Hoggan’s opportunity is knocking

Hockey is a land of opportunity, and Houston Aeros second-year right wing Jeff Hoggan is making the most of his.

A season after playing on a checking line for the Aeros’ Calder Cup championship winning team, Hoggan finds himself as the team’s fifth leading scorer at week’s end. Hoggan’s 18 points have bettered last season’s total of 15, and he eclipsed that number just 28 games into this season.

Part of Hoggan’s surge can be attributed to new linemates – Swedes Rickard Wallin and Mika Hannula. Since the trio got together in early December, Hoggan has six goals and five assists. More importantly, the Aeros have just four regulation losses – two with Wallin out of the lineup last week.

The thought behind the move seemed to be to let the aggressive Hoggan make some room on the ice for his finesse linemates, but instead it’s been Hoggan’s numbers that have increased as well.

“Hogie is a good guy to play with and he is going to make others play well also,” said assistant coach Matt Shaw, who coached the team last week while Todd McLellan was out with the flu. “He creates lots of energy. He does a lot of work along the boards and has breakaway speed and power through neutral zone.”

“The plan was to put the two playmakers out there, and I’d just do my thing,” said Hoggan. “Hanny’s a goal scorer and was having a tough time getting shots on net. He’s got a great shot. Wally can just instantly get open, and hopefully I can open ice by creating energy and running into people. It’s been a good time.”

The versatile Hoggan also found himself playing alongside a familiar face last week with Wallin out of the lineup – roommate Mark Cullen, who returned last Friday from a 22-game absence due to a separated shoulder. Cullen also missed the season’s first three games after surgery for malignant melanoma.

“It’s awesome,” said Hoggan. “We’ve just got so much in common. We both grew up in smaller towns and I think we’ve got we’ve earned. We respect each other a lot and are blue collar kids. We can say whatever we want to one another on the ice and off. I love playing with him. He’s a skilled player and he makes others better, so I definitely want to be around him.”

The 25-year-old Hoggan signed with the Minnesota Wild in the spring of 2001 after a successful four-year career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he left as the school’s all-time leading scorer. The Mavericks started their program just one season before Hoggan’s arrival.

After playing in four playoff games with the Aeros in 2001-02, the native of Hope, B.C., notched 11 points (6g, 5a) in 65 games last season with Houston. The tenacious checker had a major role in the Aeros’ Game 7 win over Grand Rapids to send the team into the Calder Cup Final.

Hoggan had an assist to open the 2003-04 season and hasn’t stopped since.

“Jeff is easily identifiable on the ice by his extraordinary work ethic, speed and willingness to finish checks,” said Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tom Lynn, who handles the Aeros’ on-ice personnel moves. “Although initially, scoring did not come easily for him, his hard work and quickness continually earn him chances, which in turn have added an element of offense to his all-around game.”

Hoggan’s leadership on a team that struggled to find its identity early on was important as well. Despite being a second-year pro, Hoggan has just five teammates older than he is.

“I think the experience I gained from winning a championship has a lot to do with that,” said Hoggan. “Last year I was not in a position to be vocal. I had great leaders to learn from. This year I’ve had no choice but to pitch in when needed. We’re still young, and sometimes no one is really willing to step in and be that one guy, so it’s more of a team effort. I’ve always been the type to lead by example, like in college. Go out and work hard, and if you have something to say, say it, but I’d have to say I’m a quiet leader.”

“He competes every day,” said Shaw. “He’s an example on how you want guys to play and approach the game. He gives everything he’s got every shift. If he gets knocked down, he comes right back up. Resiliency is one of his key attributes. He’s a tough guy to play against.”

Hoggan attributes a hard work ethic to a reason he’s been able to stay healthy throughout his career, and the reason he can bounce right back.

“It’s what you do off the ice too, it’s not just what you do in the game,” said Hoggan. “I’m always in the gym trying to make myself better and stay strong. That helps with injuries and being a quick healer.”

December 27 in San Antonio, Hoggan got hit by the ear with a puck from point blank range. Hoggan wasn’t off the ice long. “The puck off my head kind of knocked me off balance,” he said. “I had to get my bearings, and as long as there was no concussion, I was definitely going to play through it. You have to play through a lot of things in order to be a champion.”

Those thoughts were seconded by a recent pre-game visitor to the locker room – future Hall of Famer and six-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, who recently signed with the Houston Astros. Clemens gave a two-minute speech on how much he admires athletes who play hurt and battle through injuries and sickness – something the Aeros have been forced to do for the past two months.

“He’s a respected athlete,” said Hoggan of Clemens. “It was nice to see him in there. He could have said anything he wanted and I would have been all about it. He said that the team is very important. He had heard our story about guys being out with flu and coming right back. Everything he said made us feel good. At this level you might find players starting to drift away and doing things for themselves and not for the team. But if the team does well, everybody’s going to do well in the future.”

The formula with Hoggan has been simple. When he scores, the Aeros are successful. His team is 9-1-3-2 when he has a point, including a 5-1-2-2 mark when he has a goal and a 6-0-2-0 mark when he has an assist.

Lynn and the Minnesota Wild know that Hoggan will be key as the Aeros turn their focus on the second half of the season.

“Jeff has been an important part of a championship team, as he played some of his best hockey in the final rounds of last year’s playoffs,” said Lynn. “The Wild organization looks to Jeff to continue to develop and to be an important part of the character of a team looking towards having a strong stretch run.”