by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
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.
The Grouse Grind hiking trail winds almost 2,800 feet above two steep miles on a mountain in Vancouver that shares the same name. After challengers conquer the terrain known as "Mother Nature’s Stairmaster" the view is beautiful.
"Once you get up top, you can see all of Vancouver, the ocean," said Hamilton Bulldogs rookie forward Ben Maxwell. "There’s a reward at the end of it."
And how would Maxwell, who lives just about 20 minutes from Grouse Mountain, know that? Well, he’s been to the top of it several times.
But not just like any tourist struck by the lure of natural wonders. Maxwell trains on the Grouse Grind during the summer. As in, briskly walking/running up it in about 45 minutes.
"It’s a real good workout for anybody," he said. "In a gym you can stop when you are feeling tired. It’s a little different when you are in the middle of a slope. It’s not like running on a treadmill."
You think? Rescue parties are frequently dispatched for wanderers who underestimate what the "grind" in the course’s name means and collapse or are unable to find their way out.
Maxwell, 21, doesn’t worry about getting lost. He knows the course too well. He was more concerned about boosting his conditioning in an effort to rediscover his career.
There are many reasons why Maxwell is loving life these days. His 53 points (21 goals, 32 assists) place him third among AHL rookies. The Bulldogs look every bit like a team that could do some postseason damage.
But mostly, after a pair of injury-plagued and sometimes stagnant seasons, Maxwell is a full-time player again.
"This year was a year I had to stay healthy, play the full season," said Maxwell, a second-round pick by Montreal in 2006. "With all the ice and opportunities, the numbers come with it. I’ve been able to play with some good players, and good players make you better."
That simple equation becomes a lot more frustrating when you can’t manage the first step of taking the ice with them.
Two years ago, playing for Kootenay of the WHL, Maxwell’s all-round athleticism came back to bite him. He was a pretty good pitcher in his younger days, maybe too good. He tossed a lot of curveballs, damaging his elbow. In 2007 he needed a second surgery to remove bone chips, and that limited him to 39 games.
Last year, he got a charley horse in camp with Montreal. He went back to Kootenay, where the injury calcified. That meant three more months on the sidelines, and just 31 regular-season contests.
"I was pretty frustrated about it for a while. But at the same time, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do," he said. "I knew I had a lot more (career) ahead of me. I had to sit it out and wait it out."
But only to a point. Once Maxwell was in a position to take charge of his career again, well, the mountaintops were the limit.
Besides his excursions up Grouse Grind, there was loads of shinny. And running. And gym work. Anything and everything to get in shape again for three-in-three weekends against competition better than Maxwell could have envisioned.
"The guys are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter," he said of the AHL. "Jumping up to the pro level, you have to improve your all-round game. That’s what I’ve tried to do this year. I put a lot of work in this summer. I knew I had to get back to where I was a couple of years ago. We’ve had a lot of three-in-threes. By the third game of the weekend, it gets kind of tiring. The best pros can play consistently every night."
Maxwell is driven to match that type of reliability. He burst right into the AHL season with points in seven of his first nine games (5-3). Bulldogs coach Ron Wilson noted that Maxwell’s smooth game and effortless skating style can appear deceiving. Give Maxwell something to work on in practice, Wilson said, and he’ll smolder until he gets it right.
"He’s a great person, but he’s an intense guy," Wilson said. "He makes a mistake, you see he gets mad. It matters to him. You can see he wants to get better. He takes in what you give him and applies it on the ice. He wants to play in the NHL and he’s going about it the right way."
Maxwell, who has sniffed around Montreal for seven games this season, said his focus stems from his all-round athletic background. Besides hockey and baseball, he also competed in soccer, basketball and cross-country as a youngster.
"No matter what sport you play, you need to have the competitiveness and stubbornness if you want to succeed," Maxwell said. "I’m pretty determined to turn my game around (when he slumps). I like to think I’m a smart player. With production like (he’s had) comes a little more confidence. You have to be lucky to get the opportunities and get a little confidence."
With Maxwell cranking out points like they’re rolling off a conveyor belt, the Bulldogs are in position to scale the highest peak of all in the playoffs. Maxwell admits he isn’t exactly sure how to get there yet but figures that sticking to the most well worn path is a good place to start.
"I’m a rookie in this league. I don’t know exactly what to expect in the playoffs," he said. "During playoffs, you worry less about individual things. It’s all about getting the wins. Hopefully, I can carry over into the playoffs what I was doing during the season and help out any way I can. I can really see this group of guys doing good in the playoffs."