McCambridge's belief in Chiarot a big reason why the IceCaps defenceman has blossomed
It was sometime around Christmas this season, and Keith McCambridge was in a quandary. What to do with Ben Chiarot?
The third-year St. John’s IceCaps defenceman wasn’t playing especially well for McCambridge’s liking. It would have been easy to sit Chiarot, even though he had played a game for parent Winnipeg a month earlier — and that was a rough one, a minus-three outing in his first NHL start — but McCambridge wrestled with the thought of leaving him in the lineup.
Knowing McCambridge, he probably lost sleep.
“I was even driving to the rink in the morning thinking about it,” he admits today.
See, McCambridge takes these things ultra-seriously. To him, the future of his hockey players and the chance to make a whack of dough in the National Hockey League rest in his hands.
He’s that way with even the most mundane things. It’s the way he is.
Anyway, McCambridge got to Mile One Centre on another cold, wintry morning in December and sat down with Chiarot.
There wasn’t a lot said, but the message came through loud and clear.
“I told him, ‘I could sit you out here tonight, but I’m not going to.’ I said, ‘We’re not going to take a step back. We’re going to keep pushing forward, because we believe in you.’”
Fast forward a few months and the faith and trust McCambridge and his assistants placed in Chiarot has paid off in spades.
The big Hamilton, Ont., native emerged as the IceCaps’ best defenceman this season, leading the team in plus-minus and has carried over that play into the Calder Cup post season.
Pretty good for a player who began his pro career splitting the 2011-12 campaign between the American Hockey League and the ECHL.
Two of the goals Chiarot has scored in the playoffs have been critical, the first coming with 24 seconds left in regulation time to beat the Albany Devils 2-1 in the IceCaps’ very first playoff game. His second came in the last St. John’s game, a series-clinching 5-2 win over the Norfolk Admirals in the second round. Chiarot’s goal was the fifth IceCaps’ tally, but virtually nailed Norfolk’s coffin shut early in third period after Kyle MacKinnon potted the game-winner late in the second period and Andrew Gordon scored 3:27 into the third.
Aside from that, however, it’s the other stuff that’s making Chiarot so valuable these days — and stuff he’s done all year — like being a big body to play against in the St. John’s end of the ice, moving the puck up to the speedy St. John’s forwards, following up and joining the rush and manning time on the St. John’s special teams.
“It’s the best I’ve seen him play this season,” McCambridge said. “It really is.
“At the beginning of the year, and halfway through the season, he was still trying to get consistency in his game and have that intensity in the way he plays. I talked to him lots that the way he’s going to make it to the National Hockey League is being a strong defenceman who is hard to play against, make good first passes and be a good defender. If there is opportunity to add to the rush, that’s part of his game, but the solid foundation is a big strong physical defender and he’s done that.
“This is the best we’ve seen him play and that puts a smile on my face because he’s been a guy we’ve worked with every day to ensure he’s getting an opportunity to make it to the National league.”
He got that chance towards the end of the season, spending seven games with the Jets, although he didn’t get any playing time.
But what the heck, he got to collect some big-time NHL pay.
Now, as the IceCaps prepare to take on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference final tonight at Mile One, Chiarot has taken that experience of practising with NHL players for a couple of weeks into the post season.
“It’s playoff time, when you want to be playing your best hockey,” said Chiarot, 23, a fourth round pick (120th overall) of the Jets in 2009, “and I absolutely think I am right now.”
Chiarot remembers that sitdown with McCambridge, recalls the sinking feeling of believing he was about to be banished to the press box.
He looks back on it today as a turning point in his season.
“He told me, ‘You know what, you haven’t been playing as good as you should be and I need more from you. It’s not worth sitting you down, but I need you to turn this around and get things going again.’
“Anytime the coach shows faith in you, has confidence in you, it’s a big boost to you’re going to play.
“That was big for me. It showed me he was going to ride with me, stick with me, and lean on me, and I wanted to come through for him. I took that to heart and I didn’t want to let him down, that’s the easiest way to put it.”
McCambridge so desperately wanted Chiarot to succeed that he picked up a book for the defenceman, “Simply the Best: Players on Performance” written by former NHLer Ryan Walter and ex-NHL assistant coach and current Portland Winterhawks junior coach Mike Johnston.
The authors talk to a number of hockey stars, among them Sidney Crosby, Joe Sakic and Hayley Wickenheiser, and discover, among other things, how they prepare to be the best in the world and how they lead a dressing room from the inside out.
“I remember (Ed) Jovanovski said he would never look to his coach to give him a pat on the back,” Chiarot recalls. “He’d always look to his teammates, or even himself. He wouldn’t look to his coaches for a boost.
“That a great player like that for so long looks to his teammates ... I thought that was interesting.”
“In the book, Crosby says that when he’s not playing well, how he gets better is with good practice habits,” recounts McCambridge. “That’s something we talked about with Benny three years ago, ensuring that his compete level in practice is just the same as it is in games.
“I really feel he really progressed well after that conversation (earlier this season) after we had a chance to sit down. He’s showing signs of being a guy with an opportunity to knock on the door with the National Hockey League.
“It makes me happy that Ben Chiarot is playing the way he is.”
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort