Small-town Cabana has eyes on NHL

by Brian Smith || AHL On The Beat Archive

The small town of Fleurimont, Que., has a population of just over 16,000 people, which wouldn’t even fill the Wachovia Center if the whole city came to watch its pride and joy make his NHL debut.

Frederik Cabana took that unofficial title in 2004 when the Philadelphia Flyers made him the first-ever Fleurimont native to be chosen in the NHL Draft. Now, as a rookie with the Philadelphia Phantoms, Cabana is working towards making that final jump in his hockey career.

Cabana, a 20-year-old, 6-foot, 185-pound center, is more or less involved in on-the-job training for a potential NHL role with the Flyers as a third-line checking center. He’s been playing that same part with the Phantoms this season.

“I know they want me to be a third- or fourth-line center,” Cabana said. “I’m looking to bring energy out there, put their best player off his game, hit, get a fight, the odd goal, be a role player and help the team to win.”

The youngest of three children, Cabana started skating around the age of two and first picked up a hockey stick after he turned three. His brother Michael, now 23 and playing in the Quebec Senior League, was playing hockey and Cabana begged his parents to let him play too.

The two brothers and their older sister, Genevive, would play on the outdoor rinks of Fleurimont, in the streets, or wherever they could find space.

“He didn’t play professionally because he’s only 5-7 and his height kind of stopped him from going anywhere,” Cabana said of his brother. “But pretty much everything I know I owe to him. He’s a really good hockey player.”

Cabana spent the next 10 or so years learning the fine points of the game, and found quite a bit of success in it. By the time he got to the Midget level, he was drawing the attention of scouts for Canadian junior teams. A turning point came at age 15 when he was drafted by the Halifax Mooseheads.

“I had a lot of success in minor hockey, but it was always just for fun,” Cabana said. “I think it was more when I got drafted to junior that I started really focusing on it and being really serious about it, trying to make the sacrifices and good choices to further my hockey career.”

When he was 16 years old, Cabana made the first sacrifice that hundreds of Canada’s best youth hockey players make to start the road towards a potential pro career. He left home and moved to Halifax, a city 12 hours away from Fleurimont. And if that wasn’t tough enough, Cabana was presented with a language barrier to overcome.

“Halifax is a totally English city and I didn’t speak any English at all,” he said. “Going there was really difficult, learning English while trying to get used to the hockey.”

Cabana lived with an English-speaking billet family and went to an English high school in Halifax, while also spending two hours a day with an instructor fluent in both English and French.

“It ended up being really helpful because when I came to Philadelphia I had no English barrier at all, and it was easier getting to know all the guys,” he said.

As Cabana’s English evolved, so did his game. He arrived in Halifax having been a high-scoring player in the Midget ranks, but he quickly found there were more ways to help a team than scoring goals.

“The first year we had a really strong team,” Cabana said. “The way for me to make the team was to go on the fourth line and grind it out. I started playing that role and became pretty successful at it. In later years I picked up some more leadership on the team and some more ice time to go with it, so my scoring went up too. But I’ve always been a player who likes to throw people off their game, do a good job defensively and pretty much do anything to help my team win.”

In 2004, Cabana’s sacrifices and hard work paid off when the Flyers selected him in the sixth round, 171st overall, of that year’s NHL Entry Draft. Cabana and his family had made the drive from Fleurimont to the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., and were on hand for the selection.

“We were sitting in the stands there, and it was a really big moment because it was the first time ever that a guy from Fleurimont had been drafted in the NHL,” Cabana said. “I was at the draft, and my family drove down too, brother and sister and cousin as well. It was a really big moment… first time ever that a guy from Fleurimont had been drafted into the NHL. It’s something I’m proud of, and hopefully it’ll lead the way for more hockey players coming out of small towns. I went down to the table and talked to [Bob] Clarke and [Paul] Holmgren. So far it’s been the best day of my life.”

As is the case with many draft picks, Cabana still had another two years of junior eligibility left. The Flyers sent him back to Halifax with some words of encouragement and a pat on the back, and the scouting staff kept an eye on him for the next couple of years.

“They just said keep working hard, just keep working on my game, and they gave me a few details to work on. The scout in Quebec, Simon Nolet, was giving me a call every now and then to make sure I was working hard and not getting down on myself or anything like that, and just seeing that I was making improvement on and off the ice.”

The development went well, and Cabana signed with the Flyers last summer. His rookie season with the Phantoms has seen him begin to work on many of the things that junior players need to improve when they arrive on the pro scene.

“He just has to work on his consistency, but that’s typical of junior players when they move to the professional level,” said Phantoms head coach Kjell Samuelsson. “He needs to elevate his game and become a more effective player at a higher level. It’s moving the puck quicker, moving your feet all the time and working on positioning so he’s always in the right position at the right time.”

So far, the Flyers front office members like what they see.

“He’s a physical player, he’s improved, and he’s starting to find his niche a little bit and understand the game better,” said Don Luce, the Flyers director of player development. “Like all young players he needs to work on a number of things. He needs to work on developing a little more scoring but still work on his checking game. In the NHL, I think you’re looking at a player that’ll be on a checking line, add a little energy, and be able to check the opposing team’s lines and maybe kill some penalties.”

And Cabana intends on making sure everything continues going towards that plan so he can become Fleurimont’s first NHL product.

“With the game and the speed, I always have to work on that,” he said. “My roots are something I’m proud of, and hopefully it’ll lead the way for more hockey players coming out of small towns.”