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Nova Scotian Mal Cameron has his Texas Wildcatters atop ECHL

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It might come as a surprise to hockey fans to learn that one of the best teams in minor-pro pucks is based a 15-minute drive from the Gulf of Mexico.

They love their Texas Wildcatters in Beaumont. Head coach Malcolm Cameron is from Cole Harbour, N.S., and John McNabb of Calgary leads the ECHL in scoring on a team that has lost only four of 46 games in regulation time and has 77 of a possible 92 points.

"I've had some very good teams but I've never had as dedicated a group as this," says Cameron.

With the closest geographical opponent a four-hour drive away and the next closest an eight-hour jaunt, there's plenty of travel involved for Cameron's crew. The next road trip begins at 10 p.m. Wednesday when they pile into a sleeper bus for a 12-hour overnighter to South Carolina. Six games and 11 days later, the Wildcatters will be on the bus after a game in Reading, Pa., and it'll be 15 hours before they're back in Beaumont.

Texas has 17 of a possible 18 points in its last nine games, which is no big deal considering it went 23 games without a regulation-time loss last autumn.

"I'm not going to lie, it takes a little bit of luck," says Cameron.

The 37-year-old Maritimer was a teammate of Troy Crosby for one year of junior. Crosby would latter become famous for being the father of you know who.

Cameron helped Acadia win the Canadian universities championship in 1993. He played five years of minor pro in the United States, working as a Dartmouth furniture mover during his summers, and returned to Acadia to be an assistant coach. Before being hired by the Wildcatters in 2006, he coached a pro team in Long Beach, Calif.

The Minnesota Wild of the NHL has an AHL affiliate in Houston and the Wildcatters are the organization's bottom rung, which makes their winning ways all the more impressive since Cameron has no team from which to call up reinforcements. Players get injured and he has to scramble to fill out a lineup.

"We've lost three of our top players to AHL call-ups but the depth of our team was able to sustain us," says Cameron.

The depth of which he speaks is the result of his effective recruting.

"Part of it is that agents like my style," he explains. "I really promote my players to the AHL and kids want to move up.

"I've been fortunate that we've had a lot of success moving kids up to the AHL and in some cases up to the NHL."

McNabb had 56 points including 20 goals before the bus loaded for Charleston. At 29, he's the oldest player on the roster. He's also the captain. He played at Austin in the Central Hockey League last winter.

"He's been terrific for us," says Cameron. "Some guys are just late bloomers, and John is one.

"He didn't start hitting his stride till he was 24 or 25. He might have made a lot more money going to Europe to play because he's an offenisve player but he chose to sign with us."

The first line is comprised of Kevin Baker, Scott Champagne and Max Taylor.

Baker, 28, from Kingston, Ont., was Canadian universities player of the year at Acadia two seasons back. He started this season in Germany but in December rejoined the Wildcatters. He was a first-team league all-star last season.

"He's a sniper," says Cameron. "Give him an inch around the net and it's in the net.

"He's a complete player. He plays physical and is willing to go into traffic and blocks shots, too."

Champagne, 24, from Cornwall, Ont., via Mercyhurst College, had a rough start this season. Used to a run-and-gun style in college hockey, it took time to blend in with his new teammates.

"Talk about a kid who's gone from the outhouse to the penthouse, he's been the hottest player on our team the last six weeks," says Cameron. "He's really working hard.

"He's gone from being out of the lineup to being on our top line. He deserves a lot of credit because a lot of guys would have buried themselves and looked for a change of scenery."

Taylor, 24, from Ottawa via St. Lawrence University, centres the first line.

Jordie Preston, 24, of Bedford, N.S., who led Canadian universities scoring during his CIS days at Windsor, is represented by the same agent that represents Cameron. Such ties are invaluable in the forest of ECHL and Central teams trying to lure players.

"We have five or six players with Maritime connections with us every year," says Cameron.

Forward Colin Nicholson of Dartmouth, N.S., via Lake Superior State University, is among them.

Defenceman David Schulz, 22, of Winkler, Man., is a former member of Canada's under-18 nat'l team and comes off injured reserve this weekend after rehabbing from a broken collarbone.

"He's having a tremendous season for us," says Cameron.

A.J. Thelen is a former first-round (12th overall) NHL entry draft pick by the Wild. The 21-year-old American defenceman wasn't signed by the Wild.

"He's struggled a little bit with his development," says Cameron. "I give him a tremendous amount of credit because he could have shopped himself to other NHL teams but opted to sign with Houston, and he's starting to show signs now of his upsize and promise.

"He's got a heavy, heavy shot and is very elusive for a big man with the puck, and he's very solid defensively."

Vancouver-born forwards Marc Fulton, 24, out of Colgate University and the six-foot-eight Riley Emmerson, 21, formerly of the WHL's Tri-City Americans, play for the Wildcatters, too. So does right-winger Matt Kassian, 21, of Sherwood Park, Alta., via the WHL's Kamloops Blazers.

Another Canadian on Cameron's club is Cleve Kinley, 24, of Powell River, B.C., who played at Massachusetts-Lowell before turning pro.

"I like all the aspects we have - toughness, goaltending, size, scoring and leadership," says Cameron. "We're just trying to prepare for the next 26 games so we have a chance at the championship."

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