Cam Atkinson laid out his dream to become an NHL player on Career Day when he was in the fourth grade.
But by the time he got to Avon Old Farms, a private all-boys high school in Connecticut, his coach didn’t see the NHL in the long-term picture.
“Nope. Nope. I didn’t,” said John Gardner, Avon’s long-time hockey coach.
The five-foot-eight, 182-pound Atkinson not only fulfilled his Career Day dream, he has flourished at the game’s highest level.
Leading the surprising Columbus Blue Jackets with 20 goals and 40 points entering play on Friday, Atkinson is also right there among the NHL’s highest scorers this season, and is tops alongside the Flyers’ Claude Giroux in power-play production.
What Gardner didn’t realize was how the NHL would evolve to allow a player like Atkinson â€” small, speedy and skilled â€” to not only find a place in the league but thrive.
Even Atkinson, who has five brothers, wasn’t seriously contemplating the NHL when he landed at Avon in 2004. It was a dream, sure, but realistically he was just looking for a place close to his hometown of Riverside, Conn., that could help him reach the next level.
Avon opened in 1927 and has been that place for many, even producing NHL stars like Brian Leetch and Jonathan Quick. The campus, with castle-like buildings and underground classrooms surrounded by old stone, looks like something out of the “Dead Poets Society” or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts as Atkinson notes with a chuckle.
The fact the school is only for boys has a positive effect on academics and athletics, according to Atkinson.
“Any time you put girls in the situation your mind gets a little cloudy,” he added with a laugh.
The school uniform consists of a blue blazer, tie and grey slacks and students live on campus.
Gardner, a blunt old-school coach who’s not much for sentiment, has led Avon’s hockey program for 42 years. Atkinson recalls one practice during sophomore year when he rolled his eyes at the coach and was promptly kicked off the ice.
Gardner said Atkinson was a coachable player who could fly and had great skill as a member of three championship teams. But the coach didn’t see someone of Atkinson’s size making it to the NHL at a point when the league still had fighting behemoths occupying fourth-line spots.
Atkinson, 27, concurs that changes in the game â€” namely a wider pursuit of speed and skill â€” have allowed him to flourish.
“Obviously they’ll never take fighting out of (the NHL), but there’s not as much fighting,” Atkinson said. “You don’t need those big fourth-line guys that all they do is fight now. You want fourth-line skilled guys too. The new age of hockey is my style and hopefully it continues.”
His NHL dreams resurfaced when he caught the eye of Boston College while playing for the United States at the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament. But he was passed over entirely in his first year of eligibility for the NHL draft. The Jackets grabbed him a year later with their second-last pick (157th overall in 2008) and he went on to post 20 goals in each of his first three full NHL seasons.
He’s blossomed this year on Columbus’ top-ranked power play with one tactical change playing a key role. The Jackets have Atkinson line up just above the goal line on the left side of the ice and he’s made a killing there, scoring nine goals and setting up 10 others entering a Friday game against Tampa.
What’s odd is Atkinson manned that spot all throughout his career, from college to the AHL, but never before in the NHL. He thinks he might have spoken up before the season and asked for a shot there or maybe it was Brad Larsen, a Jackets assistant and formerly Atkinson’s AHL head coach, who suggested it.
“I’ve always found that that’s like my home, that’s my office, that’s where I’m good at,” Atkinson said.
He’s already blown past his previous career-high for power-play points and should soon eclipse the career-best 27 goals and 53 points from last season.
“This year it’s just clicking for me where I’m having success,” he said. “I’ve always known I could play at this level when I got here and eventually produce the way I’m doing.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press