Keith McCambridge knows the frustration of a professional hockey player stuck on a low rung on the organizational ladder. Taken in the eighth round, 201st overall by Calgary in the 1994 National Hockey League Entry Draft, McCambridge was a solid, if unspectacular, defenceman for 461 games at the top level of the minor leagues, but never got a call-up to the NHL.
He doesn’t bitch about how things did — or didn’t — turn out for him personally as a player. However, now that McCambridge is head coach of the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps, he has no trouble expressing how pleased he is to be working in what he describes “a different atmosphere,” for the parent Winnipeg Jets.
“One of the things that has been made clear within the Jets’ organization, is that it will be a player’s ability, not his contract status, not where he was drafted, that will determine if he gets called up or sent down,” said McCambridge.
“We’ve all seen — I’ve seen — times where a player gets called up to the NHL from the farm, but he wasn’t the best player at his position on the AHL club. We know he got the call mainly because he was a first-round pick or because he had a one-way contract.
“That won’t be the case in Winnipeg. The Jets are developing a culture where performance brings rewards.
“And that’s certainly the way it should be.”
McCambridge agrees such a policy is easier to implement with the Jets, seeing nobody in the NHL team’s upper management or coaching group were with the franchise when it was the Atlanta Thrashers. They are mostly unencumbered by the pro hockey politics that often lead to general managers promoting prospects who were high draft picks under their watch in an effort to justify their selections, or to them keeping undeserving players on the NHL roster mainly because they are on a one-way deal and want to avoid explaining to the owner why someone they signed is in the AHL making a million or two annually.
“Sure, that is a big part of it,” said McCambridge, “but with Winnipeg, you also have people (general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger) who know very well what it’s like to be on the other side of those situations and how frustrating it can be.”
We’ve all seen — I’ve seen — times where a player gets called up to the NHL from the farm, but he wasn’t the best player at his position on the AHL club. We know he got the call mainly because he was a first-round pick or because he had a one-way contract. Keith McCambridge, St. John’s IceCaps head coach -
Chevaldayoff is a former GM of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, while Heisinger held the same position with the Manitoba Moose and continues to do so with the IceCaps.
According to McCambridge, the Jets’ stated attitude will make his job that much easier.
“As a coach, it’s a huge motivational tool to have players realize the main factor in how they progress in the organization will be based on how they play. It’s a card I can play here and it’s something that can be used in Winnipeg, where players who might be on the bubble know they’ll have to perform to stay there,” he said.
McCambridge and IceCaps assistant coach Mark Morrison will be on the bench with Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel when a Jets’ split squad takes on the Nashville Predators Saturday in Tennessee. On Sunday, that same group will travel to St. John’s, where the Jets play the Ottawa Senators in the C.B.S.-hosted Kraft Hockeyville preseason game Monday evening at Mile One Centre. After that, McCambridge and Morrison will be completely focused on the IceCaps, whose training camp begins Tuesday.
McCambridge expects the IceCaps’ to start camp with 26 players, but the numbers and makeup of the roster will certainly fluctuate as the Jets make cuts, the first of which came Thursday, when they sent six teenagers back to their junior teams, released tryout forward Levko Koper and formally assigned forward Mike Kirkpatrick, signed to an AHL contract with the IceCaps ,to St. John’s.
By the time the 2011-12 AHL season is ready to begin Oct. 7, McCambridge would like to be managing a roster of 24 players — 14 forwards, eight defenceman and two goalies. That’s one or two more than most teams might carry, but the IceCaps’ coach says the number reflects the issue of geography and the distance needed to move players between St. John’s and Winnipeg and between St. John’s and Loveland, Colo., home of the Colorado Eagles, the Jets’ ECHL affiliate.