Drop a few notes instead of a couple hockey gloves, and Manchester rookie power forward Kevin Westgarth goes from swinger to singer.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Westgarth is a man of many talents, some more obvious than others. Put him in a karaoke bar, strum a few chords of almost any song and step back.
Covering your ears is optional, though recommended.
“Billy Joel and Piano Man on the karaoke is my go-to,’’ he said. “That always brings the house down.’’
As often as there’s a song on Westgarth’s lips these days, there’s more frequently one in his heart. Free from the physical limitations of college hockey, he can now jam away on something he loves even more than music – hitting.
Westgarth is the road grader, smoothing out the ice for Manchester’s skilled guys. In 16 AHL games spanning the end of last season and the start of this one, he has 55 penalty minutes. In four seasons at Princeton, he never recorded more than 48 in a full year.
“I’m ecstatic to be able to (roughhouse) again. The college game was so frustrating for me,’’ said Westgarth, 23. “I’d take penalties, completely overhaul the way I played. I almost have to re-learn about hitting guys again. It’s been out of my bloodlines for so many years.’’
But in another sense, it’s never been too far away. Nothing about hockey ever is.
Westgarth majored in psychology at Princeton. His thesis was on visualization in sports. That’s just what it sounds like – closing your eyes and seeing something good before it happens.
Westgarth does that quite frequently, often as he’s relaxing and about to go to bed. He’ll envision the simple, but necessary, tasks of a grinder, like chipping the puck out off the boards or getting in quickly on the forecheck.
How about chirping an opposing agitator? Uh, not so much.
“Not many guys want to hear about Pavlovian conditioning,’’ Westgarth said.
As much as he thought he was prepared to envision anything positive, he was still caught off guard when a pro job with the Kings finally fell into his lap last year. Westgarth, who was never drafted, and his Princeton team had just lost a season-ending playoff series to Dartmouth. A couple days later, depression turned to sunshine when Los Angeles waved a two-way contract under his nose.
“That seemed a dream right up to the signing of the document,’’ Westgarth said. “It was so surreal at the time. The deal was done almost hours after we lost. It was like a low turning to a high.’’
Westgarth didn’t even have to see himself playing in the NHL to believe it could happen. He could just turn to his rather large role model.
Bruiser George Parros, too, played at Princeton. Then in Manchester. Then with the Kings. And finally, of course, on the Stanley Cup-winning Ducks last season.
Westgarth has met Parros a few times, and occasionally keeps in touch with him. More important than anything Parros could say to Westgarth, though, is the way Parros demonstrates how the game still has a spot for guys who can make things easier for their teammates.
The Monarchs’ depth of offensive talent makes them a target to begin with. Their status as defending Atlantic Division champs puts that bulls-eye under a magnifying glass.
“You can’t win without toughness. That’s such a key part of the sport,’’ Westgarth said. “The one thing that’s going to be big in Manchester this year is not showing fear. We’re a young team. A lot of teams might think they can come in and run us out of the barn. As a team, we’re not going to let that happen.”
Westgarth has been quick to show he isn’t blowing smoke. In a contest against Providence on Oct. 6, he tangled with the Bruins’ Steve MacIntyre after MacIntyre hassled Monarchs goalie Dan Cloutier. The next day, against Springfield, Westgarth showed another side of why he’s sticking around by banging in a rebound goal.
“He’s a guy who gets better almost daily,’’ said Manchester coach Mark Morris. “When he first got here (last season), he was a nervous wreck. He was tripping all over himself. We hope to see more progress as he gets more comfortable. If (Parros) got to the level he got, it’s reasonable to think Kevin will get his chance as his confidence grows.’’
Manchester rookie defenseman Drew Bagnall, Westgarth’s roommate and former opponent when Bagnall played at St. Lawrence, is impressed how Westgarth knows when to throw his weight around and when to low-key it.“Even though he’s big, it’s not like he feels as though he’s entitled to anything. He works on all facets of his game,’’ Bagnall said. “He wants to establish the offensive side of his game. He’s always there doing the extra stuff. He’s all about earning it.’’
Nothing is too messy for Westgarth. Both his parents were veterinarians in Amherstburg, Ontario. His mom treated smaller animals, like dogs and cats, while his dad took care of larger creatures, like horses. They sometimes let him watch surgical procedures.
“It definitely makes me not worry about getting cut, seeing blood,’’ Westgarth said. “Blood is not that big a deal.’’
There may be even more of it in Westgarth’s future when hockey is finished. He studied pre-med at Princeton, and would like to be a surgeon someday. He’s leaning toward the orthopedic field, in part because he suffered a bad broken arm in juniors and was impressed with the care he got.
“With internal medicine, you really don’t have as much an opportunity to help young people (as a doctor) and improve their lives in the same way,’’ he said.
That’s a wide spectrum to cross, from dishing out cuts, bumps and bruises to helping bones heal. You get the impression, though, that Westgarth will greet the all the transitional markers along the way with a common denominator.
“There’s not very much I wouldn’t try to enjoy,’’ he said. “I’m basically the nerd from Princeton who somehow finds himself in a position to play professional hockey.’’