Anchorage — Think of North American pro hockey as a ladder, with the NHL on top, the American Hockey League a rung down, the ECHL one rung below that, and then the Central Hockey League and the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Sometimes, all it takes for a player to begin climbing the rungs is a team in need, some phones calls, an opportunity granted and a chance seized.
Long story short, that's how a rookie defenseman like Mike Baran, who just two weeks ago toiled in the SPHL, suddenly finds himself playing a regular shift and working the power play for the ECHL's Alaska Aces.
"It's a little surreal, but I was kind of told to expect that,'' Baran said. "It's definitely a different lifestyle.''
A couple of weeks ago, driving home after practice with the Mississippi RiverKings, Baran got a call from Aces coach Rob Murray.
"Five minutes later, I was packing my stuff,'' he said.
The Aces badly needed a defenseman and the RiverKings loaned them Baran (pronounced Baron). He collected his belongings from his Memphis apartment -- Southaven, Miss., where the RiverKings play, is a Memphis suburb -- and drove three hours to St. Louis, where he left his car with a former college teammate.
The next day, he flew to Boise, Idaho, to meet the Aces -- though, as so often is the case in these last-minute travel plans, complications ensued.
Originally, Baran was scheduled to fly through Phoenix, but missed a connection when his flight was delayed. He ended up in Los Angeles, where no seats were available on flights to Boise. Another traveler took pity on Baran and gave up his seat, and thus did the rookie arrive in Boise late at night.
Naturally, his equipment did not arrive until the next morning, right before the Aces' game-day skate. That night, he contributed an assist and a plus-2 rating in a 6-2 loss to Idaho. The following night, he furnished one power-play goal and two assists in Alaska's 4-3 win over Idaho.
And now, Anchorage is home for the 23-year-old from Duxbury, Mass., a suburb of Boston.
"This game is pretty awesome, takes you to some cool places and gives you cool experiences,'' Baran said.
And yet the hockey world is small enough that, often, only one degree of separation is required to make a connection. Baran didn't know any of the Aces, but in Anchorage he has enjoyed the hospitality of the Corey family. Nathan Corey of Anchorage is a senior goaltender and Baran's former teammate at Division III Amherst College in Massachusetts, where Baran last spring finished his college hockey career and wrapped up degrees in economics and environmental studies.
At the time Murray landed Baran, the Aces were down to four defensemen because they had three blueliners up in the AHL. Basically, Murray was just looking for a body, any body, to eat up some minutes.
What he and the Aces got, however, was a guy who has furnished one goal and four assists in six games, fired 12 shots on goal, earned an even plus-minus rating and begun to look like a player who might stick with the club.
"Luck of the draw, really,'' Murray said. "He skates really well and he's got a great level of competitiveness, and it shows every game. He gives everything he's got. His intensity shines through.''
Baran said he has approached his opportunity with the Aces as his big break.
"You have to look at it as your chance, because you never know if you're going to get another one,'' he said.
Whatever happens in the long run, Aces assistant coach Louis Mass, who guides the team's defensemen, said Baran doesn't appear to be a guy who will allow lack of effort to be a factor.
"As far as sheer will goes, he's at the top of our list,'' Mass said. "He battles as hard as anyone. No shortcuts. In a lot of things in life, that makes up for everything you don't have.''
Shuffling the deck
Another SPHLer who has joined the Aces of late, forward Shawn Skelly, has likewise contributed. Skelly has 2-1--3 totals in five games. He's been playing with center Bobby Hughes and winger Alexandre Imbeault, and getting power-play time.
"He's one of the top scorers in (the SPHL),'' Murray said. "In order to have success at our level, I've got to put him in position to succeed, and that means playing with some of our better players.''
Aces first-line center and leading scorer Nick Mazzolini (24-19--43 in 44 games), who missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, practiced Wednesday and should make the road trip.
His offense will be welcomed, especially on the power play. He also kills penalties. Wednesday, Mazzolini rejoined his line, which features wingers Chris Clackson and Garry Nunn.
The Aces on Wednesday released forward Samson Mahbod, who had two assists in four games.
Recently acquired forward Spencer Bennett will be the team in Las Vegas, where it plays Friday and Saturday nights.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
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