Jack Combs was smiling big Thursday. It might have been because the sky was nothing but blue and the sun was shining bright over Gander. It might have been reflective of the happiness of a hockey player on the verge of a new season.
But it also could have something to so with what transpired on a couple of big-league diamonds the night before.
You see, Combs (it’s pronounced just like the hair-grooming instrument) is from St. Louis, Mo., and a big fan of Major League Baseball’s Cardinals, who completed a huge September comeback with a win over the Houston Astros on Wednesday, overtaking the faltering Atlanta Braves for the National League’s Wild Card berth.
Combs, 23, is “a big Cards fans,” regularly enduring the sweltering summer heat of St. Louis to take in games at Busch Stadium. But he admits his faith in the team was bruised by late August, when the Redbirds were 10.5 games behind Atlanta.
“Maybe about a month ago, I stopped watching for a couple of days. But then they got hot and the (Atlanta) Braves got cold and now the whole city has gone crazy,” said Combs, after a Thursday morning skate with the St. John’s IceCaps at the Gander Community Centre, the temporary home of the American Hockey League team’s training camp.
But as happy as he is with the Cardinals, baseball is but a small sidebar to his life these days.
Combs is one of a passel of tryout hopefuls with the IceCaps this week, and knows he has a short window in which to impress the decision-makers. A large group of contracted players assigned by the parent Winnipeg Jets will be awaiting the team when it arrives back in St. John’s on the weekend, and more will be dispatched here in the coming days.
At least Combs knows he’s guaranteed hockey work somewhere — he has a deal in place with the Colorado Eagles, the ECHL affiliate of the IceCaps and Jets. But while he may be a longshot to start the season in St. John’s, Combs knows hockey campaigns are long and arduous and that lineups in January are often far different than ones in October.
“I just want to make the best impression I can and make sure my name remains in the back of (the coaches and management’s) minds,” said the five-foot-11, 195-pound Combs, who shoots left, but can play either wing.
He started playing minor hockey in St. Louis, but moved to Michigan in his first year of high school to play for the Honeybaked midget team, a hot-housed collection of players from all over the country (Patrick Kane of Buffalo, N.Y. and Peter Mueller of Bloomington, Minn., were among his Honeybaked teammates).
“Being so young, that first year was tough, but after that, it was a breeze. You find out a lot about yourself and I’m glad I did it.”
From there, Combs moved on to a full five-year career in the Ontario Hockey League, mainly with the Saginaw Spirit. He had a 42-goal, 100-point season with the Spirit in 2007-08, and although undrafted, earned a tryout with the Colorado Avalanche, attending both the Avs’ rookie and main camps in the fall of ’08.
“That was Sakic’s last year, and watching him up close on the ice was really something,” said Combs, who had an opportunity to play with Colorado’s ECHL team that year, but chose instead to return to Saginaw for an overage year.
Since then, he’s made the minor-league rounds, going cross-continent in 2009-10, playing for both the ECHL’s Alaska Aces and Trenton, N.J., Devils, with a midwest three-game cup of coffee with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen.
In 2010-11, he got another three-game AHL stint, this time with the Chicago Wolves, but played mainly for the Central league’s Tulsa Oilers, registering 40 goals and 42 assists.
Those are numbers that would seem to peg Combs as a scorer, something every organizations needs, if only a reserve depth.
“I guess you can classify me at that (a points-producer). But here, I’m not worrying about what I’m called, only what I do. I’ll just play my game and hope it’s something they like, something they need, if not right now, maybe later.”