Spring fever has hit San Antonio, and the city greets that season warmly with all its charms.
Last week, for instance, Rampage rookie forward Brett MacLean
soaked up some 85-degree weather with an itinerary that included a trip to the zoo.
''I liked the lions. They are just fun to watch, big animals,'' he said. ''The monkeys are pretty cool, they were swinging all around. It's pretty cool getting to walk to the rink in shorts and T-shirts every day. I haven't worn a jacket in months.''
The sunshine cuts both ways for MacLean and his teammates because it's more than a diversion. It's a prelude to a summer vacation that is about to start way too soon for the last-place Rampage's liking. And, it's a reminder that talent and character are sometimes best revealed by how someone gets up after they fall.
For San Antonio, that stumble came during a 17-game winless streak at the start of the year that pretty much doomed the team for the rest of the season. Yet MacLean, a second-round pick by
Phoenix in the 2007 Entry Draft, used it to forge a will and consistency that's helped him turn in 19 goals and 17 assists.
''I never gave up. The one thing that really worked out was that guys pulled together and stuck together as a team,'' he said. ''If you work hard enough, you can pull through anything. I was just trying to focus on my game. Now, I know when something tough happens, I can get through it.''
Rampage coach Greg Ireland sees that even more clearly in his game notes than in the stats. He said he was recently reviewing his scouting reports when he noticed a recurring theme that attached itself to what he was writing about MacLean.
''His compete level has gone up. I find he's knocking guys off the puck, physically,'' Ireland said. ''I think he's shown a wealth of maturity. He's progressed at a great rate.''
If nothing else, MacLean came to the Rampage as the answer to a great trivia question: who led the 2007-08 Oshawa Generals in scoring?
Those who glance at a roster might put their money on John Tavares
, who rang up 118 points. But no, it was linemate MacLean, who was one point better (61-58).
''He's an awesome hockey player. He's fun to play with. We had great chemistry together,'' MacLean said of Tavares. ''A lot of times I'd watch him play, the moves he did, I couldn't believe it. I'd like to think he learned a little playing with me, too. You know playing with him you are going to put up points.''
A relationship with anyone who knows how to hit the back of the net like MacLean is mutually beneficial for even the brightest of prospects. His 61 goals for Oshawa paced the OHL. Two seasons ago, he scored 47 times.
''I don't think I really have one skill that stands out. I just seem to find an open spot,'' MacLean said. ''When I look at a goalie, I can see the holes where I want to shoot. Ever since I can remember, I've been scoring a lot of goals. I think I've always had it inside me. That's how it is.''
It's a talent not easily obscured. Ireland said what initially impressed him about MacLean was that during the 17-game winless streak, he shrugged off the mounting pressure to score and was relatively productive.
''I learned he wasn't going to quit on us, and he was going to work in all situations to get better,'' Ireland said. ''I've seen him get down a little bit. He puts pressure on himself. We've talked a lot about staying positive, and he's responded well to those talks.''
One of Ireland's other favorite topics has been MacLean's grit. At 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, MacLean's primary project is to become a more forceful presence on the ice.
"I never gave up. The one thing that really worked out was that guys pulled together and stuck together as a team. If you work hard enough, you can pull through anything. I was just trying to focus on my game. Now, I know when something tough happens, I can get through it."
-- Brett MacLean
Once he gets going, he skates well, Ireland said, but those first couple of strides could use some more jet fuel. MacLean can snag rebounds with the best of them, but needs to widen the swath he creates for elbow room.
''He's always been very good from the hashmarks in," said Ireland. "As big as he is, he has to get stronger. He has to get man-strong. He has to use his size to compete.''
Sometimes, MacLean has been as noticeable as a flashing goal light. He has nine points streaks of two or more games this year. In other stretches, he's as easy to overlook as a blank dasher board.
He went from Feb. 16 to March 21 without scoring a goal.
''It's just little things that didn't make that much of a difference in juniors, but now you're in the pro game, they make a big difference,'' MacLean said.
In a few days, MacLean will have time, and way too much of it, to reflect upon how much those little things can add up on either side of the hockey ledger.
''If we could have ended that (winless) streak earlier, who knows where we'd be right now?'' MacLean said. ''It (missing the playoffs) will be a different feeling, that's for sure. I'm going to try to build on everything next year, and hopefully make more of an impact. I want to make the playoffs, and not have to finish my season after 80 games.''