ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The AHL all-star game has featured numerous former NHL first-round draft picks who were seen as hot prospects from a young age.
And then there are players like Frederic St. Denis. The Hamilton Bulldogs defenceman has had to work for everything he's got and will represent the Montreal Canadiens organization as a Western Conference all-star in Monday's game.
"It was a big surprise," said St. Denis, a fourth-year pro who made his NHL debut Nov. 16. "I didn't expect to be part of a big event like this, but it's going to be fun to be with the guys."
All 30 AHL teams have at least one representative at the two-day event, held for the first time in a city without a member club. The players straggled in from around the continent, most of them after Saturday-night games, for Sunday's skills contest.
St. Denis, who turned 26 a week ago, was one of the first ones in the Western Conference dressing room, getting in from Cleveland after the Bulldogs lost Saturday to Lake Erie.
He may be a younger pro, but he sees himself as a leader on a young team, climbing the ladder after five years with Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
St. Denis then played a year at the University of Quebec-Trois Rivieres before turning pro on an AHL contract.
"I started out in the (the ECHL), went up and down a bit to Cincinnati," he said. "It's been a tough road. I played in the AHL, and I tried to impress the coaches enough to put me in every situation, at the end of periods, end of games, power play, penalty kill."
That confidence helped him earn an eight-game NHL call-up. He scored his first NHL goal against Vancouer.
"It's fun to know right now that I can play in the NHL," St. Denis said.
St. Denis grew up admiring Ray Bourque, a stalwart defenceman with offensive talents.
Bourque's son Chris is one of the Eastern Conference all-stars, dressing down the row from Binghamton rookie defenceman Mark Borowiecki. Borowiecki is just back from his first NHL stint with Ottawa.
"You work all your life to get that shot. To get there was pretty special," Borowiecki said.
"Just to step onto the ice for the first shift against San Jose, to see guys like Joe Thornton out there, it was pretty nice."
Borowiecki joined Binghamton after finishing his season at Clarkson University last spring. The Senators won their first Calder Cup in June, beating Houston in six games after assistant coach Steve Stirling needed quadruple-bypass surgery.
"It was definitely a lot of hard work at the end," Borowiecki said.
"To win that game in Houston, there were so many emotions."
Borowiecki is one of nine AHL all-stars who made his AHL debut this year.
"It's nice to be included in the game," Borowiecki said. "It's definitely an honour to be here. I'll try to have some fun."
The Western Conference beat Borowiecki's Eastern Conference 18-10 in Sunday's skills competition.
Brian Connelly, acquired by the Calgary Flames on Friday for Brendan Morrison, won a point for the West in an individual puck-control race against the Connecticut Whale's Mats Zuccarello, then won the fastest skater competition, lapping the rink in 13.851 seconds.
Connelly did it wearing an Abbotsford Heat sweater for the first time, though not the same jersey he'll wear when he plays his first game with the Heat. The league scrambled to put together a sweater for him, with his name and number in white instead of the usual white-trimmed black.
"I didn't know if they'd have one ready for me. I brought my Rockford one, just in case," Connelly said. "It was a little different (weekend), my first trade. I'm looking forward to the opportunity in Calgary. I had a great time with Rockford and Chicago."
The Chicago Wolves' Kevin Connauton, a Vancouver prospect, won the hardest shot contest at 99.4 miles per hour. Norfolk's Trevor Smith and Oklahoma City's Ryan Keller both went 4-for-5 to share the win in the accuracy competition. Peoria's Ben Bishop was the top goaltender.