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Ducks of a feather growing together

Though they come from different backgrounds, defensemen Juha Alen and Shane O’Brien have both made major strides in their first AHL season.

Both Cincinnati Mighty Ducks blueliners are big, young, first-year pros whose talents were raw at the beginning of the season, and not surprisingly, they have become good friends.

“Although we’re both young guys and we want to do the same thing, it’s not a competition between me and (Alen),” O’Brien said. “I push him, he pushes me, he’s a great guy, and we hang out off the ice.”

O’Brien said the two got to know each other early in the season when they were not receiving much ice time.

O’Brien played three years of juniors in the Ontario Hockey League and his offense steadily improved each season. He had two goals and 12 assists for 14 points his first year in 61 games, 10 goals and 23 assists for 33 points in 67 games in 2001-02, and 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points in 62 games last season. His penalty minute total also increased each year of juniors (89, 132, 208).

“Growing up in Ontario, I was 20 minutes away from Peterborough, and 30 minutes from Oshawa, so I watched a lot of juniors growing up,” O’Brien said. “To be honest, I was out of college options after playing one year of Tier II juniors, so I went to Kingston and was lucky enough to make the team.”

O’Brien has notched a goal and six assists in 50 games, has a plus-3 rating and 139 penalty minutes.

This is O’Brien’s first season living in the United States, and he said while there is a little adjustment, life in the U.S. and Canada is similar. O’Brien likes the different types of products available, such as clothes and foods.

Also, the weather in southern Ohio is a vast improvement over central Ontario.

“Some days here, it’s like 25 (Celsius), and we’re out playing golf, and who knows? Tomorrow is could be minus-whatever,” O’Brien said. “So it’s been a good winter (compared to) what I’m used to.”

Alen thought his hockey career was nearing an end a couple of years ago when he was playing in a summer tournament in his native Finland, but a college scout approached him about playing in the U.S., and soon after Alen was in the United States.

“The first two years I was living in the UP (upper peninsula of Michigan), so there wasn’t really any adjustment,” Alen said. “It’s kind of the same as back home.”

Alen attended Northern Michigan in 2002-03 last season, and posted four goals, 19 assists, and a team-high 64 penalty minutes in 40 games. After the season, Alen decided to go pro.

“I talked about it with my agent and my coach, and we decided it’s a good time to go, and I’m old enough to take the next step,” Alen said. “At the beginning of the year it crossed my mind that I might have left early, but right now the way things are going, I’m pretty happy with my decision, and it’s exactly what I needed, to play in the AHL right now.”

Alen said the extensive travel and staying mentally focused throughout the 80-game AHL season – twice as long as the college season – have been tough adjustments for him to make.

“And of course, the guys are bigger, better, and you don’t have as much time to make the play,” Alen said. “That’s the problem that took me the first 25 games to get used to.”

In 49 games with Cincinnati, Alen has two assists, a minus-11 rating, and 60 penalty minutes.

Alen said he started taking English when he was 10, and speaks the language almost flawlessly despite having lived in the U.S. for a relatively short time.

“I want to be understood,” Alen said. “I don’t want people to all the time guess what I’m trying to say. I think it helps me in my hockey. I would be miserable if I didn’t know how to talk.”

Alen said Finland and the United States are very similar, calling Finland a “little U.S.A.”

O’Brien and Alen lost a mutual mentor earlier this season when former Cincinnati Mighty Ducks defenseman Todd Reirden was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes.

“I was asking a lot of questions of [Todd] and he was telling me what to do,” Alen said. “I always told him to please correct me if I do something wrong, and every time I did something wrong he corrected me.”

Said Ducks coach Brad Shaw: “Reirden was really the rally-around guy, the glue guy back there in far of intensity and as far as effort shift-to-shift and as far as being professional. I think they recognized that: Here’s a guy that played a couple hundred games (in the NHL), and a bigger guy like they are, and how did you get there, and what did you have to work on, and maybe I should listen to this guy and maybe pay a little bit more attention to him than somebody that wasn’t there.”

Shaw said both have made “huge strides” in the past year with their work ethic, but said it only gets harder from this point if they hope to get to or stick in the NHL. “They’d like to think maybe they’re a one-year project, and then they’re going to play in the NHL,” Shaw said. “But they’re a little bit longer-term guys. I see both of them playing games up at some point, but really it’s up to them how soon that is. They really have to make the commitment that’s necessary both on and off the ice.”

John Lachmann covers the Mighty Ducks for the Cincinnati Post