When long-time Boston Bruins defenceman Don Sweeney, honourary coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars, spoke during the American Hockey League’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Providence, R.I., on Monday, he spoke of the shaking a player’s confidence takes when he is sent by an NHL team to the minors.
Sweeney, now the Bruins’ assistant general manager, said no matter what the player is told — “This is best for your development” or “Be patient, your chance will come,” — the only three words that register most of the time are, “You’re going down.”
IceCaps’ defenceman Derek Meech, the lone St. John’s player at the all-star game who was among those in the audience at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium Monday, knows the conversation, knows the feeling.
He’s been on the receiving end of those words countless times during a pro hockey career that’s stretching into nine years.
But with that repetition has come resilience.
The latest instance of “the conversation” came earlier this month when the 28-year-old Meech was one of three players — forwards Max Macenauer and Spencer Machacek were the others — returned to the IceCaps at the end of the Winnipeg Jets’ post-lockout training camp.
“Like they told me up there — which is the story of my career — be patient and you never know when your opportunity will arise,” said Meech.
“And I know it sound really cliche, but now the only way I know how to approach it is game-by-game, day-to-day, just trying to play the best you can whenever there’s an injury or whatever the case may be. Just to be ready for that opportunity, trying to believe that it’s coming.
“I’ve learned it’s the only way you can deal with it.”
It was a lesson learned during seven years in the Detroit Red Wings’ system.
A Memorial Cup winner with the Red Deer Rebels in 2001, Meech was a seventh-round draft pick of the Red Wings the following year and then helped Canada win a silver medal at the 2004 world junior championship.
After turning pro, he spent three full seasons with Detroit’s AHL farm team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, but cracked the Wings’ lineup in 2007, going on to be named by Detroit hockey writers as the team’s top rookie for the 2007-08 season.
He spent two more years with Detroit, but a deep roster meant he was frequently pushed to the press box and appeared in only about half the Wings’ games.
He spent all of 2010-11 in Grand Rapids, before signing as an unrestricted free agent with the Jets in his hometown of Winnipeg.
“Detroit was a great experience,” he said. “The people I was surrounded by helped a lot, guys like Kris Draper. Obviously Nick Lidstrom is a guy you look up to ... Chris Chelios. There’s a bunch of guys you could name, so it’s hard not to soak up the wisdom they’ve acquired and were willing to pass along.
“And I learned to stay patient there. I waited for my chance, played forward when I had to, did anything to get in the lineup. But they were always so deep, and things didn’t work out the way I wanted, but nonetheless, it was a great experience.
“I learned a ton and I tried to bring some of that when I came to the Jets organization.”
Meech made the Jets out of training camp last season, but a couple of games in, he suffered a knee injury. With Meech sidelined, Mark Flood was recalled from the IceCaps to take his place and never went back to St. John’s.
What’s more, a series of injuries provided chances for other, briefer call-ups from the AHL team — Paul Postma, Arturs Kulda and Brett Festerling — while all Meech could do was watch and work hard on his rehab.
He eventually was assigned to the IceCaps midseason, but reinjured the knee three games in and missed almost all of the rest of the regular schedule. But he was back playing by the time the Calder Cup playoffs rolled around, and was one of the IceCaps’ best performers in their run to the Eastern Conference final, including scoring a memorable overtime goal to give St. John’s the clinching win in their opening-round series against the Syracuse Crunch.
In the off-season, he signed another one-year, free-agent contract with the Jets and was seen once again as a strong candidate to earn a spot in Winnipeg.
But then the lockout came, and although Meech was brought to Winnipeg for the Jets’ mini-camp after the labour dispute was settled earlier this month, it was Postma and Zach Redmond who were kept on, while he once again had to take part in “the conversation” and was sent down.
“It’s definitely a frustrating situation. Everybody’s goal is to play in the NHL and I especially want to play in Winnipeg,” said Meech. “I was happy with the way I have been playing (in St. John’s), but it really wasn’t much of a training camp. It was more or less just getting ready for the season to start. There wasn’t much you could do to prove yourself.”
So he’s back in St. John’s, working on his game, practising positive thinking, even if that means he’s kind of counting on the increased number of injuries predicted during a crowded post-lockout schedule.
“I’ve thought about that, yeah,” he said. “It’s been talked about. But time will tell, I guess.
“Everybody seemed to be in really good shape coming into Winnipeg.
“That’s good for the team, but it’s still a season crammed into a short period of time. It’s sort of hard to avoid those groin injuries or whatever, so I’ll be ready.”