|Forward Steve Kelly has returned from a three-year stint in Germany and will suit up for the Houston Aeros this season.
The lure of the open road always has been one of the underappreciated joys of pro hockey for Steve Kelly
He likes to drive around the cities he visits whenever possible. Once, when demoted from Los Angeles to Manchester of the AHL, he made the 55-hour trip by car with his wife and two-day-old daughter.
So, Kelly, 30, was a happy man last week. He drove the 32 hours from his home in Vernon, B.C., to the Wild’s camp in Minnesota. He then cruised the 20-hour trip from St. Paul to the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Houston, with trailer in tow behind his pickup truck.
“I like driving. You can just relax,’’ he said. “You can see some of the country.’’
This latest leg of Kelly’s journey is nothing compared to the travels he’s just left behind.
Kelly, a wing, spent the past three seasons playing in Germany. He considered closing out his career there before Hershey coach Bruce Boudreau steered him back this way.
Boudreau coached Kelly in Manchester. When his German team offered him a two-year extension last season, Kelly wavered a bit and asked Boudreau what the pro scene was like over here. Boudreau encouraged Kelly to consider a return.
“I’ve got lots left. It’s not like I’m on a swan song here,’’ Kelly said. “If I just wanted to finish my career, I wouldn’t be coming back here to play in the minors.’’
The Wild apparently agree. After last season, the organization shifted philosophy for its affiliate, saying it was out of the business of signing big-ticket minor-leaguers who couldn’t also be capable fill-ins up top.
Kelly, selected sixth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 1995, fits in with Minnesota’s new vision of what a valuable AHL depth guy should look like.
“I think they need guys that can fit in and fill in up there,’’ said Kelly, who has skated in 147 career NHL games. “Sometimes a veteran guy does great in the minor leagues but has never played in the NHL. I still feel I can play in those (pressure) situations.’’
There’s always a give-and-take, though. For all of Kelly’s love of feeling the road under his feet, the Aeros are one of the few AHL teams that does most of its traveling by plane.
“I don’t mind the flying there,’’ he said. “The buses aren’t quite so fun on the long trips. It’s nice when you’re playing just to get where you’re playing.’’
Hungry like the Wolves -- From the perspective of the opposing bench, former Manitoba forward Jesse Schultz always found the Chicago Wolves’ offense appropriately imposing. Now that he’s about to become a part of it, he sees it as something else: fun.
“Now that the opportunity came up for me to play on that team, it’s very exciting,’’ Schultz said. “I like to score goals and be offensive. That’s the style they’ve played for a few years.’’
The relationship needs to work both ways. Schultz, 25, hopes some of that Wolves offensive magic dust rubs off on him. After busting out with a career year two seasons ago that produced 37 goals and 30 assists for the Moose, Schultz came up short in his bid to make the Canucks last year and dropped off to 18-21 for Manitoba.
“It was a down year, definitely. I wasn’t happy with it,’’ he said. “You want to build off the (previous) year, show people it wasn’t luck. It’s just a matter of me playing better this year.’’
The Wolves stand to benefit because of a draft-day trade that brought him over from Manitoba. It’s a good chunk of pressure to hope that Schultz can step in for finishers Darren Haydar (41-81) or Brett Sterling (55-42), if need be, but Schultz is slotting himself as a role player and going from there.
“It’s a clean slate. You have to go in, work hard, play your best,’’ he said. “There’s a good chance some of those (top scorers) will be down. I’ll just be looking to fit in. It will be me helping out.’’
Feeling like an underdog -- Sooner or later, this long-shot underdog role is going to grow tired for goalie Karl Goehring. Like Tuesday, perhaps.
That’s when the Buffalo Sabres released him from his tryout contract. It was a predictable move, but a risky one nonetheless. Right now, farm team Rochester is looking at going with some combination of Adam Dennis, 22, Tyler Plante, 20, and David Shantz, 21.
“Obviously it’s tough. They have a split affiliate (with Florida) in Rochester,’’ said Goehring, 29. “As you become older, I’ve been through this quite a bit. It’s always disappointing. The biggest thing now is to focus on where you go from here, what’s the next step.’’
Goehring came to the pros out of the University of North Dakota in 2001-02 as a 5-foot-8 sparkplug and has been scrapping ever since. At each of his last three AHL stops, he’s been a backup for a much more heralded, younger goalie who, at times, he’s helped bail out.
In Syracuse, it was Pascal Leclaire. San Antonio had David LeNeveu. Milwaukee trotted out Pekka Rinne. All three deserved their minutes, no doubt, but Goehring has had only one AHL season with a goals-against higher than 2.75 and his save percentage has never dipped below .908.
It’s almost enough to make Goehring wish he were one of those glamour guys.
“I don’t try to envy anybody,’’ he said. “I just consider myself to be fortunate to have the opportunities I had. It’s an interesting journey being a pro hockey player. You just have to accept what it brings. It’s in all life, you constantly have to prove yourself no matter what you’re doing.’’
College reunion in San Antonio -- David LeNeveu and David McKee missed each other by one season at Cornell, two of the school’s all-time great goalies skating past in the night. They never had a chance to compete against each other, or even directly compare notes. Until now.
McKee, who played at Cornell from 2003-06, is on a tryout contract with San Antonio. LeNeveu, who backstopped the Big Red from 2001-03, has played for the Rampage the past two seasons. The two hadn’t really kept in touch until getting together in the Coyotes’ camp.
“It was kind of nice to see another Cornell man around,’’ McKee said. “We didn’t relive the past much. We both had our minds focused on the job at hand.’’
McKee is coming off a rookie season in which he played 52 games for Augusta of the ECHL, and he also went 5-2 for Portland. The Texas native said he doesn’t see his time with the Rampage as a chance to gauge himself against his more professionally established buddy.
“I don’t really think about it like that,’’ McKee said. “My biggest concern right now is winning a spot in San Antonio. I don’t even have a contract. I have to get off unemployment.’’