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Everblades' Baker finally finds his form

by Lindsay Kramer
Florida forward Kevin Baker has spent far too much of this season trying to answer the question with words.

Why wasn't he scoring goals at the same rate as last season, when he rang up an amazing 57 for the Everblades? That's all he was hearing from teammates and fans.

"You're expected to lead the team in points. When you're not doing it, people are asking, why aren't you doing this?" he said. "When you can't you try to contribute in other ways, but people don't see that. It takes a mental toll."

Baker's value to the team is becoming a little easier now to quantify on the score sheet.

After scoring just 6 goals through his first 37 games, he's turned it up a little bit, with three in his last four. He also has four assists in his last three games. It's a modest improvement, but one that at least feels a little better because Baker finally is shaking off a hand injury that was one of the reasons he'd been so quiet.

"I'm starting to put points up and play the way I know I can play," said Baker, 30. "They're starting to come now, but it's been a while since I've gotten in the groove. Once I started scoring, it's OK, Baker's back. It takes weight off your shoulders. In hockey, you get in a groove and it makes it easier to play."

In Baker's eyes, when he's playing these days is just as telling as what he's doing with his minutes. In a 4-3 win against Kalamazoo on Feb. 20, he scored the tying goal at the 17:43 mark of the third.

Those sorts of pressure moments were a given last season. This season, he has been slumping so badly that he began wondering whether he'd be given a chance to get off the bench in game-changing situations.

"You start feeling good, you feel like you are in the right spots. When you are playing well, that is a huge part, that comfort and confidence," he said. "I'm close to where I was last year. I feel like this is my time now."

New owner wants to keep Thunder booming -- Brad Rowbotham's goal in purchasing the Stockton Thunder earlier this week spans from start to finish.

"I'm really hoping I can see players who played for Stockton go up and play for Edmonton (Oilers)," he said. "That'd be nice to see them there, see I played a small part in helping them get there."

It'd be a natural arc from Rowbotham's perspective.

He grew up in Red Deer, Alta., about 90 minutes from Edmonton, following the Oilers. Now he's in charge of Edmonton's ECHL affiliate, a wildly successful franchise that needs maintenance more than an upgrade.

The Thunder twice has been named recipient of the ECHL's "Award of Excellence" (2006-07 and 2008-09), and has led the ECHL in attendance for four consecutive seasons since beginning play in the league in 2005-06. The team also has qualified for the postseason three straight seasons.

"The fans are a lot like the Oilers fans. They get very excited. They've really taken a passion for their hockey," Rowbotham said. "I just wanted to be around where you have that excitement. They are doing things well there already. As an owner, hockey is my No. 1 passion. I'm hoping I can help spread that passion to the team."

Sproat putting kids first -- Cincinnati forward Dustin Sproat has a foolproof way to get over a bad game or practice.

He plays with kids. Or teaches them. Or reads to them. Or spends whatever quality time is called for at the moment.

"The kids always put you in your place a little bit, make sure you are not taking yourself too seriously," he said.

Sproat is trying to let as many of his peers in on the fun as he can.

As if being a full-time hockey player isn't time-consuming enough, Sproat is a co-founder of the national volunteer group "Hockey Players for Kids." It's an organization which helps players connect with children in a wide range of activities across North America.

"I'm starting to put points up and play the way I know I can play. 'They're starting to come now, but it's been a while since I've gotten in the groove."
-- Kevin Baker

Sproat started the program last season and said he's now networking with 40 players, mostly in the ECHL and AHL, in 15 cities. Sproat said he appreciates the work put in by team community relations officials but thinks players sometimes like to structure interaction at their own pace.

"There's a lot more time and opportunities to do more, I find. Once they have that first experience and get out and do it, they love it," Sproat said. "When I get to stand back and see the guys playing with the kids, see them acting stupid, that's the part I like. Hockey players are great role models. To see them in there is unbelievable."

Around the ECHL -- Lance Galbraith had a hat trick and 3 assists to tie a single-game Utah Grizzlies record with 6 points in a win against Stockton on Feb. 24 ... South Carolina president Darren Abbott is leaving that post for the same position with Manchester of the AHL. Abbott, named to the position in South Carolina in April 2006, was the recipient of the ECHL Executive of the Year for the 2007-08 season after being a finalist for the award following the 2006-07 season ... Stingrays goalie Shane Connelly posted three straight shutouts last weekend, becoming the fourth goalie in ECHL history to accomplish that ... Gwinnett was one of those victims, leaving only Elmira and Cincinnati as the only teams yet to be shut out this season ... Walleye forward Evan Rankin scored 5 goals in a game at Charlotte on Feb. 18, becoming the first Toledo player to score five in a game since Mark Deazeley on Feb. 16, 1994, against Huntsville. Brad McCaughey has the all-time single-game record for a Toledo ECHL team, six, on Nov. 6, 1991 against Columbus ... The 2011 All-Star Game has been awarded to Bakersfield ... Florida had its first sellout of the season Feb. 20, with a standing-room only crowd of 7,270 against Kalamazoo ... Reading's two losses in Elmira last weekend extended the team's road losing streak to a club-record six games. In an 8-3 loss to the Jackals on Feb. 19, the Royals allowed six second-period goals, tying a team record.

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