by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Temptation appeared to Albany River Rats rookie defenseman Jamie McBain in the form of a Big Apple over the AHL all-star break.
McBain used the vacation to visit New York City for the first time. The sights and sounds were a wonder to him, even those he had to ignore.
The smell of street vendor foods swirled into one mass vice, including those from his beloved cheeseburgers and hot dogs. Those are the fast-food embodiments of his weakness, quick fixes he would have inhaled at an earlier point in his career.
But not this time. McBain stuck to more balanced dining at restaurants. Clearing the rookie wall requires strength and energy, and McBain has been a quick study in both playing and eating well.
"They smell good, but I had to stay away from it," he said. "It’s gotten easier for me (to resist). Now and then, it’s still tough. In order to keep your body feeling good, it’s something you’ve got to do."
The payoff so far has been four goals and 15 assists in 44 games for McBain, Carolina’s second-round pick in 2006. The more indicative flash comes from how McBain, 21, is accelerating his game around the season’s midpoint. Seven of those helpers have been rung up in his last 10 games.
As a precautionary measure, Rats coach Jeff Daniels recently checked in with McBain, who played at the University of Wisconsin, to make sure he understood the importance of proper body maintenance. McBain admits to indifference in this area in the past.
Now, faced with the rigors of a pro schedule and aware of the value of fueling himself with better nutrients, McBain said he’s good. His play has answered in the affirmative even louder.
"For a first-year player, we put a lot of responsibility on his shoulders," Daniels said. "I just wanted to make sure how he’s doing physically. He’s getting stronger. He’s feeling pretty good, taking care of himself."
This has been a half-season of all-around rookie indoctrination for McBain, who turned in a strong summer of workouts to report back at a tightly wound 6-foot-2, 193 pounds. In college, he’d roll out of bed, jump into sweat pants and stumble to practice.
Not in the pro game, Daniels told him. At the very least, McBain now puts on jeans and a respectable shirt, and if he doesn’t always bother to comb his hair in the morning he at least yanks on a hat.
McBain also brags about the improvement of his healthy meal cooking, a boon for both himself and roommate Mike Murphy.
"I’m head cook in the household. Murphy comes out of his room when he hears dinner’s on the table," McBain said. "He does the clean-up, so it kind of balances out."
The standards that McBain are building toward in his pursuit of the NHL are high and run deep. A native of Faribault, Minn., he played several years on youth hockey teams that included Kyle Okposo, Peter Mueller and Erik Johnson.
Remarkably, in the same draft that swept up McBain years later, Johnson went No. 1 overall to St. Louis, Okposo was grabbed No. 7 by the Islanders and Mueller went a pick later to Phoenix.
"We were just kids having fun at the time. As we got older, seeing how bad we were beating (opponents), you know there’s something clicking. You believe the whole team is capable of playing in the NHL," McBain said. "You look and see guys on TV you’ve played with and against, you know you can compete with them. You’re like, OK, I’m not far off. It’s fun to judge yourself that way."
While he might not have rocketed to the NHL like his buddies, McBain was shining his own resume with the Badgers. Last season alone, he paced Wisconsin with 37 points to become the fifth defenseman in school history to lead the team in scoring. He also led all WCHA players in scoring in league games (28 points), becoming just the second defenseman in league history to pull that off. He was named the WCHA’s Player of the Year and was a top-ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
On an even grander stage, he skated for Team USA in two World Junior Championships.
"It was a great transition from those accomplishments to come here, not have too much to worry about," McBain said. "Take care of business. You have no reason to be nervous when you’ve had the background (like that)."
Another slice of McBain’s past is coming in even handier. He spent much of his youth hockey days as a forward, giving him that ice awareness and handle on the puck that helps him so smoothly start the offense from his own zone now.
"He gets the puck on the blue line, he doesn’t just shoot it in," Daniels said. "He’s a very mature kid. There’s no panic to his game. When he gets it, he’s not rushing the play."
McBain has efficiently milked the perspective from half a season as a pro to create his surge heading into the break.
"I think it’s just my confidence has really grown through the year, just being able to understand this new level I’m at," he said. "As it’s progressed, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my game, what I can get away with and what I can’t. Maybe at the start of the season I’d jump into the play too fast, and that led to an odd-man rush for the other team. The points have been coming more easily as well. That’s good for the confidence."
There’s one tasty morsel that would be even better in McBain’s year of enlightenment, a payoff that teases because it’s outside his complete control.
"It’s been a great growing year for me. Hopefully it will end in a callup before the year ends," he said. "I’m doing everything I can on the ice, putting the ball in (Carolina’s) court, making my performance speak for itself. That’s all I can do. It is (tough), when you watch the games and you know you have the skill set to play there. But that’s the way it is."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.