by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
It’s not easy an easy feat to be the “hardest working man in the biz,” but when it comes to hockey, that won’t deter Jason Akeson from his pursuit of the title.
“I’ve always said if you’re the hardest working guy on the ice and are doing all the little things right, then that’s what’s going to give you a shot to make it.”
It’s his devotion to hard work that has carried 23-year-old Akeson through Junior “A” hockey, the Ontario Hockey League and now the pros. Undrafted, the former OHL scoring champion signed an entry-level deal with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 and has spent the majority of the past two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Phantoms.
“All three leagues prepare you for the NHL, but the size of the guys and the speed of play are a whole change in the game,” said Akeson of adjusting to the AHL. “You’re going up against men and professionals. There’s never really a bad player in this league, so you have to show up every night.”
So far, Akeson has done just that. The 5-foot-10 forward led the Phantoms in scoring each of the past two years and has tallied four points in as many games played so far this season.
“Along with every other guy in this league, my goal is to take that next step to the NHL level,” said Akeson. “It’s doing the little things every day to make myself better – being responsible on the ice and obviously scoring some goals, I just want to do what I can to improve my game and make that jump.”
Much of Akeson’s development has been fostered by Adirondack head coach Terry Murray, whose coaching record dates back 30 years and includes more than 1,000 games running NHL benches with the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings.
“Jason is a player who can put goals up and be a point producer, and he makes other people better players on the line,” said Murray. “He’s really been a go-to guy when it comes to special teams and power play, and we’re looking to just continue to build on his success from last year.”
Akeson recognizes the learning potential of playing for such a tenured coach.
“He’s a really smart guy when it comes to the game of hockey,” said Akeson. “He’s been around for a while and has coached over 1,000 NHL games. So when he’s talking to you, you tend to listen.
“He’s helped me a lot with the defensive side of the game. He’s taught me that you have to take care of your own end before trying to score goals. It’s really worked and ever since he’s been here, he’s been a big help.”
Murray, who played 12 professional seasons himself and twice won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s outstanding defenseman, knows what it takes to reach the NHL.
“The advice you give all young players when they become pro, or at least when they come play for me, is that you have to learn how to embrace hard work,” said Murray. “When you make hard work a part of your daily life, you become a better hockey player because all the other parts of the game are based on hard work and repetition.
“When you’re able to play the game at high speeds and put the hard work in at the same time, the other parts of the game will come easier and you’re going to be a player who has an opportunity to be very successful. That’s the first understanding they have to have – welcome it, embrace it, want it and do the same thing the next day.”
Akeson may have already picked up a plethora of knowledge from his coach, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t continued his efforts to improve his game.
“We worked hard all summer and now during the season, you’re working even harder,” said Akeson. “You can never be too fast in this game with the way it’s going nowadays. If you can be faster and stronger than the next guy – making plays quicker, moving your feet quicker – that’s always going to give you the best opportunity [to get to the NHL].”
That opportunity came knocking for Akeson on Apr. 27 when the Orleans, Ont., native received the call-up to play in the Flyers’ final game of the season – a road game against his hometown Ottawa Senators.
He scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot early in the first period.
“It was pretty surreal,” Akeson said. “Just seeing the way my family and friends reacted and how happy they were for me after the game was something that I’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”
Akeson looks back on his first experience in the NHL fondly, but he’s not ready to stop there.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity I got,” he said. “But that being said, hopefully it’s not the last.”
“I think he got a bit of a taste of what it’s like to be around NHL players and teams and he’s hungry for more,” said Murray. “In order to get there, there’s a great need for players who know how to play the game without the puck.”
While certain coachable elements will be worked on this season, Akeson’s skills with the puck have become a second nature to the third-year pro.
“He’s very imaginative. He has a very creative mind and he sees the ice in a different way than most players,” said Murray. “He’s a player who wants the puck on his stick, and he’s the one who says, ‘If we’re going to have some success here tonight, let it come from me.’ His creativity is pretty special, and a lot of players in the game don’t have it.”
Murray is confident that with relentless work ethic and consistency, Akeson has a chance at being successful in the NHL this season.
“I’m hoping that by the end of this year, he’s going to be a player that’s considered to get an opportunity – not just a call-up in an emergency situation, but a player who’s going to get called up because of the way he plays,” said Murray. “This is his opportunity now to show management that he’s ready.”