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The Colin Fraser War

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

The United States and Canada have peacefully shared a border since the 18th century. There have been some notable exceptions, including nasty disputes over the Dixon Entrance and North Rock, and who can forget the late 1830s in Maine, when armed lumberjacks fought in the Battle of Caribou?

Add to that nastiness one more intra-continental dispute: this summer’s Colin Fraser War.

A more unlikely antagonist has rarely been seen. In a sport full of likable players, Fraser stands out with a friendly, positive demeanor, always quick with a quip. How, then, did Fraser, a 26-year-old fourth-line grinder, end up right in the middle of a nasty off-ice skirmish between the Kings and the Edmonton Oilers?

It’s all behind Fraser now, the controversial trade -- one in which Kings general manager Dean Lombardi unfavorably compared his Edmonton colleague, Steve Tambellini, to financial scammer Bernie Madoff -- plus late-season foot surgery, a late start to training and countless miles of conditioning skating.

Fraser is now a full-fledged member of the Kings, well-liked by teammates and quickly earning the respect of fans. In his first two games of the season, Fraser scored a goal and generally played a gritty, hard-nosed game. It’s been rewarding for Fraser, who had to wait six months for the opportunity.

``It’s been a long road,’’ Fraser said. ``If you date it back to when the injury first happened, last March, it feels like a really long time. But I’m really excited to maybe prove myself and prove what I’ve got, and hopefully I can stay in the lineup and bring some energy and bring something different to the team.’’

Fraser is a center, a position at which the Kings have a multitude of options, including Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis and Andrei Loktionov. That’s seven players for four regular spots in the lineup, and those aren’t good odds for a player in Fraser’s position.

But when forward Scott Parse went down with an injury last week, the Kings turned to Fraser, who had been a positive, encouraging presence in the locker room and on the ice in practice.

``It was certainly frustrating for him to not be in the lineup, knowing what was going on, with a lot of uncertainty in his own life,’’ Kings coach Terry Murray said. ``But he’s a hockey player, and he handled it very well. He kept his work ethic very high. He was very positive and enthusiastic during all of that time in practice, and he got himself prepared to play for when the opportunity came.’’

Fraser certainly deserved to be on the positive side of a story, after months of bizarre circumstances.

It started shortly after the end of last season, when veteran forward Ryan Smyth asked Lombardi for a trade in order to be closer to his home in Alberta. Lombardi decided to honor Smyth’s request, even though it really only left him with two trading partners, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

Still, on June 24, Lombardi thought he had a deal. He would trade Smyth to the Oilers for forward Gilbert Brule and a mid-round draft pick. The deal, for all practical purposes, was completed, with the Kings about to sign the paperwork. They intended, upon acquiring Brule, to buy out his contract, but at the last minute, learned that Brule’s status as an injured player would prevent a buyout from taking place.

The two teams publicly bickered about Brule’s status but, two days later, agreed on a new trade: the Kings would send Smyth to the Oilers for Fraser and a seventh-round draft pick.

Of course, it couldn’t be that easy.

Fraser had missed the end of last season because of a foot injury, and when the Kings’ medical staff evaluated Fraser, they determined that surgery -- which had not taken place during the summer -- would be needed on Fraser’s foot, and that Fraser would be unable to play at the start of the season.

The Kings, having felt as though they were already duped once, were irate. Lombardi told The Sporting News he ``would have rather invested my money with Bernie Madoff than invest in Edmonton’s word.’’

The Kings filed a grievance with the league against the Oilers, one that was still unresolved at the start of this week. Fraser? Remember him? He, unwittingly, wound up in the middle of an ugly dispute.

``Truly, I know what happened, and I’m reading stuff and I’m like, that’s not even the case,’’ Fraser said. ``Nobody knows anything, but the general public obviously takes their views. At the end of the day, my foot was broken, I had surgery and I was not ready to play the first game of the season. So, no matter what happened, who was wrong and who was right, it’s not up to me and it doesn’t really matter at this point. The bottom line was, I wasn’t ready for the start of the season.

``That’s it. It was frustrating and I wasn’t happy about it, but in order for me to move on with my career, and earn another contract and earn a spot on this team, I had to fix it. That’s the bottom line.
It’s tough. Could I have played with a broken foot? Maybe, but that would have been really annoying and nagging me, and maybe I wouldn’t have played at my best. So it’s better to fix it and just take your time with it, and now I’m ready to go.’’

While the Kings intended to buy out Brule’s contract, they intended to give Fraser a shot.

Fraser entered this season with only 41 points in 224 career NHL games, but had been a lineup regular during his first three full seasons in the NHL, including a Stanley Cup championship run with Chicago in 2010. After that, Fraser got caught in the Blackhawks’
salary purge and got traded to Edmonton.

The Kings liked the grit that Fraser brought to the ice, but first he had to get healthy. Fraser started skating by himself late in training camp, then slowly worked his way into some drills but had to work through approximately six weeks of post-practice drills and conditioning skating before he got a chance.

``It’s been hard,’’ Fraser said. ``With that being said, you’ve got to be a team guy. You can only carry 23 guys, and at the end of the day, we’ve got a good team here, a good group of guys. You never wish ill will upon anyone else, or anything selfish like that. But when you get your opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it and hopefully earn a job, a regular spot in the lineup.’’

So far, so good. The Kings have struggled to regularly score goals early this season, and Fraser admits that he’s not the player who will go end-to-end and score a highlight-reel goal, but he does promise work.

``That’s certainly been my role throughout my whole career, even dating back to the minors, is to be gritty with energy and be consistent every night, and not ever taking a shift off,’’ Fraser said. ``I’ve gotten to where I’m at through hard work, and not the gifted hands, if you will. So I’m certainly going to work hard, and whoever my linemates are, it doesn’t matter. Hopefully we can get that identity and show something.’’

To be certain, Fraser has waited long enough for that chance.

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