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by Rob Poling / Buffalo Sabres

Cody Caron lives a long way from home for the average 17-year-old. Despite being eight hours away from his family and friends in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the Niagara IceDogs rookie forward feels right at home in his new surroundings.

“It’s great here, I feel right at home. My billets are great and the fans are unreal. The coaching staff is great from top to bottom. I really like it here.”

In addition to having to adapt to a new home off the ice, Caron admits there has been a significant learning curve in his transition from midget hockey into the Ontario Hockey League.

“It’s a big, big step up. The puck moves a lot faster, the boys are bigger obviously. It’s a big jump and you have to be ready physically,” Caron said on Thursday night after Niagara (8-20-2-2) hosted the first-place Erie Otters (28-4-1-0) at the Gatorade Garden City Complex in downtown St. Catharines.

Caron is not the only player on this young Niagara roster who is adapting to the rookie lifestyle. He is one of 10 rookies on the squad who are either 16- or 17-years-old. Caron says every veteran on the team has welcomed him and provided good leadership.

“We have a great group of guys and some really good veterans. It’s not just one guy. Every veteran we have is there for you all the time.”

The healthy atmosphere for Niagara’s young players is showing off in their play.

Thursday night was a memorable one for Caron as he scored his first career Ontario Hockey League goal in front of a home crowd of 3,052. Fellow rookie forward Hayden McCool, who scored his first career Ontario Hockey League goal less than a week ago, set Caron up with a nice pass.

Caron described his first career goal after the game: “I was curling towards the middle while Hayden McCool picked up the puck along the boards. He beat the defenseman with a little chip past him. The other defenseman slid trying to play the two-on-one. McCool waited him out and went backhand. He made a really nice pass; I just went to the net and tapped it in.”

The goal, which was also assisted by IceDogs rookie defenseman Zach Wilkie, was a mature hockey play carried out against a much more experienced Otters team. With the tally, Caron tied the game up at one halfway through the first period. The game was eventually taken over by Erie’s offensive weapons.

Despite being outshot 30-27, Erie was able to capitalize on their chances en route to a 7-2 victory. Washington Capitals 2013 first-round draft pick Andre Burakovsky notched two goals and added an assist, and was named as the game’s first star. Dane Fox scored his league-leading 39th and 40th goals of the season and also added an assist. Vancouver Canucks draft pick Brendan Gaunce also had a big night contributing two goals and two assists in the win.

Erie's highly-touted 16-year-old prospect Connor McDavid is currently at Team Canada's national junior selection camp and did not play in the game.

Carter Verhaeghe has emerged this season as a standout player in a leadership role on this young Niagara team. The third-year IceDogs forward understands his team is going to have to endure losses to elite teams like Erie throughout their development process, but thought his team deserved a better fate on Thursday night.

“I thought we deserved a better outcome. They surprised us with some quick ones, but overall I think we are starting to play together really well. I thought we matched up good against the top-ranked team in the country.”

Verhaeghe, a third-round pick (82nd overall) of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, underwent a learning process of his own when he attended his first NHL prospects training camp this past summer. He gained some valuable experiences which he has brought back to the IceDogs dressing room with him.

“It was surreal getting drafted and you learn lots at the camp. You learn how guys act professionally and how much work goes into everything.”

Verhaeghe is definitely demonstrating his maturity. He’s already surpassed his point total from last year with 45 (16+29) in 31 games this season, and has emerged as a good role model for rookie players like Caron and McCool.

The IceDogs now embark on a four-game road trip before returning home to play Belleville on Tuesday, December 31. Click here for complete IceDogs schedule and ticket information.

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