by Lindsay Kramer
Before his mercurial career could continue taking flight, Manitoba Moose rookie forward Cody Hodgson had to learn a little bit about how AHL teams get on an airplane.
That small, but important, detail was crossed off the list during the Moose-Houston Western Conference finals.
The possible explanations are a little murky. Perhaps the brilliant prospect thought that travel days were dress-down days. It could be argued that Hodgson’s roommate — whom he did not want to publicly blame — should have tipped him off differently.
The bottom line was that when Hodgson showed up at the airport for the flight to Houston, he was rocking shorts and a golf shirt.
Um, no. The actual dress code for such occasions calls for a suit. Hodgson quickly ducked into a restroom to change into something a little more formal, but the damage was done. Cell phones were whipped out, pictures were taken and one somehow found its way to the phone of head coach Scott Arniel, who was en route to the airport and missed seeing the show in person.
“The guys had a good laugh about it,” said Hodgson, 19. “It was a good learning experience.”
It’s a great sign for the Moose that Hodgson’s game hasn’t needed nearly as much of a makeover as his travel wardrobe.
Taken No. 10 overall by the Canucks in the 2008 draft, Hodgson was the best player in juniors this season. Now, he’s doing his part to make the Moose the best team in the AHL.
Manitoba has advanced to the Calder Cup Finals vs. Hershey, and Hodgson is perched to play an increasingly important role in the competition. In the six games against the Aeros, he tossed in one goal and two assists.
“I just kind of watch them and see what they do,” Hodgson said of his teammates. “I’ve played this game my whole life. I’m not too concerned about (expectations). I go out there and do what I can. There’s a lot of great players on the team. There isn’t too much pressure on me, other than just to play my game.”
That’s usually been enough to steer Hodgson through the tensest challenges. Two years ago, he was the overall leading scorer on the Canadian team that won the World Under-18 Championships. This year, he pulled off the same feat for the gold-plated squad that took the World Juniors.
Those are the types of spotlights that Hodgson has been rehearsing for over the past decade, ever since his youth hockey teammates and opponents in the Toronto area included the likes of Steven Stamkos and several other prodigies.
“Growing up outside of Toronto, there’s tons of pressure. You know it’s there. It comes with being a professional athlete,” Hodgson said. “If you want to be a hockey player, there are people watching you. That’s just the way it goes. If you get used to it when you are younger, you can brace for it when you are older.”
Hodgson needed a wheelbarrow to tote away all his junior honors the past couple years. The biggest haul came last week, when he was named CHL player of the year for an effort of 43 goals and 49 assists in just 53 games for Brampton.
Hodgson would have picked up the award in person, except that he had this other prior commitment to tend to — the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“I haven’t had a chance to look back. The whole magnitude of it hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “I just say, yeah, I had a good year.”
That sort of currency doesn’t carry over to the AHL, however, especially on a team as good and playing for stakes as high as the Moose. As impressed as Arniel was with Hodgson’s competitiveness and strength on the puck, initially the only minutes he had for the star-in-waiting were on the fourth line.
“It’s just a little different mindset going in,” Hodgson said of the change. “You know you’re not going to take double shifts, kill penalties, take faceoffs. I try not to say too much. I’m here to learn and get the experience.”
But talent usually trumps all else, especially when it meets opportunity. Injuries nudged Arniel the way of putting Hodgson onto the second line for Games 5 and 6 of the Houston series, and in the last game the trio of Hodgson, Mark Cullen andMichael Grabner was the biggest force on the ice. Those three combined for 18 shots, one more than the Aeros put up as a team.
“I told him at the very beginning that everything was dictated by his play,” Arniel said of Hodgson. “His ice time would improve as his play improved. He accepted that from the beginning. He thinks the game very well, is a well-rounded player. He’s recognizing every time I throw a carrot at him, he wants to work hard.”
The next prize looming for Hodgson to take a chomp at could be the NHL, rendering his appearance with the Moose this postseason as an AHL cameo. Hodgson is still too young to play a full regular season with Manitoba next year, so that leaves the Canucks or Brampton. Hodgson has already shown how much he plays above that latter level.
“I’m not really worried about that now. Personally, I feel I can step in and help (Vancouver) win,” he said. “But obviously I have to prove that to the coaches and training staff.”
And he may first have one more installment on dues to pay in Manitoba. For minor transgressions — like, say wearing shorts to the airport — Arniel usually avoids fines. Instead, he prefers to spring something else on unsuspecting offenders.
When the team bus passes a Starbucks or Tim Hortons, Arniel will tell it to pull over and then let everybody pile off. The guilty party is then handed the bill for the entire pit stop.
Fortunately for Hodgson, neither of those two establishments were seen in Houston. But if there’s one or the other in Hershey, well, it could be in for quite a payday.
“Timing is everything,” Arniel said of his plans. “You know what? I’m sure he’s up to speed on all of our rules.”