ESTERO – Andrew Sweetland laughs when it’s suggested his playoff beard is starting to grow thicker.
“Slowly,” said Sweetland, wearing a Florida Panther t-shirt here inside an empty Germain Arena. “Very slowly.”
The same can’t be said for Sweetland’s hockey career. Consider three years ago the native of Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador, was playing Tier II Junior ‘A’ hockey in the Maritimes. Consider two years ago he was a freshman at the University of Maine.
Sweetland’s fast track to professional hockey currently has him here with the Panthers’ East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliate, the Florida Everblades, one of the favorites in this year’s Kelly Cup championship.
“It’s a big jump and everything has happened pretty quick,” said the 6-2 left winger, who signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers last summer. “But I’ve looked forward to the challenges. It gets you right in the mix.”
Sweetland, who has two cousins playing in the NHL in Boston’s Michael Ryder and Calgary’s Adam Pardy, spent his first professional season mostly with the Panthers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. He played 48 games in Rochester with a goal and an assist. His 23 games with the Everblades, however, produced 10 goals and 13 assists.
In fact, Sweetland was better suited for the East Coast League, but injuries found him spending more time in Rochester. And, according to Sweetland, there is a difference between the ECHL and the AHL.
“There’s absolutely a difference, a big difference,” he said. “Guys in the AHL…everyone is a top player. Everyone is so much bigger and faster and stronger. Everyone is so talented. I find the speed similar here (in the ECHL). it’s just guys in the AHL don’t make mistakes.”
Born in the fishing village of Bonavista (discovered by John Cabot in 1497) Sweetland started playing hockey when he was three. Although the village is small - 4,000 inhabitants – the quality of hockey is strong.
“When I was growing up sometimes there’d be only 12 players on my team, but a lot of talent has come out of that town,” said the proud Bonavista native. “There’s an old saying in Newfoundland about how they must put something in the water. But we have two guys, my cousins, in the NHL right now, and there’s a lot of guys who didn’t get off the island, that didn’t get noticed, who, if they got the opportunity, wouldn’t have had any problems getting Division I scholarships.”
Sweetland’s whirlwind began in 2006 shortly after spending two seasons playing junior ‘A’ hockey for the Couchiching Terriers of the Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League.
“I got a call (in 2006) from my coach in Triple A midget who was coaching a team in the Maritimes and asked me to play,” Sweetland recalled. “It sounded like a good situation and a good step for me.”
In 2006-07, Sweetland played for the Amherst Ramblers, a Tier II team in the Maritime Junior ‘A’ Hockey League. Sweetland made a name for himself by scoring a team record 56 goals in 54 games while posting 117 points.
The Panthers had Sweetland on the radar, inviting him to their Development Camp in May of that year. “When you watched the kid you felt like he had a pretty good upside,” said GM Jacques Martin.
When Sweetland signed with the Black Bears of Maine, “we just figured he’d be in college for four years,” Martin added.
But Sweetland had a strong first year in Maine – he earned the Howard Neville Award as Maine’s rookie of the year with 17 points (eight goals) in 28 games – and scouts started buzzing, including those from San Jose, Calgary and, yes, Florida.
“I had to listen to what everyone had to say,” Sweetland said. “It was not a decision (to leave Maine) made on a whim. It was well thought out. I talked to a lot of people, my two cousins who had been through it, and I talked to my parents and family. I thought at the time it was a good decision (to turn pro). I always wanted to be a pro hockey player, and opportunities like that don’t come along every day.”
Like the rest of the Rochester team, Sweetland struggled early in the season while fighting to get ice time. But he looks back on it as a learning experience.
“It was a struggle early in the year for everybody,” he said. “We got off to a slow start, but we had a lot of young guys in their first year of pro hockey (including Keaton Ellerby
, Michal Repik
and Jason Garrison
). It was a different position, but as the year went on we got better. If we didn’t have the slow start maybe we would have been in the playoffs.
“Obviously, it was a great learning experience being in Rochester. It was my first year pro. It’s a different lifestyle, a 24-hour a day job, so I took everything in from the older guys there, who were great. And, of course, playing here has been great, too. This is a great experience for me, being part of the playoffs and, obviously, looking forward to a long run.”
After the Kelly Cup is over, Sweetland will spend much of the summer in Newfoundland and Labrador. Because Bonavista has no summer rinks, Sweetland and Pardy will share an apartment in St. John’s and work out while skating three times a week.
“The summer’s important for me,” Sweetland said. “Hopefully, we’re going to have a long playoff run here. Then I’ll go back home, train with my cousins, and go to camp ready to play in Rochester next season. I know what I have to do to accomplish that.”NOTE
The Everblades kick off the second-round of the playoffs Friday evening at Germain Arena against the South Carolina Stingrays. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
If you haven’t been to Germain Arena, it’s a straight shot across Alligator Alley (I-75) to exit 123. For more information, go to floridaeverblades.com
or call 239-948-7825.