Hovering near the Phantoms blueline, left wing Frederik Cabana took a quick glance over his shoulder in the direction of the opposing end, then repeatedly slapped the blade of his stick against the Wachovia Spectrum ice. Moments later, after accepting a feed from teammate Nolan Baumgartner, the rookie forward deked his way through two defenders at center ice and negotiated his way into the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton zone.
After gaining the line, he executed a nifty give-and-go with veteran Eric Meloche and headed toward the Penguins net at a severe angle from the left side. Another nifty shoulder fake left defender Noah Welch no choice but to hook his stick under Cabana's right arm, drawing a penalty, but preventing a one-on-one showdown with goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
The Phantoms did not score on the ensuing powerplay, and ultimately found themselves on the short end of a 5-2 decision to the Pens. But the sequence in question exemplified not only the potential of the team as a whole, but the specific qualities that Cabana brings to the table.
"That was an example of what he can do," said Phantoms first-year head coach Kjell Samuelsson of the 6'0', 185-pound forward. "Freddy works very hard on the ice, in games and at practice. He's a young player who is going to make mistakes and learn from them. He's growing into a checking line role with us now, but his skill should not be overlooked.
"Freddy is at his best when he's involved in the game and is becoming very good at figuring out ways to draw penalties."
Which is no surprise, considering the reputation Cabana earned as one of the most effective agitators in the QMJHL over the course of a four-year stint with the Halifax Mooseheads, prior to joining the Phantoms this season.
"It's sort of my specialty, riling up the other team," explained the affable 20-year-old, who was selected by the Flyers in the sixth round (171st overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. "There are some cases, like tonight, where I'll be able to get my scoring chances and, hopefully, help the team out that way.
"I'd love to score, but I think I'm more of a defense-first, in-your-face guy who gets under the opponents' skin. I take a lot of pride in doing whatever I can to help my team win. That's a role I've always embraced."
The Pride of Fleurimont
Like any young hockey player, Cabana's dream is to one day play in the NHL. If he is eventually able to do so, he will be the first player from his hometown to accomplish the feat. No native of Fleurimont, Quebec, in fact, had ever been drafted before the Flyers tabbed Cabana three years ago. The town (which has a population of roughly 16,000) was actually amalgamated as a borough of Sherbrooke back in 2002.
Sherbrooke, which compromises the fourth-largest urban area in Quebec in terms of population (21st in Canada), has produced a number of NHL players. But Cabana continues to identify more with the "small town" serenity of the place he grew up.
"I'm very proud of being the first person from Fleurimont to be drafted," he explained. "That just means so much to me and my family. It gives me an extra motivation to want to make it to the NHL. It's my hometown, and a place that will always be close to my heart."
Cabana figures he was on skates by the time he was three and playing in an organized league at four. Like many of the players previously profiled in this series, he defined his hockey experience as a "way of life" while growing up.
"In Fleurimont and the Sherbrooke area, and other areas of Quebec and Canada, I'm sure, hockey is the passion. It's the national sport, the one thing that ties the whole country together, and brings people together.
"I remember developing a love for the game at a very early age. Well, it probably goes back further than I can remember, actually. Playing pick-up games with my friends, on the ponds and in the streets. All the early morning practices. The basic stuff that makes the sport so great."
Not surprisingly, Cabana was a loyal follower of the Montreal Canadians during his formative years.
"Being from Quebec, naturally, I was a huge Canadians fan. I knew every player, every number, ever stat you could name. But I think I was a little different in that I more carefully watched the guys who weren't big stars. In recent years, I followed players like Steve Begin and Yanic Perreault; guys who didn't always get a lot of credit but were real solid team players.
"I've sort of patterned my game after players like that, rather than high-scoring guys like Saku Koivu or others that I've always admired, but just haven't felt a close connection to."
Moving Up The Ladder
After a strong 2001-02 season at the midget AAA level with Magog, Cabana was selected by the Halifax Mooseheads in the third round (33rd overall) of the 2002 QMJHL Midget Draft. He would go on to turn in a solid rookie season with his new team, posting 14 points (4 goals, 10 assists) and 65 penalty minutes, while appearing in 62 games.
"I thought it was a pretty easy transition," he explained. "I wasn't getting a lot of ice time right away, of course, and had to work really hard, especially on the defensive side of things, just to keep up. I was getting limited minutes, but it was a good learning experience and a good opportunity to get started at that level.
Cabana earned a big break when he was chosen to play for Team Canada at the 2002 Under-18 World Cup in Minsk, Belarus.
"That was my first taste of international hockey, and that also was a great experience," he noted. "I was actually surprised when the coaches game me an "A" and really tried to embrace my role as a leader on the team."
On top of being named an alternate captain for Canada, Cabana was also the only player from the "Q" to be selected to the team. He rewarded the program's trust in his abilities by turning in an outstanding performance, producing five points in seven games (equal to teammates and then-top prospects Ryan Garlock and Kyle Chipchura) and was a standout in the defensive end and in penalty-killing situations.
Upon his return to Halifax for his second season at the major junior level in 2003-04, Cabana had noticeably gained muscle and was asserting himself with much more confidence on the ice. He was given more responsibilities and assumed a larger role on the team, developing as a solid two-way forward, face-off man and penalty killing expert.
However, he was also guilty of giving in, on occasion, to his ultra-competitive nature. He had to learn how to strike a balance between aggressive play and heady play, understanding, as he says today, when to "pick his spots," especially when shadowing some of the league's top offensive stars.
Cabana registered 72 points (27 goals, 45 assists) and 125 penalty minutes in 129 games over the course of his second and third campaigns with the Mooseheads.
"It was around that time, I think, that I started to feel like more of a leader on the team, definitely during my middle two years with Halifax," he said. "I also started to get a lot more comfortable, throw my weight around a bit. Sometimes, I did let my emotions get the best of me even, but this was a good place to learn and grow as a player."
The Crosby Incident
Because Cabana had developed into an effective defensive forward with the acute ability to get under the skin of opposing players, he was often penciled to line up against other teams' top stars.
On October 4, 2004, Cabana, perhaps overzealous in his pursuit of then-Rimouski Oceanic wunderkind Sidney Crosby, found himself in some trouble. He delivered what the referees determined to be a dangerous knee-on-knee hit on Crosby, causing many in the hockey world to hold their breath as the future number-one pick had to leave the game.
The injury turned out to be minor, but Cabana was quickly assessed an eight-game suspension.
"Mr. Crosby received a knee hit, an act we always consider dangerous," QMJHL disciplinarian Maurice Filion said in a release. "Besides, Mr. Crosby was not in possession of the puck when he was hit."
"There was no intent to injure Sidney on my part, none whatsoever," explains Cabana. "It was more of a collision than anything, as I was trying to play him aggressively, which is the way you have to play him, and our knees hit, head-on. I understood the suspension, though, and accepted it."
For the rest of Cabana's career in the "Q," he had to deal with the reputation, fair or not, that he earned from the Crosby incident. The hit and ensuing suspension made national headlines across Canada and was a hot topic of debate in Internet hockey circles for some time.
This was not surprising, of course, as Crosby was rightfully considered then to be, perhaps, the top young star of his generation and a future superstar. The media was especially quick to pick up and focus upon the story, as it occurred during the year of the lockout in the NHL.
"To be honest, I really didn't pay attention to all of the media coverage," said Cabana. "But, [the incident] was all anyone seemed to want to ask me about for a long time. When I'd go to opposing arenas… well, especially Rimouski; it was kind of difficult to deal with because the fans would really focus on that."
Rather than dwell on what happened, Cabana chose to use it as another learning experience.
"I guess it hardened me a bit. I think the whole thing, maybe, prepared me better for dealing with adversity and attention. I sort of blocked out everything after a while and just got back to playing. I wished Sidney no harm, and am glad that he has become a top star because he's a great player and he deserves it.
"But, I moved on from the whole thing pretty quickly."
Cabana refers to his time in the QMJHL as "invaluable" to his growth as a player and a person.
"I can't say exactly how important it was, or can't really put into words how much I learned while playing in the "Q" for Halifax," he said. "First, there is just how far I felt I came as a player, how much experience I gained just from playing in one of the top major junior leagues in the world. Nothing could replace that experience.
"But, it went far beyond that. I think one of the most important things was the fact that I really learned how to speak English while I was playing [in the QMJHL]. My English was not very good, and that is obviously something I needed to work at and learn in order to move on in hockey. It was a struggle at times, but there were so many people there to help along the way."
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren remembers taking note of Cabana's progress, both on and off the ice, as the organization was making preparations for the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
"Freddy showed a lot of character in overcoming some of the odds he was faced with," he explained. "We always liked his aggressive nature and competitiveness. He had a great work ethic. When he was able to channel his emotions, he really turned himself into a good all-around player. He has good size and enough skill to certainly project an NHL future."
Added Cabana: "I think once I got my focus where it needed to be, which took a little time, I was able to improve the areas of my game that I could be effective in. I worked a lot with the coaches up in Halifax on some of the little things like faceoffs and defending other players, one-on one. Penalty-killing is one of my favorite aspects of the game, and something that kind of came natural."
Cabana was drafted by the Flyers after prior to his third season in junior, an experience that he continues to celebrate as one of the highlights of his career.
"Well, again, there was the hometown aspect of it for me, being the first person from Fleurimont to be drafted," he said. "That was special, but, obviously, it was just great to attain that goal and join the Flyers organization. I also mentioned that I was a huge fan of the Montreal Canadians while growing up, but that changed after I was drafted.
"All of a sudden," he continued, "I had a new favorite team."
Arriving in Philly
Cabana really came into his own during his third season with Halifax, in 2004-05. He emerged as the Mooseheads' top defensive forward and penalty-killer, and was acknowledged as one of the more effective agitators and face-off men in the QMJHL. He notched 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists) and 47 PIMs in 59 regular season games, then added an impressive 12 points (six goals, six assists) and 11 penalty minutes in 11 games during a strong playoff run.
The Mooseheads, who lost defenseman and current Flyers defenseman Alexandre Picard, among others, to the pro ranks, defeated the Lewiston Maineiacs in the first round in 2005-06 before bowing out. Cabana again helped hold the fort down as the team shifted into a transitional phase. He continued to serve as defensive anchor, chipping in with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) and 85 penalty minutes in 68 games.
Shortly after the completion of his fourth and final QMJHL season, Cabana inked his first professional contract with the Flyers.
"Wow. That was just a huge thrill," he relates. "It was just as big as being drafted. Well, probably even bigger, because it meant that I had really made it. I couldn't wait to get started in Philadelphia."
Holmgren was pleased to welcome Cabana to town.
"We signed Freddy, along with junior prospect Steve Downie and Finnish defenseman Jussi Timonen early in the offseason," he noted. "Freddy is a player who we really watched improve during his time in Halifax. He basically went from being a checking line guy to a versatile player who could be plugged into any role and help the team win. We were very much looking forward to getting him in with the Phantoms, and seeing how he did in the AHL."
Cabana has, thus far, exerted himself well at the pro level. The Phantoms (17-25-2-5) are in the midst of a trying season, with a young team combating inexperience and general instability. The team has executed an AHL-high 122 roster transactions to this point, thanks go various injuries and movement by the Flyers.
"It's been challenging, but I think this is a great set-up here," said Cabana, who has registered 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) and 65 penalty minutes in 46 games thus far. He notched his first professional goal on December 16 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then recorded his first multiple-point game (two assists) at Hershey on November 5.
"I've played with a lot of different [linemates] because of all of the changes," he continued, "but it's been a really good learning experience. "The game is much faster up here, and the players you go up against are much bigger, stronger and more talented. Coach Samuelsson and [assistant coach Joe] Mullen are really good teachers, though, and they're bringing me along. My teammates have been very helpful, and I'm learning something new almost every day."
"Work in Progress"
Samuelsson, who replaced Craig Berube after Berube was promoted to an assistant coaching position with the Flyers earlier in the season, sees a lot of promise in Cabana. At the same time, he feels no reason to rush the rookie's development.
"Freddy is still making that transition, and needs to get experience under his belt," the former Flyers defenseman explained. "He's doing a lot for us, skating a [regular] shift, killing penalties; and other responsibilities will come.
"I think, sometimes, Freddy is actually a little too hard on himself and gets frustrated when he makes a mistake or something goes wrong. He has a good attitude and keeps working to improve. It's going to take some time."
Mullen, a Hall of Fame forward who joined Samuelsson behind the Phantoms bench in late October, agreed: "We have a very young team here, and these things take time. Some of our rookies, like [Ryan] Potulny and Nate Guenin have seen some time with the Flyers already.
"But, even for them, this is a learning experience. Freddy has a real desire to improve and become a major part of the team, you can see it in the fire he shows out there. It's a work in progress in many ways, but he is coming along nicely."
Cabana's hard work, particularly his willingness to sacrifice his body to make a play and drop the gloves on occasion has caught the eye of teammate Riley Cote, himself no stranger to fisticuffs.
"I think he's been a great addition to the team," Cote said of Cabana. "He's a young kid who's come in here and worked really hard, and does all the things you have to do to get noticed. He's, what, 20? I think Freddy has a very promising future ahead of him."
Added Cabana: "It's nice to hear those compliments. We have a great group of guys here, and I want to help this team succeed. The fans here are just incredible. They're very supportive and vocal, which fits right in with my style.
"I hope I get the chance to play with the Flyers one day, to get that call would be just unbelievable. That's what I'm working toward, but I know nothing's going to happen overnight."