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.
Portland Pirates rookie forward Tim Kennedy had access to a NHL-caliber workout facility last summer.
No, scratch that. It was a NHL facility, period. Namely, the Buffalo Sabres’ HSBC Arena.
It came complete with top-level coaching, state-of-the-art-equipment, luxurious changing quarters and, in the perk of all perks, exercise partners in the form of real, live Sabres.
Kennedy is a native of Buffalo who lives just a few minutes away from his hometown barn. And as a top Buffalo prospect, the Sabres were more than happy to open their doors for him.
"It’s better than going to a gym and working by yourself," Kennedy said. "Even though you are working out, you are working out in the Sabres’ room. It gives you something to work for. You look up (in the arena), all the seats are empty. You imagine what it would be to play there."
Kennedy has been doing that for most of his 22 years, actually, and he’s virtually at the point where he won’t need to wonder any more. He leads AHL rookies in assists (21) and points (26) through 23 games with Portland. Few prospect-parent team pairings seem more inevitable than the hometown kid and an NHL club looking for a little juice.
Just don’t expect Kennedy’s closest circle of fans to stray from the game plan that’s helped him reach this precipice in the first place.
"My friends always tell me I’m not a professional hockey player. I’m still the same kid who lived down the street from them. You’re not going to get any special breaks from us," Kennedy said. "You just have to stay humble. My parents and friends never let my head get too big."
There hardly seemed a chance of that during Kennedy’s formative years of stardom, not with James "Digger" Kennedy around. Digger is Tim’s father and a former police officer in Buffalo. Tim isn’t quite sure where the nickname comes from, but his theory that it originates from his dad’s style of digging the puck out of corners when he played hockey sounds as good as any.
The very nature of Digger’s job kept Tim on the straight and narrow, of course. It also kept Tim locked in on his true calling. Digger knew the Sabres’ Zamboni driver, and it only followed that little Tim was frequently allowed to hang around the arena.
One night in the 1989-90 season, which was Rob Ray’s first with the Sabres, the Razor got a little confused in his new town and ran a red light. Wouldn’t you know, it was Digger who pulled him over.
Digger naturally recognized Ray and let him off with a warning and some directions. Ray later made the connection with Tim in the arena as the son of the helpful offer, and an early relationship was born.
As Tim got older and better, he’d skate with Ray and some of the other Sabres. At first they’d kind of ignore him, or playfully keep him in his place. By the time the last few summers rolled around, though, there was no denying the youngster’s potential.
"Before, they wouldn’t talk to you. I was just a little kid. I was so scared," Kennedy said. "The past four or five years, it’s become different. I can make plays. It’s a lot different skating from when I was 16 to 22."
Tim had to leave home to build part of that bridge. He was a three-year standout at Michigan State, leading the Spartans in scoring as a sophomore and junior. As a sophomore he showed how much poise he picked up measuring himself against pros when he scored the game-tying goal and assisted on the game-winner in Michigan State’s title game win over Boston College.
"I don’t think about it too much," Kennedy said of pressure in general. "If you do, it will ruin you. My friends and family don’t put that pressure on me. I don’t hear what people have to say (about him)."
Kennedy needed just one small assist before he could go home again. Washington nabbed him in the sixth round of the 2005 draft, a pro portal any wannabe would absolutely appreciate. But a few days after the draft Kennedy was conked in the head with a horseshoe when the Capitals traded his rights to Buffalo.
"I was just ecstatic," Kennedy said. "I started working out two weeks later, and three years later here I am."
"Here," or Portland in this case, may be geographically distant from Buffalo, but hockey-wise it’s in the vicinity of a dream. Kennedy easily swallowed up the nuances of an earlier experiment at center before being moved back to his natural position of wing.
He said he’s a little taxed by the cluster of AHL games as opposed to the college schedule, so he’s working on the pro knack of using his energy wisely.
"You have to play smart. You don’t run around and hit everybody," he said. "I put in a lot of hard work this summer. Hopefully I can keep this going. I’ve always had a quick start to my season. Usually, you have a little tail-off. You play the same teams over and over again. That’s what I’m hoping to prevent now."
Kennedy has already shown he isn’t easily thrown off his focus, even by those things that might inspire awe in others. This preseason, he skated in an exhibition game with the Sabres in Buffalo. He was already intimately familiar with the big-time atmosphere, of course, because of all the time he’d spent using the team’s facilities.
Kennedy waded even deeper into his waiting world this time because his name was actually on a stall in the Sabres’ dressing room. That’s pretty heady stuff for even the most grounded player. But for all his work and talent Kennedy knew that in his hometown and his backyard rink he was still in the inner sanctum as a guest, not a resident.
"It’s not your space. Hopefully one day, but not now," he said. "You have to earn your spot. Until I earn it, it’s not my locker room. I knew it wasn’t my time yet."