After leading the Adirondack Phantoms in scoring in 2011-12, getting sent down to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL this season was a bit of a shock to Jason Akeson.
It was the kind of thing that in the past may have bothered him considerably.
But not this year. Not now. Not after talking to his mom.
See, Patricia Wheatley is Jason’s inspiration. Not just because she’s a mother to two top tier hockey talents – Jason’s brother Tyler, a defenseman, plays Junior A in Smiths Falls, Ontario for the Bears – but because she is a living, breathing example of how to overcome adversity.
Wheatley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that attacked the muscles and bones in her arm.
She would have to endure a lengthy battle, one that was filled with hurdles and setbacks. There were days of intense chemotherapy and an uncertainty about her health on a day-to-day basis.
But the one thing that kept her going was hockey.
She always wanted to know what was going on with Jason and Tyler. She wanted to hear their stories about life in junior hockey, or for Jason last season, life in the American Hockey League.
“She loves the game as much as we do,” Akeson said. “She didn’t want to talk about it. She was more concerned about us. Hockey kept the cancer off my mom’s mind.”
So, when Akeson was surprisingly sent to Trenton rather than Glens Falls, NY, home of the Phantoms, it was Wheatley who got him to accept and understand his situation.
“The last few years have been hard for me emotionally,” Akeson said. “Moving away from home knowing my mother had cancer was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. But she’s one of the most strong people I know and the way she carried herself on a daily basis inspired my whole family – including me to keep working hard when your down in the dumps. At then end of the day, I was just playing hockey and I have to realize what a privilege that is. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Trenton or wherever because there’s a lot more important things going on in life if I just pay attention.”
Like his mom beating cancer and going into remission.
That was the news that came shortly after he was told he was starting the season in Trenton.
“Getting that phone call that she was cancer-free was a great day,” Akeson said. “I was pretty upset. I trained hard all summer to be a top player in the AHL this season, and then being sent to Trenton was a shock to my system. But, then I talked to mom and realized that if you just keep fighting and stay positive, you can overcome anything. Anything is possible. She was very strong and we’re very proud of her. Now I have to be the same way.”
It’s not like Akeson took a step back over the summer. You don’t just go from leading a team in scoring (14 goals, 41 assists for 55 points in 76 games with the Phantoms) to being demoted.
Instead, Akeson was caught up in a numbers game. With NHL talent playing in the AHL during the labor unrest, it was inevitable that Akeson’s name would slip a little down the depth chart.
And once it got down below the top six forwards, it didn’t seem to make sense for the Flyers to keep him in Adirondack, because he wasn’t going to fill the role that are usually reserved for third and fourth line players.
“A guy like Garret Roe is a similar-sized guy who can play on the third or fourth line because he’s a hard worker and he’s gritty and plays with a more grind-it-out mentality,” said Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube, who has been working with the Titans. “Akeson is a different player. He’s small, but he is purely a skill guy and a playmaker, so with the top six being filled on the Phantoms by guys like (Sean) Couturier and (Brayden) Schenn, it’s hard to imagine Akeson getting the kind of ice time he needs to be successful with that group.
“That’s why he’s in Trenton, but that said, he’s a very skilled guy… probably the most skilled guy in Trenton. He’s got great hands and vision, and makes plays. He’s a smart player. Not a lot of speed, but he knows how to play the game.”
Which has been the story of Akeson’s career. He’s too small (5-foot-10) and not fast enough for his size to play.
He’s heard the same thing since he was little, and yet has continued to prove everyone wrong.
He was an elite scorer in two seasons with the Cumberland Grads in Junior A. When he made it to major junior, he was a second team All-Rookie selection for the Kitchener Rangers with 64 points in his first full season.
In his second season with the Rangers, that total climbed to 80 points, playing with NHL-talent Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Morin.
It was the belief by many scouts that Akeson was a product of playing with guys who were first and second round picks in the NHL, and couldn’t thrive without them.
Then Akeson proved everyone wrong again.
In his final junior season, Akeson finished with 108 points, tied for the most in the OHL. The Flyers liked what they saw and decided to take a chance on him, offering him a three-year entry-level deal as an undrafted free agent prior to last season.
Still just 22-years-old, Akeson still has a lot to work on… and a lot to prove.
“Every day, everything I do is an attempt to get faster,” Akeson said. “That’s what the sport of hockey is now. The game is all about speed. There’s no gray area. I know that’s what I have to work on the most. I thought I was doing it and doing well, but to get sent down was a blow to my pride at first.
“However, I now know that life goes on. I can’t pout and whine. It’s the way the sport goes. I’m playing with a great group of guys who all want to take that next step and get to the AHL. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. I’ve been successful there and I just want to get back. That’s my focus.”
And so far so good for Akeson, who is third on the Titans in scoring with two goals, four assists and six points in the Titans first seven games.
“He’s gone there and played and I thought he’s played really well,” Berube said. “He ran the power play well. You can see he has the ability to slow the game down and use his vision to create plays. But That’s also the reality. It’s good to be able to slow the game down, but you can’t always do things slower. You have to make quicker decisions and do things at a more intense rate of speed. He knows he has to play that way, and he knows he’ll be back to the AHL as soon as the lockout ends.
“To be a small player in the NHL, you have to be exceptional, but I never count a guy out. He’s intelligent and has great skill. There are a lot of guys that don’t have that. If he becomes a harder player to play against… then he can make it. I’ve seen it before. It’s not impossible.”
With his mom in his corner, chatting hockey and offering advice and inspiration, Akeson too knows now that nothing is impossible.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37