Newcomers relish Monster auditions

Photos: John Saraya, Vince Rappleyea

by Tony Brown | AHL On The Beat

The end of each AHL season brings with it tangible opportunities for many young players in the form of amateur and professional tryout agreements, forged with American League teams at the conclusions of players’ collegiate or pro seasons.

This year, the Central Division’s Cleveland Monsters inked rookie forwards Spencer Naas, a four-year letter winner at the University of Connecticut, and Grant Besse, a former University of Wisconsin winger fresh off a productive campaign in the ECHL, to late-season tryout contracts.

Both Minnesota natives and high school teammates at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the Twin Cities, Naas and Besse arrived in Cleveland to find another of their high school teammates entrenched in the Monsters’ dressing room in defensemen Ryan Collins, one season removed from enjoying a similar late-season AHL entry following his time at the University of Minnesota.

Speaking prior to his professional debut, Naas described his approach to his late-season look-see with the Monsters.

“It’s definitely very fast [in the AHL] and the defensemen really close time and space quickly, but my teammates have done a great job of welcoming me and helping me feel comfortable,” explained Naas. “That has certainly helped me relax and focus on playing my game and helping the team any way I can.”

Naas’ first professional game resulted in his first professional goal, scored in front of his parents, who were in attendance at The Q alongside over 15,000 fans. Naas says, given that type of pressure-cooker environment, he sought to simplify his game.

“I just tried to tell myself it’s just another game,” said Naas. “I’ve been playing this sport for as long as I can remember so I just tried not to complicate things too much and tried to do the things that allow me to be successful.”

For Besse, there was a comfort level not just between himself and his teammates, but also with his new head coach John Madden.

“I know a little bit about him from the four years I spent living in Minnesota,” detailed Madden. “I had a chance to watch [Besse] play all four years of high school and a little bit of college so there’s familiarity there…The one thing I want to see is his shot, he scored a lot of goals in high school and we’re looking for big things from him here.”

Acknowledging that there’s little time for ATO/PTO acquisitions to adjust to a team’s systems and philosophies when joining a club at midstream, Madden explained what a coach can glean about players when evaluating them in these late-season, “fish-out-of-water” settings.

“You kind of get a look into what hockey IQ they have just jumping into game 66 or 67 of the season or whatever it might be,” explained Madden. “That’s what I like about both [Naas’ and Besse’s] games, they’ve figured their way around out there and are doing enough to earn additional looks in the lineup.”

For Besse, the biggest leap made from college to pro hockey isn’t a matter of the tempo or style of play, but rather the frequency of the games themselves.

“The thing that jumps out to me is just the number of games that you play,” said Besse. “In college, your schedule is pretty set with Friday and Saturday games and a full week of practice to prepare for the next games, but in the pros you play those same weekend games with a Wednesday or a Sunday sprinkled in. I had to learn what I need to do to get ready throughout the week and trying to perfect that routine so I’m ready to go on a given night.”

Besse also has a clear vision for his late-season AHL chance.

“I just want to play the best hockey I can play,” said Besse. “I think if I can do that, based on the year I had [in the ECHL], I’m hoping to be a full-time player [in the AHL] in the upcoming season. I’m just trying to put my best foot forward and see where it goes from there.”

That sentiment represents sage advice for almost every AHL player each spring.