TORONTO (CP) - There have been times over the past year and a half when Clarke MacArthur has found it difficult to play the game he loves.
At least at the level he'd like.
Playing games on consecutive nights in cities a few hours apart by bus is part of the weekly routine in the American Hockey League. Overcoming that grind is one of the toughest obstacles young players like MacArthur face in proving they belong in the NHL.
"It's tough slugging in the minors," he said Sunday before the AHL all-star skills competition. "There's a lot of games. You're playing three (games) in three (nights). It wears you down. Ask any of these guys, it's a grind."
Earning selection to the AHL's all-star classic is evidence to MacArthur that he's starting to find the consistency he needs to succeed at the pro level.
He and 20-year-old Dustin Boyd are among the youngest players on the Canadian team at Monday's all-star game.
The two have more far more than that in common. MacArthur and Boyd each came through the Western Hockey League, won a gold medal with Canada's world junior team and were drafted in the third round by NHL teams.
And they both want to secure permanent jobs in the big league soon.
"I want to get there sooner rather than later," said MacArthur, a native of Lloydminster, Alta. "Anyone who comes up through the minors, I'm sure it's that much sweeter when they do get to the NHL.
"I'll really be enjoying the day when I become a permanent player up there."
Boyd has had more than a taste of the big league with the Calgary Flames this year.
The Winnipeg native has played 13 NHL games and has two goals and two assists to show for his efforts. Boyd has also been bounced between AHL Omaha and Calgary four separate times.
"I'm going to have to get one of those Aeroplan cards," he said with a laugh.
Boyd has brought a little more confidence with him every time he's arrived in Calgary for another stint in the NHL.
He knows he's not too far away from earning a full-time spot with the Flames, especially if he continues to show signs of improvement.
"Being a young guy, you always want to get faster and stronger," said Boyd. "I've also got to work on being mentally sharp - not only for every game, but for every practice and every drill."
There's no questioning his top moment of the year.
It came earlier this month when he banged a puck by Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco in the third period of a game at Pengrowth Saddledome. His first NHL goal was the game winner and it was scored in front of a national audience on Hockey Night in Canada.
"It was something else," said Boyd. "All my family and friends got to watch it on TV."
His second goal came two weeks later when he beat Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson on another Saturday game on Hockey Night in Canada.
"It's my favourite night," he said.
MacArthur has also had a taste of life in the NHL with one of the league's best teams.
He played his first two games with the Buffalo Sabres this year. Both were against Montreal - one at home, the other away - and he was held pointless.
MacArthur can hardly wait for his next chance.
"I've got to produce when I go up," he said. "It's that simple."
One of the highlights of his career so far has been playing for the dominant Canadian team at the 2005 world junior tournament.
Playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron, he earned a gold medal at the event in North Dakota. He had four goals during the tournament and started to really believe he was on a path to the NHL.
"The team's success rubbed off on everyone," said MacArthur. "A lot of those guys are already in the NHL.
"I felt after that tournament that I was ready. I knew I was a couple years away, but I knew I had a chance."
Boyd got his world junior experience in Vancouver a year later.
He was one of the last cuts of the 2005 team that included MacArthur and was understandably thrilled to be included in 2006.
Beyond the gold medal, the lasting memory he has from that event is the support of the home crowd.
"The whole country of Canada behind your back trying to push you to that gold medal is awesome," said Boyd. "It was unbelievable."
They'll take another step in their career paths over the next couple days with their first AHL all-star appearances.
MacArthur feels quite removed from his days with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers.
"It's a big step from junior to pro," he said. "You play with guys that are 30 years old instead of 17.
"It's hard to outsmart an older guy. I think you just learn the tricks of the trade."