The 2016-17 season has been quite a campaign for Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Cam Atkinson. He has set a new career high in goals scored and has ranked among the NHL leaders in that category all season. He leads his team in points. He was selected an NHL All-Star and scored three goals. He has been featured in national media outlets, including Sports Illustrated.
But to the man himself, who has registered his fourth consecutive 20-goal season, this isn't a breakout year. It is proof positive that this is the kind of player he can be and that there is still more work to be done.
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"When you think about the success our team has had this year, we've always believed," Atkinson said. "Now for me, people are saying 'you're having a potential breakout year' and my reaction is 'really? I've always believed in myself to reach this level."
While the 27-year-old native of Riverside, Connecticut always believed, he had to convince a lot of people along the way. Listed at 5-foot-8, he was often dismissed because of his size. At age 15, he broke both his tibia and fibia and the doctors told Atkinson he'd never play hockey again. But a different doctor was able to surgically repair his leg and two months later, the right wing was skating again.
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In 2008, the year he was eligible for the NHL Draft, Atkinson watched as 156 players were selected before the Blue Jackets called his name in the sixth round. Atkinson is one of nine players from that draft with 100 or more NHL goals and the only one who was selected after the third round.
"You have to still use the motivation that you're still one of the smallest guys and people have doubts," Atkinson said. "Whether you think you've made it or not, you have to prove yourself every single game and every single day. For me, I feel like I belong but I don't think I've ever reached my full potential, and that's what motivates me and keeps me going. I just want to get better every day."
FEATURE: Atkinson playing above his height
Atkinson's potential has been unleashed under head coach John Tortorella, who has called the former NCAA All-American and 2011 Hobey Baker finalist from Boston College "our most consistent forward" and uses him in every possible situation on the ice.
"He is a really good player," Tortorella said. "He's played really well. I want him to stay consistent with all his preparation. Not that he hasn't, but it's something I'm always looking for with a guy like that so he can just continue to try to get better.
"He knows he has more. He knows some of the good things he's done this year and now it's the most important time of the year and he wants to be a big part of it."
The relationship between coach and player has been strengthened through their shared passions for dogs and the support of the men and women who serve in the armed forces. Both have family members in the military.
In 2015, Atkinson started the Force Network Fund with his uncle, Robert Robben, a former Army officer and volunteer firefighter, to raise funds that can be directed to charities that serve first responders and military members. The Fund actively monitors the needs of servicemen and women and selects the charities that can directly help.
Video: Cam Atkinson's charity made a donation to the USO
"I think giving back is the most important thing for anyone that's in the limelight," Atkinson said. "I feel like our voices may be heard a little bit more. For me, the most important thing is to give back to first responders and military personal because without them we wouldn't be able to play hockey or live our daily lives."
And it's not just philanthropy that occupies Atkinson's time away from the ice. Over the summer he became engaged to his fiancée, Natalie Malone. She was the first person he called when he was invited to the All-Star Game, and just like she has done for his previous accomplishments, she met him in Columbus with themed balloons and, for the All-Star nod, she made him a celebratory video.
"She will take full credit for (my performance) this season," Atkinson jokes before he turns reflective. "Maybe getting engaged gave me the opportunity to relax. My personal life is great. It couldn't be any better. I think that's huge. You want your personal life to be great so you can focus on playing hockey, and she allows me to focus on what I need to on a daily basis. She takes care of me. Everything is slowly but surely coming together."
Video: Cam on his first All-Star weekend experience
For Atkinson, the focus is laser-set on his team right now. The season is flying by for the Blue Jackets. They are working to get in good position for a Stanley Cup Playoffs run at a time when the games are getting harder, so enjoying personal accolades will come later.
"It's well-deserved as far as some of the notoriety he's getting right now," Tortorella said. "It's more important he knows there's more there and he's got to reach inside himself and get to even another level. And then what do you have? Man, he's played so well, let's see him keep on trying to get better."
If his past is any indication, there is a real good chance that the Blue Jackets, their fans and the NHL have yet to see the best of Cam Atkinson.