One of the most impressive things about Kalamazoo rookie forward Dean Strong
this season was his complete disregard for hockey geography.
He refers to his January move from Worcester of the AHL to the K-Wings of the ECHL as going "up" to Kalamazoo. You'd have to look long and hard to find another prospect who doesn't see that as going the other way around.
"I just don't like to look at it that way," said Strong, 24. "I don't like to bring any negativity to being on the team. It's sort of a joke, you try not to take everything so seriously."
Maybe Strong's wording just reflected his sense of how natural a fit he and the K-Wings were this season. Kalamazoo was a true home for Strong, and he decorated it with a 17-game home points streak at the end of the season. The run was enough to help his team earn a No. 2 seeding in the American Conference, though Kalamazoo was upset by Reading in the first round of the playoffs.
"I'm going to have to say it's a coincidence," Strong said of
"That's the only way he knows how to play. He's a heart-and-soul kind of kid. If you had a team full of kids willing to pay a price like that, you'd be in good shape. He blocks shots. He penalty kills. He expects a lot from himself."
-- Nick Bootland
his home cooking. "But I must feel comfortable in that arena for things to be going the way it is. Getting points is a great feeling. You have to be selfish, but with the team in mind. I want to get goals. I want to get assists. Because I know that will help the team win."
Strong finished 16-21 in 34 regular-season games for Kalamazoo, but he started his stay there with something of an apology. After his first couple of contests he approached coach Nick Bootland
and said he could play better and to stick with him. It was an odd pitch made even more strange by the fact that Strong played pretty well in his K-Wings debut, producing 2 assists vs. Cincinnati. But the intrusive Strong likes to leave a physical imprint on the game that goes well beyond the mold of his 5-foot-8, 180-pound body, and he felt he was too much of another face in the crowd.
"I said, 'Hey, I think you're being too hard on yourself. Stay the way you are, you'll be OK,'" Bootland recalled.
"I don't think I played a very complete game. I told him not to worry, I had some more to offer to him," Strong said. "I think that's just the way the game is supposed to be. Every shift, there's a lot going on out there. It's playing every second of every shift. Those are the standards I set for myself. I don't think I can do them (all the time), but I try."
Strong comes as close to matching ideal and reality as anyone constrained by the limits of his body type can expect. He played every game during his four seasons at Vermont and was the team's captain his senior year.
"There's a good amount of luck going into that," he said of his streak. "I've heard whenever you let up and are not going your hardest, you are more prone to be injured, for some reason."
Strong ran into some fortune of the wrong kind when he signed an AHL deal with Worcester at the start of the season. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the chance with the Sharks, but he was competing against a stockpile of some of the most talented young forwards in the AHL. He got 2 goals and 3 assists in 16 games before getting sent down, er, up, to Kalamazoo.
"It's a really tough situation," Strong said. "You always expect yourself to prevail. I thought I could find myself a home on that hockey club. The reality is I didn't cut it there. They have a great lineup up there. I didn't fit in. With hockey, you have to have a really short memory."
Strong made a series of lasting impressions in Bootland's mental notebook with game after game of hustle plays that would have been impressive even for a player a half-foot taller. Bootland said Strong would chase after pucks that put him in situations where he got creamed, but the steep price never dissuaded him from bouncing back up and doing the exact same thing again.
"That's the only way he knows how to play. He's a heart-and-soul kind of kid," Bootland said. "If you had a team full of kids willing to pay a price like that, you'd be in good shape. He blocks shots. He penalty kills. He expects a lot from himself."
Strong said he doesn't know the origins of his oversized physical approach to the game but indicated it's become a matter of instinct by now.
"I don't really know any better, I guess," he said. "If I have to go into the corner to get the puck, I'm not thinking that (opponent) is 6-foot-2, I'm 5-foot-8. That's the way I've always been. Usually when you are banged up, there're a couple guys in the locker room who are banged up even more. You get back on the ice to do your job."
Strong has an idealism that let him look around and see a roster full of hungry players, teammates he hopes sacrificed as willingly as he did. That takes him back to the semantics of moving from one tough league to another, not going up or down. For as good as he is, to view that in any other way would have implied an air of being above it all that runs contrary to the very nature of his game.
"I don't want it any more than anybody else. You have a team full of hockey players here who want to play at the highest level," he said. "At the end of the game, you can relax a bit and hopefully be satisfied. The times that I'm satisfied is when I know I didn't leave my teammates short any effort."