had one goal and four assists in 17 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins at the end of the 2006-07 season and added six goals and 14 assists in 60 games last season before missing the last 20 games because of a broken arm sustained in early March.
“Until I left and maybe 10 games after that, every game was like a playoff game, and I was upset because I missed all the fun,” Owens said. “There was a little bit of talk with other teams throughout the season but obviously nothing concrete. I was literally just trying to go anywhere. I just wanted to play, and I think breaking my arm in March scared away a lot of people. But I’m not worried about that any more. I’m here now just focusing, and I have got to show them that it’s not an issue.”
The broken arm scared teams away so much that Owens didn’t have a place to try to earn a job, even in Europe, until his agent got a call Monday from Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld.
“It was a pretty stressful summer just worrying and stressing where I was going to play this season,” said Owens, whose two-year, entry-level contract that he signed with the Rangers had run out. “My agent was talking with Schoeny throughout the summer, but I’m not sure what happened and don’t really want to know. There’s no better place than (Hartford). This is where I started by (pro) career, and I’m in the exact same position as coming out of juniors, trying to earn a contract.”
Yes, Owens is in the exact same position as he was before June 12, 2007, when he was signed with the Rangers as an undrafted free agent.
“I was looking for a job (before Monday), and I still am,” Owens said. “I was away for a little bit, but I’m back for the time being as a tryout. I don’t know if there are any spots, but the only thing at this point of my career is that you can’t really worry about that stuff. You just have to worry about playing to the best of my ability.”
But it helps that you know your surroundings and are more mature as far as understanding the game and how to be a pro.
“I’ve grown up a lot and am a lot more mentally strong than I was when I was younger,” said Owens, who has kept in contact with some former Wolf Pack teammates, including linemate Mike Ouellette, now in his third season in Austria. “And being familiar with the rink and the city helps, but as I look around the room, there aren’t many guys here from when I was here, so it’s pretty much a whole new team. I’m just looking forward to some scrimmages and exhibition games to show them that I want to be here.”
A familiarity with Hartford, the Whale and XL Center helps Owens’ bid for a steady paycheck, but it certainly is no guarantee of ending his unemployment, especially in these bad economic times.
“We have to see how everything plays out as far as personnel that we still have to get from New York just to see where Jordan fits into the grand scheme of things here,” said Whale coach Ken Gernander, who always admired the tenacity of a player who resembled himself in his playing days. “But I do have a past history with Jordan. He was a hard-working, real stand-up character guy, so I don’t think those things change over an offseason. We’ll just see how things play out here.”
Sunday, Owens skated on a line with tryout Dan Lawson and center Kelsey Tessier, the only returning forward among 14 in camp to play in the scrimmage (right wing Chad Kolarik is out with an undisclosed injury). The trio didn’t get on the scoresheet but were the most physical line on the ice.
“I felt a little rusty since I hadn’t played competitively since March,” said Owens, who worked out in the summer with several NHL players and members of the Niagara junior team in the Ontario Hockey League. “I just tried to keep it simple and thought I did OK after being off for so long.”
Owens’ last game in Hartford was about 10 days before Jordan Owens Bobblehead Night. But the headline attraction wasn’t present because he had been traded shortly before the special night, much like Nigel Dawes a few years earlier. But Owens was represented.
“My grandparents came down for that game from Toronto,” Owens said. “And I have family in Springfield, so they came to a bunch of games last season. They’re more excited than anyone that I came back here.”
Now Jordan would like to give them something to cheer about.
HERE IS THE COMPLETE OWENS INTERVIEW
GERNANDER SATISFIED WITH FIRST DAY
Gernander said opening day was “all right” and “there wasn’t anything that really stood out one way or the other in the scrimmage.” But he was happy with the work ethic, even being short a few players up front and the ice getting a bit choppy in the late going. Plus, there wasn’t much physical play because the scrimmage was on the larger Olympic-size rink while the Whale usually practices on the smaller rink.
“I thought they worked hard through the (post-scrimmage) practice,” Gernander said. “When they leave here today, they’ll know that they put in a good day’s work and they’re probably justified in a good meal and a good night’s rest.”
Especially when the second day of scrimmages and practice open to the public commences at 9 a.m. Monday.
The Green team beat the Blue 3-2 as Tommy Grant converted a perfect centering pass from the right corner by defenseman Collin Bowman and Jason Wilson and Max Campbell scored off rebounds. Tryout right wing Scott Tanski converted veteran defenseman Wade Redden’s rebound to get the Blue even at 1, and speedy center Jonathan Audy-Marchessault capped the scoring with the day’s most artistic goal as he broke down left wing, raced around Tomas Kundratek and beat Jason Missiaen to the glove side. The Blue pulled goalie Jerry Kuhn for a sixth attacker with 55 seconds left but couldn’t get the equalizer.
Kolarik and defenseman Pavel Valentenko, who injured his groin but continued to play in the Rangers’ 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night, were the only players unable to play in the scrimmage. Gernander said both are day-to-day.
Valentenko said he was a bit disappointed to be among the Rangers’ first 21 cuts Saturday after being among the final four a year ago, but he was more upset with what he did Friday night.
“I hurt my groin and didn’t tell the coaches because I don’t want to quit the game,” Valentenko said. “But it was my mistake. I couldn’t really skate. I should have told them, but I wanted to play.”
Before the injury that Valentenko said will keep him out about a week, he felt training camp was “good” – with a kicker.
“I was expecting a little bit more from myself,” Valentenko said. “I was too nervous this year. It’s the last year of my contract, and it’s all in my head. I keep saying, ‘I have to make it. I have to make it.’ Last year was good, and this year I thought I was going to make it. But I didn’t. The nerves started after I got here (from Russia). I didn’t tell anybody.”
It was quite different from his first season in Hartford, when the personable, hard-hitting, hard-shooting Valentenkto had five goals and 12 assists and was plus-21, matching traded fellow countryman Evgeny Grachev for the team lead.
“It obviously was not bad,” Valentenko said of his first 84 games in Hartford. “I found my game after two bad years in Russia. I came back in shape. Some games were not good, but most of the games were good for me. I feel much better in North America because I love the style of hockey here. It’s faster, quicker and more hitting. I love it.”
Those thoughts squashed rumors circulating in the New York media that Valentenko was going to return to Russia rather than Hartford after being reassigned Saturday. Valentenko said he had been contacted “by a couple teams” in the Kontinental Hockey League, where he played with Neftekimik Nizknekamsk for one full season (2006-07) before coming to North America to play with the Hamilton Bulldogs, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in the fifth round in 2006.
But after returning to Russia to deal with family issues, Valentenko played two injury-plagued seasons with Moscow Dynamo before being traded to the Rangers on June 30, 2009 with current Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, former Yale center Chris Higgins and former Springfield Pic defensemen Doug Janik for center Scott Gomez and former Wolf Pack players Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto. Now Valentenko says he has to improve his positioning in the defensive zone if he’s going to have a legitimate shot at the NHL.
But it’s the NHL, not KHL.
“I want to stay here,” said Valentenko, who turns 24 on Oct. 20. “I’m going to fight for the Rangers. I never quit.”
While players basically thrown together aren’t going to have strong chemistry and cohesion, Gernander and his staff are looking for determination and sound hockey plays in the scrimmages.
“A smart hockey player should be fairly competent with whoever he’s with, and you want to see those good reads on the ice,” Gernander said. “There might be a breakdown through no fault of his own, but how he reacts to it is important. Then you have to see that the guy has enough skill or can make plays at the AHL level. Fitness is pretty easy because you can see who’s fit and who’s not. And even though we talk about they may be potential teammates, you want to see guys finish checks and pay the price, all those little nuances.”
Gernander said he plans to mix the lines and defensive pairings to get a look and feel for different combinations. The only defensive pairing from last season was Wade Redden and Jared Nightingale, the Whale’s No. 1 duo at the end of the season. Holdovers Kundratek and Jyri Niemi were the Green’s top pairing.
“You want to see certain guys,” Gernander said. “You have some veteran guys who you’ve seen, so you pair somebody with them that they’re really not familiar with and see how they react to playing with strong players. We’re just going to constantly change guys around so we get looks at several different people in several different roles. There’s going to be all kinds of balls in play, and it’s going to be a little bit of a mix.”
The Whale’s first of four preseason games is Tuesday at 7 p.m. against the Albany Devils at the Koeppel Community Sports Center on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford. The game benefits the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Fund, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes longtime Wolf Pack fan Ryan Gordon, who died in 2006 from cancer and asked that the money set aside for his college education be donated to three charities, including the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.
The Whale also will play at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the Falcons and then host the Worcester Sharks at the TD Bank Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden on Friday at 7 p.m. ($5 admission benefits Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford) and on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Champions Skating Center ($5 admission benefits Junior Wolf Pack youth hockey). The entire AHL preseason schedule is available at www.theahl.com.
LET’S GET TO WORK, BOYS
Goalies Cam Talbot and Chad Johnson both resembled Mariano Rivera in the Rangers’ first two preseason games. But rookie Scott Stajcer will get to join the Rangers on their four-game road trip to Europe, starting with a trans-Atlantic flight after the third preseason game Monday afternoon in Philadelphia.
Say what, you ask? Some quickly questioned the move, but it’s certainly logical. And it keeps with Rangers management saying Stajcer will return to the Ontario Hockey League as an over-aged junior after missing most of last season because of hip surgery in November and fellow rookie Jason Missiaen, the third goalie in Whale camp who got a taste of pro life practicing with the team at the end of last season, being ticketed for Greenville in the ECHL for seasoning.
It’s all contingent upon no injuries, but the game plan is sound. Talbot stopped 23 shots in relief of Henrik Lundqvist on Wednesday night before defenseman’s Steve Eminger turnover to New Jersey Devils’ All-Star wing Zach Parise led to Petr Sykora’s goal at 45 seconds of overtime that beat the Rangers 2-1. Two nights later, Johnson went one better as he stopped all 10 shots he faced in relief of Martin Biron and picked up the win when the Rangers beat the Devils 4-3 on defenseman Brendan Bell’s goal with 3:04 left.
But the Rangers kept Stajcer to back up Lundqvist and Biron in Europe, sending Talbot and Johnson to the Whale so they could get re-acclimated to Hartford as quickly as possible. Instead of having an extended training camp where they wouldn’t get as much ice time, they immediately could work on being the go-to guy for the Whale.
“The thinking was, ‘Get here. This is where you’re going to start (the season), and here’s your opportunity,’ ” Gernander said. “We don’t want it to be disjointed where you’re coming from Europe and joining the team late with jet lag and all those things. If this is where they’re going to start, you want to get things off on the right foot. Get your head wrapped around it and show everybody here that you’re going to be ‘the guy.’ That’s the way to start a season.”
“I would have liked to have one more game (with the Rangers), but I understand what they are doing,” Johnson said. “Early on, I talked to Bennie (Rangers goaltenders coach Benoit Allaire), and he said this is what they were probably going to do. It would be nice to go to Europe, but it makes sense to have Cam and I here and getting plenty of work every day and playing games instead of getting maybe half a game in Europe.”
Gernander said he and the rest of the Rangers hierarchy are expecting more from Johnson, who struggled much of last season before being called up Feb. 28 after Biron sustained a broken collarbone when hit by a shot in practice. After a solid rookie season, Johnson was 16-19-0 with a 2.72 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and two shutouts in 40 games before his recall and then played only 20 minutes in two months while caddying for Lundqvist.
“I don’t think last season was satisfactory as far as his self-evaluation,” Gernander said. “We’re going to have a little bit higher expectations of him moving forward as far as this being his third (pro) year and having some opportunity working in the NHL. He didn’t have a lot of NHL minutes or game experience, but he had the opportunity to work with the NHL club, and if he wants to push for a job there, he’s going to have to prove himself here.”
Johnson admitted his focus and preparation for games wasn’t what it should have been and said he worked diligently in the summer trying to improve that aspect of his game. Now he and Talbot (11-9-2, 2.84 GAA, .902 save percentage, two shutouts in 22 games in an injury-plagued 2010-11 season) can battle to see who hopefully becomes the Whale’s Justin Verlander.
Johnson and Talbot were equal Sunday as neither allowed a goal. Johnson and the rest of the players wore practice jerseys with no number, but when Johnson appears in the preseason, he will be wearing No. 30 instead of 29. He wore No. 30 through his adolescent years but went to No. 29 when he arrived in Hartford because the departed Matt Zaba already had 30. And some guy named Lundqvist had it in New York.
“I was a big Ed Belfour fan growing up, so that’s why I wore 30,” Johnson said. “I asked (head equipment man) Russ (Holdredge) about changing to 30 last year, but it was too late in the season, so I stuck with 29.”
Johnson then paused, smiled and added, “I offered Henrik $1,000 for 30 in New York, but it wasn’t enough.”
But after reconsidering the change over the summer, Johnson decided it was time to go back to his favorite digit.
WELL SAID, LARRY
Great line by longtime New York Post columnist/Rangers beat writer Larry Brooks at the end of his column Sunday – This just in: Bud Selig has fined Brandon Prust and Michael Sauer for wearing NYPD hats on the ice following Rangers practice on Thursday. Joe Torre says no disrespect intended.
Brooks was referring to Torre handing out fines to Mets players for wearing caps with NYPD and FDNY on them to honor first responders in a moving pregame ceremony nationally televised before their game against the Chicago Cubs on ESPN on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. The players also wanted to wear the caps during the game, as they on Sept. 18, 2001, their first game after the 9/11 attacks, but the commissioner’s office ruled that there were caps with American flags on them that ALL teams were supposed to wear. Plus, they were selling those caps on online with part of the proceeds going to various 9/11 charities. One report said the Mets were threatened with a large fine if they wore the caps during the game. Selig was angered that the issue was made public. Life never used to be so greedy and politically correct.