SPOTLIGHT: CAM ATKINSON

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Cam Atkinson could be the Tim Tebow of hockey.

Virtually all Atkinson has ever heard about are his shortcomings (pardon the pun) rather than the big things that he has to offer, like speed, soft hands and a good shot.

But like the much-maligned Denver Broncos quarterback, Atkinson has been a winner everywhere he has gone, from three New England Prep School Championships at Avon Old Farms — where doctors said he would never play again because of a severe leg injury in his freshman year — to a NCAA Division I title in his second of three seasons at Boston College.

Then against the longest of odds, Atkinson made the Columbus Blue Jackets’ opening-night roster in training camp. When the Blue Jackets got off to the worst start in franchise history, Atkinson and several other top young prospects were assigned to the Springfield Falcons.

But Atkinson had more than proven his point, and is now trying to improve his efficiency and consistency while playing within several slap shots of his earlier major triumphs.

“It’s been a very exciting few months,” Atkinson said, before a faceoff with the Connecticut Whale on Friday night that ended in a 3-2 loss when Andreas Thuresson scored his second goal of the game with only 21.6 seconds left. “My goal right off the bat was to make the main team, and I was fortunate enough to do so. I took it one day at a time and just focused on what I needed to do each day. I didn’t look to the future, just stayed in the present and worked my [hardest].

“They showed some interest in me and gave me a shot, but obviously we kind of struggled. Now I’m in Springfield, and it’s nice to be just kind of getting settled in and being with all the guys.”

Atkinson started on the Blue Jackets’ second line with R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette, which was a great opportunity for the 22-year-old from Greenwich. But the Blue Jackets lost their first eight games (0-7-0-1), so general manager Scott Howson told Atkinson that the team didn’t want him around during such difficult times.

“I understood,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson was replaced on the Blue Jackets’ roster by veteran Alexandre Giroux, a former Hartford Wolf Pack wing and 2009 AHL MVP with the Hershey Bears when they won their first of two consecutive Calder Cup titles. Ironically, when Giroux returned to the Falcons on Nov. 5, he was put on the top line with Atkinson and former AHL All-Star Martin St. Pierre, who was injured in a 5-1 loss at Adirondack on Friday night and missed losses to the Whale and Albany on Saturday and Sunday. But St. Pierre is expected to return this weekend, when the Falcons visit Worcester on Friday night before hosting the Whale on Saturday night and Portland on Sunday.

“It has been fun playing with two totally different players,” Atkinson said. “Giroux is obviously a goal-scorer and shooter, and Marty is a passer. I try to do a little bit of both, but obviously I like to score goals, so it’s fun playing with those guys.”

It’s actually fun for the 5-foot-9, 173-pound Atkinson to be playing with anyone at any level, after constantly hearing he was too small, even at the Mite level for 7- and 8-year-olds.

“I’ve been fighting for my position since I first started playing,” he said. “It doesn’t come easy for me, but I love the challenge. That’s what drives me and has motivated me to become the player that I am.”

When asked if he was tired of hearing about his lack of size, Atkinson said, “Not really. You can never hear that too much. I just use that as motivation and work even harder.”

Atkinson has been working on his skating since he was 2 years old and learning from his father, Tom, and playing with five brothers, two of which are older, including Tommy, who played with him at Boston College and is now a senior with the Eagles. His teammates included top New York Rangers prospect Chris Kreider, a left wing who opted to return to BC for his junior year rather than turn pro with the Ranger organization.

“Dad was from Vancouver, British Columbia, so hockey was bred into his family,” Atkinson said with a smile.

When Atkinson was seven years old, he began being tutored by a Russian figure-skating coach, as a power-skating instructor who taught him about using his inside and outside edges and his low center of gravity to remain upright in traffic and along the wall.

“It was great because it was one-on-one sessions, and when I was playing for my youth teams, he would come and work with them,” said Atkinson.

Atkinson also played tennis, lacrosse, golf and baseball and was recruited by several Division I schools to play lacrosse. Sean Backman, who is from Greenwich and plays for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, was a senior when Atkinson was considering Avon Old Farms, introduced him to the school and thought it would be a great place to attend. Atkinson was a big fan of the Rangers and still tries to go to as many games as he can at his favorite arena, Madison Square Garden. He said playing in the NHL was always one of his main goals, and he was “really turned on” to the idea in his freshman year at Avon Old Farms.

Playing for legendary coach John Gardner, who has won more than 600 games, proved to be a godsend for Atkinson, as he and the rest of the Winged Beavers won three of the school’s eight New England titles when he was a freshman, junior and senior.

“I saw how much it took to make it to the next level, and going to college and getting drafted was my goal at the time,” Atkinson said. “I was just fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.”

But Atkinson was hardly fortunate when he broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg a few weeks before tryouts entering his freshman year at Avon Old Farms. While playing in a tournament in Massachusetts, he went for a pass in the corner from his brother Tommy, got tangled up and fell. With the two major bones in his leg broken, his family doctor, a former trainer for the New York Jets, inserted a titanium rod with two pins screwed in.

Atkinson was in a hard cast for two months and a soft one for another month before he could begin physical therapy. He was sidelined for six months but returned in time to help the Winged Beavers win the New England title and garner some attention from USA Hockey.

“The doctor told me I would never play again, and I kind of used that as motivation,” Atkinson said. “I couldn’t even walk, but I tried to rehab twice a day just to try to get back as soon as I could and came back for the end of the season.”

The NHL still wasn’t even in the far reaches of Atkinson’s mind, but his determination to return sparked interest from the pros. He made the Team USA Under-18 team and played in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in Sweden with future teammates Jimmy Hayes and Tommy Cross. They lost in the finals to Canada, but Hayes told Atkinson that BC was interested in him. Atkinson, whose No. 1 choice was BC, brushed it off as a joke by a noted prankster, but Hayes proved correct.

The following day, the team flew home, and Atkinson got a call from highly successful BC coach Jerry York, who saw Atkinson first play during his sophomore year at Avon Old Farms. Atkinson and York walked around the BC campus for 15 minutes, and the youngster received a scholarship offer.

“I committed right on the spot because I knew I wanted to be an Eagle,” Atkinson said. “My brother Tommy also wanted to go there, but he wasn’t committed. But when I committed, it kind of helped him get a boost into the school, so we both were in the same grade even though he’s two years older.”

That also was when Falcons coach Rob Riley first saw Atkinson. Riley was a New England scout for the Blue Jackets and following the exploits of Avon Old Farms center Nick Bonino, a sixth-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 now playing with the Syracuse Crunch. Riley’s eyes also got wide while watching Atkinson, who was drafted in the sixth round by Columbus in 2008 after winning the three New England titles and before heading to Chestnut Hill in suburban Boston.

“He was a big-time, big-game scorer,” Riley said. “When the game was on the line, he’d tie a game late, he’d get the overtime goal, he’d win the New England championships. So he was a big-time player at an early age, and it carried over into Boston College. … He’s a very gifted offensive player, and he worked hard to become a very good two-way player in his college days. He’s small in stature but very powerful. His legs are very strong, he’s hard to knock off the puck, so his size is a little bit deceiving. He plays bigger than he looks, especially with a young face.”

Atkinson scored 30 and 31 goals his last two seasons at BC, the most in the country in that span for anyone any size. The 31 goals were tops in the nation, as he was a Hobey Baker Award finalist and finished his BC career with 68 goals and 56 assists in 117 games and was named to a Hockey East First-Team All-Star and Tournament MVP last season. The highlight of his BC career was getting two goals in the 2010 NCAA title game, a 5-0 victory over Wisconsin, led by Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who started his pro career last season with the Whale.

After BC was upset by Colorado College in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in April, Atkinson figured he had done all he could in college, so he signed a two-year, $1.45 million, entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets and joined the Falcons.

“I had a good sophomore year after winning a national championship and leading the country in goals, and the Blue Jackets were kind of pressuring me to sign,” Atkinson said. “But I thought one more year and try to mature, develop as a player and get stronger. It definitely benefitted me, and I accomplished everything that I could accomplish, so it was time to move on.”

Atkinson finished second in the Hobey Baker Award race to Miami of Ohio’s Andy Miele, who now plays for the Portland Pirates, but scored the winner in his pro debut against Bridgeport on April 1 (no fooling!!) and had three goals and two assists in five games.

“He came in and scored some big goals for us, so he got adjusted to the league a little bit,” Riley said. “He knew he could have some success, and we did too.”

Buoyed by some confidence and after working out in the summer to try to get stronger and quicker, Atkinson went to Blue Jackets camp as a long shot to stick with the parent club, but he defied the odds again and started the season in Columbus.

“Whether it was the scrimmages or practice, he impressed everybody with how he was performing,” Riley said. “Everyone figured Atkinson would just come in and play, but before you knew it, he was one of the best players in camp. He kind of wasn’t going to be denied when he went in there, and it was a pretty neat story for him to make that club with the odds really stacked against him as far as the numbers went.”

Atkinson scored his first NHL goal in his third game, a 3-2 loss to the Stanley Cup runner-up Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 13.  Atkinson played four games in Columbus before switching places with Giroux, who had signed a one-year, two-way deal with Columbus on July 3, foregoing thoughts of going to Europe for a second straight year.

After Atkinson was assigned to the Falcons on Oct. 13, they struggled for a few games, so he rejoined the Blue Jackets on Nov. 5. But when the NHL team’s problems continued, Atkinson was reassigned to the Falcons four days later. He has nine goals and six assists and is plus-5 in 17 games with the Falcons, who have had continued problems finishing off games largely because of losing five players to call-ups and injuries, including St. Pierre, their leading scorer with five goals and 16 assists in 18 games.

“Cam has bounced around a little bit, but hopefully he is settling in here and getting in his routine so he can play and develop like all good young players,” Riley said. “Here they can develop, play a lot of minutes, a lot of games and hopefully have a little bit of fun playing and get their games to the point where they are consistently good so that they can become NHL players. You don’t want young guys in the NHL getting four-five minutes and wash-up duty. If they’re there, you want to see them get (steady) minutes or they’re better off in this league.”

Atkinson was good against the Whale on Saturday night, scoring the game’s first goal on a 35-foot laser off a pass from Giroux that beat screened goalie Chad Johnson high to the glove side. The Falcons took a 2-0 lead when Nick Drazenovic backhanded home Atkinson’s rebound midway through the second period. But Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko’s laser from the left circle got the Whale to 2-1 about five minutes later, and Thuresson scored twice in the third period as the Whale notched its fourth come-from-behind, 3-2 victory in five games. They made it 5-for-6 Tuesday night, as Valentenko broke a 2-2 tie with another laser with 4:04 left, and Chris McKelvie scored his first goal of the season into an empty net with 1:16 to go, to support Johnson’s steady game in goal.

Giroux said Atkinson is “really fun to play with.” Little wonder. Atkinson has taken over the Falcons’ lead in goals and has collected at least a point in nine of his last 11 games (eight goals, four assists). He also has moved into eighth in the league in rookie scoring with 15 points, three behind the Whale’s Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who is fifth. Audy-Marchessault is tied for second among rookies in plus-minus (plus-7) behind Carl Hagelin (plus-12), who was called up to the New York Rangers last Thursday and has a point in each of his first three NHL games, all wins.

“Cam is a good skater and can score, so it’s fun to play with someone who has good offensive skills,” Giroux said. “He has a couple of things to learn because he’s young, but so far I really enjoy playing with him.”

Atkinson, meanwhile, continues to enjoy proving the naysayers wrong, much like his favorite diminutive hockey players Brian Gionta, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, and Tampa Bay Lightning standout wing Martin St. Louis, who also lives in Greenwich and whom Atkinson has worked out with three times a week the past four summers.

“I like to look at all the smaller players that have accomplished what they have accomplished and made it to the NHL and succeeded,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson hopes to join that group on a regular basis in the not too distant future.

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