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Opening the Door for Opportunity

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
What an incredible Cinderella story!

This unknown comes out of nowhere
to lead the pack.

-- Carl Spackler, groundskeeper, Bushwood C.C.

You’ll have a hard time finding a hockey player who can’t recite the script of the movie “Caddyshack” line for line. Last summer, Jay Beagle showed up at Kettler Capitals Iceplex as a virtual unknown. He came out of nowhere to earn a pro contract and he played the entire 2007-08 season at Hershey of the AHL, scoring 19 goals and totaling 37 points in the process. If he can make it to the next level – the NHL – it will complete what could be termed “an incredible Cinderella story.”

Beagle was one of 40-plus attendees at the Washington Capitals’ summer development camp last July. As is the norm, most of the 2007 summer camp roster was made up of Capitals’ draft choices and other signed players in the system. That was not the case with Beagle; he was at Kettler Capitals Iceplex as in invitee, a player with a handful of ECHL games to his credit who was brought in to augment the prospects and help give the Capitals enough players to ice two full squads.

To say that Beagle made the most of that opportunity would be an understatement.

The drafted prospects  -- especially those chosen in the first couple rounds -- attract a lot of eyeballs during these camps; from fans, the media and from the team’s braintrust. But Beagle managed to draw some attention to himself at last summer’s camp. Considering how closely the top prospects are being watched, a guy like Beagle really has to be good to open some eyes.

“That’s basically what has to happen,” says Caps GM George McPhee. “Somebody has to stand out, and then you have to put it all in the proper context. If someone stands out, how good are they really? Are they American League material? Are they more than that? Are they worth a tryout in the American League? You have to go through that sort of analysis because this isn’t the NHL level out here yet.”

“That’s just it,” says Bears bench boss Bob Woods, who coached Beagle through most of his first full pro season in 2007-08. “When they get opportunities like this, they have to do something extra special just to get noticed. Jay was just a guy right from the first day of camp who stood out to Bruce [Boudreau] and I when we came down last summer. He was just a guy who was always tenacious out there. He worked hard every time he stepped on the ice. And he had some offensive skill. That’s the way he started the year with us in Hershey.”

As for Beagle himself, he didn’t give it much thought at the time. He had an invitation to an NHL team’s summer camp. He didn’t think much about what he had achieved until later.

“I didn’t really think about it at the time,” Beagle admits. “I was coming in and I was just going to play as hard as I could and skate as hard as I could and just have some fun and see where it takes me. I didn’t really think about it at the time but looking back I thought, ‘Geez, that camp’s not really for me. It’s more for the guys who are coming up through the system.’ But I came in and tried to play my game and my style of hockey and open up some eyes.”

Beagle succeeded in doing that much. That in turn led to an invitation to rookie camp in September. Beagle showed enough at that camp to stick in Washington’s camp for a few days until Hershey’s camp opened last fall.

“Beagle was a player who stood here last year,” says McPhee. “For that reason, we told him we’d like to have him go to Hershey and start working out with our club there. He got to training camp there and did a nice job.”

Now, Beagle is heading into his second full pro season. The 22-year-old center is now signed to a Washington contract, and people who have seen him play a lot think he might have a chance to play in the NHL. Beagle sure didn’t get where he is in the conventional fashion.

A native of Calgary, Beagle spent two seasons skating for the hometown Calgary Royals of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, a Junior A, tier II circuit. While with the Royals, he gained the attention of some college recruiters from way up north.

“My first year of junior I played a pretty solid two-way game there,” recalls Beagle. [University of Alaska-]Anchorage was looking for a centerman that could play in the defensive zone and also put up a fair bit of numbers. They flew me up in early October. I went up there and saw the place and just loved it up there. It was beautiful. As I was walking out of the hotel I saw a moose walk right by me, like five feet from me the first day I was there. I was kind of blown away by it. Ever since then I fell in love with the place. I committed to them right away and didn’t really want to see anywhere else.”
Beagle spent two seasons at school. His numbers didn’t stand out; he had four goals and 10 points as a freshman and improved to 10 goals and 20 points as a sophomore. After his sophomore year, his career took another turn.

“I left,” states Beagle. “I was kind of struggling in school a little bit to juggle hockey with school and weight training. I felt that it was time to make that jump and get to where I am right now. I just felt that with school not going as good as I wanted it to and not being able to focus 100% on hockey, I felt like I should make the jump and try to focus 100% on it.”

Beagle signed on with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads late in the 2006-07 season, and was up to speed in the pro game right away. He tallied two goals and 10 points in just eight regular season games, then played 18 postseason contests as the Steelheads won a championship.

“I got lucky going there,” Beagle declares. “I got in with a great coach, Derek Laxdal there. We ended up winning the whole thing, the Kelly Cup. That gave me a lot of exposure to the Capitals. They had seen me play a couple times in college and once they knew that I was thinking of going pro they invited me to the camp. Winning the Kelly Cup was an unreal experience.”

It was during his time with Idaho that Caps player development scout Steve Richmond approached Beagle with the invitation to camp. Beagle took it from there.

“It’s a little bit surprising, yeah,” he admits of his ascent. “Obviously I had two more years [remaining] in college. Where I am at right now, if someone would have told me that a couple years ago, I would have said they were a liar. It’s been a little bit surprising but it has also driven me that much more to get that much better as a hockey player and to play in the NHL.”

With the NHL Entry Draft now shortened to seven rounds, there are usually a few more pro-worthy players floating around the free agent market that escaped the nets cast by teams in the draft. And players have always and will always develop at different rates. Plenty of non-drafted late bloomers have carved out long and solid NHL careers for themselves.

“These camps have gone from being simple development and conditioning camps for your own guys to camps where you also hope to maybe discover a young player who might have a chance to play,” says McPhee. “So throughout the year we look at the top juniors and college players who may not have been drafted but who have developed a little bit [since]. And if they haven’t been signed by [other NHL] clubs we invite them to camp and see how they do.

“They all work hard out here during this week, but Beagle has good size and it looked like he had good hockey sense. He had a good feel for the game. Those things are important, obviously. His skating needed some work and that’s something you can develop. You can’t develop the [hockey] sense, but you can develop the footwork.”

Beagle is a coachable kid, and the type of player a coach likes to have on his team. He is a battler who doesn’t shy away from physical contact, but he also has some offensive touch to his game.

“He came in here and nobody really knew too much about him except for the scouts,” says Woods. “He did a great job. He’s a guy who works hard, he’s a great kid to have in your locker room and just fun to be around. He’s just so happy to be here and get the opportunity. It’s kind of refreshing.

 “He’s a guy who’s got a year under his belt and he knows what the league is all about. He is going to go in there and be a better defensive player. I think he’s learned a lot in that aspect. Offensively he got off to a great start and fell off a bit after he got hurt there. I think he’s a guy who’s capable of scoring 20 goals and hopefully we can get that out of him.”

For his part, Beagle knows he can’t start coasting now on the basis of one decent season in the AHL. He has to keep his foot on the gas.

“The first season was unreal, having [Bruce] Boudreau right off the hop with us,” says Beagle. “He pushed me hard and made sure he got 100% out of me every practice and every game. I had never been in that good of shape. I was in the best shape of my life in Hershey there at the start. And when Woodsy stepped in it was the same thing. He just kept me rolling. I got a lot of confidence in them showing a lot of confidence in me. It was a great first season. I couldn’t have asked for a better first season.”

Soon he’ll get to work on that second season. This week, he’s at Kettler again for his second summer development camp. This year, he’s one of the 24 players either drafted or signed by the Caps. That makes Beagle a bit of a celebrity among this year’s invitee class, which numbers 18.

“A couple of guys have asked me about the run I’ve had to make it to where I am now,” Beagle says. “I’ve told them some of the stories. It definitely wasn’t an easy way to do it, but it was a way to get it done and it’s just one more step to making the NHL.”

Or, to return to the Carl Spackler analogy, one more step up the fairway at Augusta.

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