ST. JOHN’S — Professional hockey has been good to Jason King.
He’s made a comfortable living doing what he loves and is now back in his home province as a fan favourite on the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps.
King, like many others, decided a few years back his dream of cracking the National Hockey League full-time just wasn’t going to happen. Instead of continuing in the AHL at the time, he headed to Europe, playing in the Swedish Elite League and Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga. After four seasons of playing overseas, he can now wind down his career on his own terms.
These days, with the NHL lockout in full effect, guys like King are being bumped from their jobs on European clubs, as unemployed stars like Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton and Jamie Benn, who plays on King’s former DEL team the Hamburg Freezers, have sought out temporary contracts to stay in game shape.
It’s a tough issue on all sides, says King. He understands the desire for locked out NHLers to ensure their game stays at the level it needs to be at, but sympathizes with journeymen players who lose their spot on a team because of it.
“I’m sure there are a lot of guys over there that are upset,” he said. “But from the fans’ side of it, I’m sure they’re pretty excited to see some NHL stars come to their hometown too, so it’s kind of a catch-22 any way you look at it.
“From the NHL side of it, hopefully they can get something figured out and everybody can get back on track again.”
The NHL season was supposed to begin Thursday, but there doesn’t appear to be any reason for optimism that it will start anytime soon. The AHL, however, cuts the ribbon on its 77th season tonight.
King and the IceCaps hit the ice for their opener on Saturday night in Springfield against the Falcons.
“It’s been a tough training camp — the last couple of weeks have been pretty intense, actually,” King said. “Last year was pretty positive, but we’re not happy with how it ended, so I think we’re all in the same boat. We’re excited to get things going and get it started the right way.”
The IceCaps’ training camp was held in Corner Brook this year, which hometown boy King described as an “awesome” experience.
“It was something I never thought I would do in my career,” he said. “Not just to have a pro camp, but get a chance to play (a pre-season game against the Syracuse Crunch) in front of friends and family. It was definitely a great feeling.”
With most of the roster back from last season, King is hoping the team can improve on a successful inaugural campaign that saw them post a 43-25-5-3 regular season record and reach the Eastern Conference final, before bowing out to the eventual-champion Norfolk Admirals. That Admirals group, because of Syracuse’s recent NHL affiliation switch from Anaheim to Tampa Bay, is now this year’s Crunch roster.
“We’re expecting more, but it’s really about how we respond too,” said King. “Last year we were just getting our feet wet and we saw what it takes to get the job done.
“This season we’ve got our goal set on what we can accomplish and that all starts on Saturday.”
The 31-year-old King put up 41 points (22G-19A) in 70 games last season, with four points (2G-2A) in 15 playoff appearances. He knows his role has changed from sniper to leader, but figures he can still light the lamp frequently. There was a certain period of readjustment to the North American game last year, after playing in Europe so long, he won’t have to deal with this time around.
“I think it was a good year overall, but there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “Numbers-wise I hope I can do the same, if not more.”
One aspect of the game that will take some getting used to is the new hybrid icing rule, where the play will be blown dead if a defending player is the first to reach the end zone face-off dots, provided the puck has crossed the goal-line at that point. The rule will be in effect until Nov. 19, then the AHL’s board of governors will decide if it will continue.
“It’s something we’ll kind of have to roll with for a while,” King said. “When you change something that you’re so used to, there’s always a transition phase. Players will have to be patient ... it’s one of those things where a lot of discretion is going to be put in the linesman’s hands.
“Hopefully it will prevent some serious injuries that happened in the past,” he added. “That’s all we can ask for.”
And hey, at least he and the IceCaps are actually playing hockey and not sifting through legal labour documents or sitting on the sidelines in Europe.
“I think we all have to feel really lucky, there are a lot of good hockey players out there without work right now,” King said. “We’re having fun going to the rink every day, so we’re fortunate for sure.”