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In Calvert, Jackets have a small player with a big heart

by Larry Wigge

"You can call me a third wheel, back seat, off the radar, I don't care. We had a great line and no one is going to tell me I didn't contribute a lot to it."
-- Matt Calvert

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- By his own admission, Matt Calvert, all 5-foot-10, 175 pounds of him, didn't fall off a turnip truck or slip unseen into the Centre I.C.E. hockey complex here for the eight-team NHL prospects tournament this week.

There's always a player or two whose number just keeps catching your attention. Hard worker. Character player who plays with a great degree of passion. No quit. This phenomenon is true, especially when you have a little more than 200 players on hand for this type of prospects bonanza.

Calvert is confident enough in his own abilities to admit he won't let anything anyone says about him deter his attempt to make it to the NHL.

"Hey, I was only 5-1 when I was 16. I've heard all the stories. Like, 'Hey kid, get off the ice so the real players can practice' since I was little," Calvert laughed after he thought about what he had just said. "Maybe I should have worded that differently.

"But it is what it is. I never really thought about the NHL until Columbus drafted me."

That was on the second day of the 2008 Entry Draft, the 127th selection, coming in the fifth round.

On Day 2 of this year's tournament, Calvert scored three times and also had an assist as the Blue Jackets -- who happen to have 18 players here on tryout -- beat the St. Louis Blues, 5-4. In Columbus' first game, Calvert assisted on the Jackets' lone goal in a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild. So, he's easily the leading scorer in the tourney.

"I was here last year and I learned how fast and aggressive the play would be, so I'd be ready this time," Matt said.

Still, there's going to be the odd scout who says his team never gave Matt Calvert a thought. One team executive said about Calvert: "We have a couple of scouts near Brandon and they never filed any reports on him. None to my knowledge."

You could say this story is sort of out of sight out of mind, but that wouldn't apply here because Calvert put up his 28 goals and 39 assists last season for the Brandon Wheat Kings while playing on a line with first-round picks Brayden Schenn (who went fifth to Los Angeles) and Scott Glennie (who went eighth to Dallas).

Still, while scouts all over North America were chatting up Schenn and Glennie, it was Matt who led Brandon with 12 power-play goals -- and then contributed 9 goals and 8 assists in the playoffs.

"You can call me a third wheel, back seat, off the radar, I don't care," Calvert said. "We had a great line and no one is going to tell me I didn't contribute a lot to it."

Obviously, there's no inferiority complex there.

"I've been cut from so many teams over the years because of my size I don't worry about that," Matt added. "When I turned 16, I never got a single letter from a Western Hockey League team (invitations to that junior league's training camps). It wasn't until after my third year of midget that (Brandon coach) Kelly McCrimmon called me and offered me a tryout."

Matt says his dad encouraged him to go back for a third year of midgets, in which he had his best season ever.

"Kelly McCrimmon gave me a chance to play at the Junior A level, but I don't think I could have made it this far without the confidence my parents have in me and my dream to play hockey professionally," Calvert said.

Leo Calvert works for Westman Communications Group in Brandon, an internet/cable company. Matt's mom, Alice, works for Brandon University.

"While I'm pulling the sweater over my head for each game, I think of their words ... 'Keep on fighting, son. Follow your dream,'" Matt said, wearing all of his emotions on the sleeve of his Columbus practice jersey Tuesday. "They were the ones who were confident I'd grow up from the 5-1 kid when I was 16 ... and they were right."

And the Columbus Blue Jackets have had the same kind of confidence in Matt.

"He's an ultra-competitive kid with a great skill-set," said Don Boyd, the director of player personnel for the Blue Jackets. "He's full of energy. That's what gets your attention first.

"Sure, you look at the height and weight ... or lack thereof. But I've always said if it doesn't bother the youngster, it doesn't bother me. And you can see that being 5-9 when we drafted him and 5-10 now doesn't faze Matt one bit."

The scouting report on Calvert before he was drafted was: He has a very good shot. He has good speed, although for a smaller player it might be something that requires a little more work. Has extremely good hockey sense and is a very good leader. Very hard worker and willing to take a hit to make a play. Has good offensive instincts, but not sure how much offensive upside he has. An unselfish player who thinks the game really well.

You can't blame Matt for perhaps having a little chip on his shoulder after hearing that. And you can excuse him for being a little hurt by all of the attention given to his more publicized teammates Schenn and Glennie. But ...

"Don't worry about Matt," Glennie said of his Brandon linemate before facing him at Traverse City Wednesday. "He's got all the confidence in the world in his ability."

Does Matt feel like he's on his own?

"Yeah, you could say that," Calvert said, laughing. "But I consider myself a good teammate. It doesn't matter if I'm not looking at the same faces next to me like I have worked with in Brandon for the last two seasons. I'm still going to go out there and play hard."

Seeing this character player in a smaller body. Seeing his eyes like fire when he stared down that empty net to complete his hat trick Monday. There's no third wheel, no back seat, no off the radar report from this member of the media.

I've written too many, too small, too slow, too this, too that stories to know that it's a will to win and the size of a player's heart that really counts. At that point, you realize that Matt Calvert has just as good a chance to show everyone that he's no different than a Martin St. Louis, Daniel Briere, Steve Sullivan, Doug Gilmour, Theo Fleury and so many others who have transformed small size into big in the NHL.

Keep an eye on Matt Calvert's effort. Let him worry about the rest.

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