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From Buffalo to Florida the hard way

by Amy Rybczynski || AHL On The Beat Archive

So many stories in the hockey world seem to come from Canada, where hockey tends to infiltrate the entire culture. Less famous, however, are the other parts of North America where hockey has a stronghold, including our very own Western New York. Interest is particularly high these days when the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres have made it a quarter of the way into the season with losses that can practically be counted on one hand.

While passion for the sport has swiftly crossed over the U.S.-Canada border, Western New York’s ability to produce quality hockey players has lagged a little behind. Rochester native and New Jersey Devils star Brian Gionta and NHL veteran Marty Reasoner have recently challenged that notion, and now Amerks center Drew Larman, a Buffalo native, is poised to add his name to the list.

To be fair, many hockey markets have contributed to Larman’s growth as a player. While much of his youth was spent in Buffalo, his family moved to Canton, Mich., when he was 11 years old. At the age of 17, Larman got a taste of Canada as he started his junior hockey career with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.

Early in his third season with the Sting, he was traded to the London Knights, who were in the midst of taking Canada by storm. It was the 2004-05 season, when the NHL was locked out and the entire country was hungry for any hockey they could find. The team captured Canada’s attention by going undefeated in its first 31 games of the season and went on to win the coveted Memorial Cup.

Larman contributed three goals and four assists to the memorable playoff run.

"That’s what you play for, you play for the playoffs and the championship," Larman said. "To win it like we did in our home town — it was hosted in London — was unbelievable. The city was jumping and alive. It is something I will never forget."

Larman went undrafted through the end of his junior career, but he was undaunted. After much hard work, he earned himself a contract with the Florida Panthers on Sept. 28, 2005.

"Signing that thing in ink was definitely one of the benchmarks of my career," he said. "I did it the hard way, not being drafted. I tried not to get discouraged. I had good support with my parents and my brother, and management in juniors giving me a lot of encouragement: ‘Don’t worry about it … keep working hard … keep working hard.’ It’s paid off."

He started the 2005-06 season with the Florida Everblades (ECHL), but was called up to Rochester by the Panthers on Nov. 11. He scored his first professional goal with the Amerks two weeks later, and stuck with the team through the rest of the season, recording seven goals and eight assists in 44 games.

The Amerks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1989 (scary fact: Larman was barely four years old at the time), so he returned to the Everblades for their playoff run. He played in eight games, scoring four goals and two assists.

During the offseason, Larman worked hard to improve his game so he could make a return to Florida, but this time with the Panthers in Miami. His experience in Rochester gave him a better idea of what it might take to move up to the next level.

"I’ve worked pretty hard through offseason try to work on the foot speed and get a little quicker, because then you get more time with the puck. I’ve definitely benefited from it."

As this season has progressed, Larman has continued to learn and improve. After sitting out the Amerks’ first two games, he recorded six points in his next five games, including two two-goal games. Although there were flashes of his talent last season, he has become a more consistent player and a strong contributor to the Amerks’ lineup this year.

"Just adjusting to the speed and the way the game is played [has helped]. At the pro level, it’s a lot more finesse… the passing, skill game. I’ve just tried to work on that," he explained. "I got a couple bounces that went my way, and it snowballs from there."

The snowball got a little bigger on Nov. 12 when the 21-year-old center was called up to the Florida Panthers. He won five of eight faceoffs in his first NHL game and received positive reviews from Panthers head coach Jacques Martin. While the call-up only lasted for one game, the experience was a dream come true.

"It was unbelievable. Not many words can explain how awesome it was," Larman said with obvious excitement in his voice. "It’s something you dream of as a little kid. Being able to play like that in front of a lot of friends and family watching the game was a remarkable experience."

Back in Rochester, he has continued to contribute. Through 14 games this season, the second-year pro has six goals and two assists, along with a plus-6 rating. Being in Rochester also has an added bonus — he has family close by in Buffalo, where his love of hockey began.

"I was a huge Sabres fan. They’re still my #2 team," Larman said with a smile. "I used to have season tickets at the Aud right in the blue section. I used to go there with my parents all the time and sit on my dad’s lap when I was younger, so he wouldn’t waste a ticket on me.

"I used to watch Pat LaFontaine, (Alexander) Mogilny, and when Rob Ray stripped down to nothing but skin up top [his trademark fighting tactic]. Definitely a lot of memories in that building."

While Larman considers it ironic that he’s playing on a team that is partially stocked with prospects from the team of his youth, he appreciates the benefits it provides.

"You get to see the insides of a different organization and to meet a couple of the guys involved with a different organization," he said. "The talent pool is a lot bigger for our team, and it’s working to our advantage."

The Amerks’ amazing run so far this season has provided a great atmosphere for Larman to continue to learn and work his way back up to the NHL.

"Everything’s going to be better when you’re winning. It’s awesome and the coaches have been great, treating us well, giving us the right opportunity, and we’ve really taken the bull by the horns right now."

Although his time in Rochester has been beneficial, Drew Larman’s goal is always going to be to find a permanent spot with the Panthers. He took another step forward on Thanksgiving Day, as he received another promotion to the parent club. The following night, he scored his first NHL goal in just his second NHL game.

His stays in Florida may be short for the time being, but Larman appears to have a long career ahead of him. All along, fans from Buffalo to Rochester and all the way down to Florida will be cheering him on as he does Western New York proud.