By Kyle Shohara
The way young Josh Manson has looked so natural on the blueline in his relatively short time with the Ducks, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been a defenseman all his life.
Believe it or not, Manson was a winger up until juniors, when he made the switch to defense at his coach’s request – a change that ultimately paved the way to the National Hockey League.
At the time, Manson described himself as undersized and a “late bloomer,” though it’s hard to picture that in the 24-year-old man who now looms large at 6-3, 215 pounds. Born in Hinsdale, Illinois, but raised in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the son of legendary hockey pugilist Dave Manson says his playing style as a forward was little more than a prototypical “grinder.”
“I played hard and just tried to be a steady, everyday fourth-line winger,” Manson says. “I wasn’t comfortable in my position as a forward.” Yet in Manson’s words, the switch to defense was at the time, a “terrible” experiment.
“I sucked,” he says bluntly.
As fate would have it, Manson would find himself on the blueline after a rash of injuries “like you’d never see” cursed his team. “Two guys got hurt, one guy was out and another guy got suspended,” he recalls. “We had to call up two defensemen to help out our two regular d-men. My coach told me he had to throw me back there. It ended up working out. Ever since then it stuck, and I progressed with each game.”
He wasn’t kidding. After earning 10 goals and 24 points in 54 games with Salmon Arm of the BCHL in 2009-10, Manson returned for a 12-goal, 47-point season over 57 games in 2010-11. That summer, Manson was drafted in the sixth round (160th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft by Anaheim, and he says the Ducks have been by his side since Day 1.
“They kept pushing me and putting me into the next level,” he says. “They were always in my ear about how I needed to play and how I needed to be as a player to be successful and make it at this level. They made me play the right way.”
|Manson captained the Northeastern Huskies in his junior year, and was named a 2013-14 Hockey East Second Team All-Star and the Best Defensive Defenseman. |
Manson took the NCAA route to further his development, spending three years with the Northeastern Huskies. His progression as a defenseman and as a leader earned him the captaincy in his final season – his junior year – with the Huskies, and what it season it was. Manson scored three goals for 10 points in 33 games and was named a 2013-14 Hockey East Second Team All-Star and the Best Defensive Defenseman after leading Northeastern to a 19-14-4 record. He posted career highs in assists and points, and matched a career best in goals.
Manson officially said goodbye to his college career when he signed a two-year entry-level contract on March 25, 2014 – another step in his ever-evolving hockey career. To Norfolk he went, where he made his professional debut with the Admirals on April 4, 2014 at Adirondack and scored his first AHL goal on April 16 vs. Hershey.
It was on Halloween last year when Ducks fans got their first glimpse at what the big man could do at the NHL level. His call-up was the result of an injury to former Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who fractured his right finger in a game vs. San Jose the week prior. Though Manson joined the team for its trip, which first included games in Chicago and St. Louis, he watched the games from the press box until another former d-man, Mark Fistric, went out with an upper-body injury against the Blues.
Manson was told he would make his NHL debut on October 31 at American Airlines Center against the high-flying Stars. It was a “baptism by fire,” as Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau put it earlier that day. He logged 12:30 TOI that night, which included a hair-raising delay of game penalty at the 4:05 mark of the second period.
“Young guys would get rattled after they take a shooting-over-the-glass penalty,” Boudreau said, the following day. “It didn’t seem to rattle him. That tells me that, in tough situations, he’s going to be fine.” A bit of foreshadowing on Boudreau’s part, it would turn out.
Manson would end up playing in 28 games for the Ducks last season, earning three points, a plus-1 rating and 31 penalty minutes. His first NHL point came on Nov. 16, 2014 on home ice against the Florida Panthers.
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It was a busy summer for the humble young man back in his native Saskatchewan. Between workout sessions and fishing, Manson put pen to paper in the form of a fresh two-year contract extension that lasts through the 2017-18 season. Much deserved for a guy who never takes anything for granted; a quality instilled in him from his father at a young age.
“If you look at the statistics, and how many years the average NHL player’s career is, it’s not that long,” Manson says. “It takes a lot of hard work. You have to work every day. That’s something he told me. You can’t take it for granted.”
Manson, still green at the NHL level but proven in the tiers he climbed to get there, made it a goal of his to make Anaheim’s opening night roster for the 2015-16 season. July was spent in Anaheim for the club’s annual rookie camp, and Manson wore the ‘C’ for two Futures Games against San Jose Sharks prospects.
“It’s nice to know [the coaches] have the confidence in me,” Manson said at the time. “I wore it with pride. This is a great organization. Any time that letter is on the jersey, it’s a good feeling.”
When Ducks training camp commenced in September at the team’s practice facility – The Rinks – Anaheim ICE – fans once again got a first-hand look at Manson, who held his own against resident veterans Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler.
Keep in mind, Manson was one of 19 defensemen at camp.
A telling sign was when he survived significant roster cuts on September 28 that saw the Ducks reduce their roster from 57 to 34 skaters coinciding with the opening of San Diego’s training camp.
“I want to make it as far as I can,” he said, that day. “I want to compete for a roster spot. The farther you go in the camp, the better chance you have. I just want to make the most of my opportunities and do the best I can.”
|Manson's preseason fight with LA Kings left wing Milan Lucic was one to remember. |
Manson was a busy man in the preseason. He skated in five of the six games on the schedule that included a matchup against the LA Kings at Staples Center on September 29. On that night, he squared off with one of the more experienced fighters in the game and may have won the hearts of Ducks fans for good.
The fight with Kings left wing Milan Lucic was a beauty. Here was Manson, no slouch himself, coming to the defense of then-teammate Chris Wagner after Lucic hit him from behind. The scrap was a lengthy one as far as hockey fights go – roughly two minutes – and even included a moment where the two separated before re-engaging. When all was said and done, both went to the box where Manson sat, smiling, while Lucic was shown with a cut under his right eye.
It was his fearlessness, toughness and willingness to protect a teammate that had Ducks fans abuzz. “It’s nice that the fans can respect that,” he says. “There are a lot of guys who do it, and I’m just one guy – especially on this team. You hear the kudos. It definitely makes it a lot better.”
Manson can do more than just fight. He brings a physical element to his game, a quality that’s been with him throughout his hockey career.
“You want to make the game tough for the guys on the other team. Every night, coming in, you want them to look at the lineup and go ‘Oh, he’s playing. Be careful when he’s out there.’”
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It seemed like it was only a matter of time before Manson would score his first NHL goal. He had been close several times last season – and this season, too – but still, that milestone eluded him. That is, until the night of November 6 when he and his teammates suited up to face the Columbus Blue Jackets at Honda Center.
|“It could’ve been an empty-netter. I wouldn’t have cared. I ran out of breath because I was screaming so hard.” |
With the Ducks leading, 2-1, and the game nearing the midway point of the third period, Manson used his big frame to carry the puck into the offensive zone. He was met just inside the blueline by Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin, but Manson’s momentum backed Tyutin below the hash marks. He left a deft little drop pass to the trailing Getzlaf, who then dropped it back to Perry, who had the presence of mind to carry the puck behind the net in hopes of finding a passing lane. As Perry curled behind the net, Manson broke free from Tyutin and set up shop in the high slot, clear of any Blue Jackets player. Perry found him between the circles and Manson wristed one beneath the blocker of goaltender Curtis McElhinney.
Manson barely had time to raise his arms in celebration before Hampus Lindholm embraced him in a hug he’ll always remember.
“I just wanted to put it in the back of the net,” he said that night with a smile he couldn’t seem to wipe off his face. “It could’ve been an empty-netter. I wouldn’t have cared. I ran out of breath because I was screaming so hard.”
In a moment of reflection, Manson had to pause a few seconds before putting that memory into words.
“In the moment was when it was at its best because you realize what you just did and all of your teammates are excited for you,” he says. “That was probably the best part about it. And then afterwards, the congratulations that were coming in from my friends and family from back home. That was definitely the highlight of the goal, for me. As time has gone on, I’m just waiting for the next one.
“I’m really close with my parents, so when they text me about anything special that happens to me, and how proud they are of me, that’s big. My little brother texted me, too. He’s a hockey player and starting to figure out the game.”
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Manson is well-groomed; his haircut tidy and face cleanly shaven. On this particular day he’s wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He’s personable and respectful, and at the age of 24, enjoys creature comforts.
“I don’t do much in my downtime here,” he says, with a laugh. “I try to hang out, relax, rest the body, hang out with the guys and watch some football. Just normal, everyday guy stuff. I live in California and the beach is right there, so I try to take advantage of it when I can.”
|“I would love to get out and fish. Just get me out there. I’m going to look into it when we have more downtime. Maybe get out on an excursion or just throw out a line somewhere.” |
As for food options, Manson opts for a Southern California staple.
“I’m a big Chipotle guy,” he admits, “and I like the [pause] odd burger every once and a while. The [longer pause] odd burger.”
He's an avid fisherman, but confesses he hasn’t wet a line since the summer.
“I would love to get out and fish. Just get me out there,” he says. “I’m going to look into it when we have more downtime. Maybe get out on an excursion or just throw out a line somewhere.”
Being a professional athlete doesn’t change the way he is as a person. He’s polite and always greets people with a smile.
“I was never the superstar growing up or the guy who was so much better than everybody else,” he says. “The path to where I got now, I had to work for it. I always told myself if I got to that position, I’m never going to be a snob or feel like I’m better than anybody else. You should treat everybody the same. My dad taught me to say hi to everybody, say thank you, and say please. There is never anybody you’re more important than.
“I’m a very humble person. Sometimes after a game, there will be certain questions – like about my first goal – and I don’t really have words for it because I don’t want to speak too much about myself like that. I’m not a guy who’s ever going to speak his mind too much. I’m pretty reserved.”
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Manson has reached the highest level of hockey there is, but he’s had to work to get there. And as always, he remains appreciative.
“I owe a lot to this organization for putting the faith – and time – to grow me as a player and give me an opportunity. Not a lot of guys get the opportunity that I had last year to come up and play and keep playing. I just don’t want to let them down.
“I’m going to work for every opportunity they give me. Every day is another chance to prove something, just because I feel like I owe them a lot for what they did to me.”