January 1, 2013

Ex-Eagles Atkinson, Kreider build friendly rivalry in AHL

By Jesse Connolly

Cam Atkinson is leading the way offensively for the AHL's Springfield Falcons. (Getty Images)

Ask any young player who’s beginning to make his mark in the NHL what the last words he’d ever want to hear are, and you’d probably get just about the same response from all of them: “Sorry, kid, but we’re sending you back down.”

When the National Hockey League’s 30 clubs began assigning players by the dozen to the AHL in September, however, there was no widespread devastation, but merely acceptance. With a second lockout in eight years about to commence, that’s really all any player could do — even those widely expected to be on NHL rosters when the 2012-13 campaign got under way.

Among the many gifted youngsters sent down to the farm in September were Cam Atkinson and Chris Kreider, a pair of former Boston College standouts projected to play big roles for their respective big clubs this season.

“It’s disappointing that there’s a lockout, but I’m happy where I am,” said Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.), who’s back in Springfield after a successful rookie campaign with the Blue Jackets. “It’s given me a chance to play a lot of minutes and I’m hoping that when the NHL starts up, I’ll be just a step ahead of the guys that are locked out and we’ll be ready to go.”

Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) crafted one of the most exciting stories in all of hockey last season. After leading Boston College to a national championship, the 21-year-old forward jumped right onto the big stage, earning a roster spot with the Rangers during the postseason.

He broke an NHL record that stood for nearly 60 years by scoring five playoff goals before ever playing in a regular-season game and played a big role in the Blueshirts advancing to the conference finals. Many expected the former 19th overall pick to contend for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year this season.

Instead, the two-time national champion is with the Rangers’ top affiliate, the Connecticut Whale. In all likelihood, Kreider never would’ve experienced what the AHL was like were it not for the lockout.

“I don’t really think about that,” said Kreider, who had eight points in his first 13 games for Connecticut. “I just try to get better every single day. I’m just appreciative of the fact that I get to play hockey.”

Chris Kreider joined the Whale this fall after being a key part of the Rangers' 2012 playoff run. (Getty Images)

Atkinson spent 27 games up with Columbus last year, scoring seven goals and adding seven assists. Asked to compare life in the NHL vs. the AHL, the 5-foot-8 winger said he’s lucky that Springfield doesn’t have to make too many long treks when visiting their divisional and conference foes.

“It’s definitely different travel-wise,” Atkinson said while en route to Norfolk for a two-game set against the Admirals. “We actually have a pretty good schedule. There aren’t too many long bus rides. This is our first main road trip we’ve taken. It’s nice to get on the road and get a little bonding going, but you’re definitely not flying private every day.”

One benefit of the lockout is that Kreider and Atkinson, fellow Eagles from 2009-11, get to face off against one another 12 times this season.  

“It was fun,” Kreider said of their first clash. “At the same time, I’d rather be on Cam’s team. He’s such a good player and he’s so dangerous. I definitely prefer to have him in the same colors as me.”

Atkinson found the experience equally enjoyable and says the two have made the most of their close proximity.

“It’s really fun playing against former teammates,” said Atkinson, who’s living in an apartment in nearby Agawam with fellow Falcon Cody Goloubef. “Obviously Kreider and I are pretty close. We actually get lunch once a week, shoot the breeze and catch up. Sometimes he’ll come over and have dinner with us. We play each other so many times that we made a rule that the loser has to buy lunch. It’s good that he’s doing well and he’s a really good player.”

 Springfield got the win in their first two matchups, one of which was a 10-2 romp in Connecticut.

“I’m not really the biggest chirper,” Atkinson said when asked if he razzed Kreider about the blowout victory, “but obviously it was nice to win, nice to beat him and get a free lunch out of it.”

As negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA dragged on and Kreider prepared for his third month in the AHL, the 6-foot-3 center said he hasn’t put much thought into his eventual return to Broadway.

“I’m just focused on the here and now,” he said. “I’m trying to appreciate the time I’m spending in the position I’m in now and trying to help my team win. I’m not really looking that far ahead. I mean, there might not even be a league this year. It’s all about focusing on the here and now and the group I’m with. I’m really enjoying it and I’m just trying to get better.”

Atkinson is eager for the NHL to reopen its doors, but in the meantime, he’s taking the same approach to the situation as Kreider.

“I’m looking forward to (the lockout) ending, but I’ve got a pretty good setup down here,” said Atkinson. “As long as we’re winning and having fun, that’s what matters, but hopefully the lockout ends sooner rather than later.”

If the winning and the fun that comes along with it continue for Atkinson and the Falcons, putting a few more meals on Kreider’s tab should help pass the time.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the
editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com