Bobby Hughes was only 24 when he joined the Alaska Aces at season's start -- a little young to declare his career at a crossroads.
Yet the center entering his sixth season as a pro had for years been heading the wrong way on hockey's ladder -- down.
Hughes' pro career began in the American Hockey League, then dropped to the ECHL before sliding one more rung into the Central Hockey League. By last season, he found himself in the lower reaches of German pro hockey, where injury and circumstances limited him to just 16 games as a player-coach.
Aces coach Rob Murray remembered Hughes from his time as a bench boss in the AHL. He knew both Hughes' resume -- 40 goals and 96 points in just 59 games his last season in the Ontario Hockey League -- and his reputation -- long on talent, perhaps not so much on commitment. Murray figured Hughes still had something to give.
"I've always liked to pride myself on giving guys a second chance,'' Murray said. "It's a fresh-start type thing.''
And now the Bobby Hughes story is a resurrection-type thing.
As the Aces enter Game 3 of their ECHL Kelly Cup playoff series at San Francisco on Thursday night, Hughes is their second-line center, skates on a power-play unit and kills penalties, and has rejuvenated his career.
"He's a guy who can put up points, he's a quality player and, for us, he's been a quality person,'' Murray said. "We've had no issues with him and he's gotten better throughout the season.
"It took him a while to get up to speed, but from Day 1 his skill level has impressed me. It took a while to surface (in games), but I knew it would. He's very engaged, and he's very well-liked by the guys.''
Hughes, now 25, got off to an exceedingly slow start — zero points in his first nine games — and a stretch in which he also missed nine games with a high ankle sprain. He struggled with the speed of the game.
"I felt slow on my feet,'' Hughes said.
In that first half of the season, when Hughes also missed three games with a hip injury, Murray had the luxury of several NHL forwards playing for the Aces during the lockout, "so I didn't have to throw him into the fire.''
As Hughes' conditioning improved and he got his game up to speed, the lockout ended exactly halfway through Alaska's 72-game regular season, and the club needed Hughes to contribute.
In the Aces' first 36 regular-season games, Hughes skated in 24 matches and furnished modest 5-8--13 totals for .54 points per game and an even plus-minus rating. In the Aces' last 36 games, he played in 35 matches and delivered 10-16--26 totals for .74 points per game and a plus-8 rating. That gave him 15-24--39 totals in 59 games.
"I still don't think I had a good season,'' Hughes said. "I had an OK season.''
Still, he's been an impact player since the halfway point in the regular season, and has flourished since Murray began increasing his ice time and giving him more responsibility.
"He played me more and more as the season went on,'' Hughes said. "That's the type of player I am -- I want to be out there every other shift. I think I'm most effective when I'm out there a lot.''
The ECHL does not track ice time, but of late Hughes' ice time among Aces forwards likely is second only to first-line center Nick Mazzolini, who also mans power-play and penalty-killing duties.
"What I like about him is his hockey intelligence is very high,'' Murray said. "His defensive play has also been excellent. He's one of our best penalty killers and that comes from his instincts. He understands the game.''
Hughes generated one goal and one assist in Alaska's 5-1 victory over San Francisco in Game 1.
He said he feels like he's contributing to the team now, which he said stems in part from Murray's initial patience with him and his recent heavy ice time. Nor does it hurt, Hughes said, to be part of a franchise with high expectations -- the Aces have won a record three straight Brabham Cups as ECHL champs in the regular season and have won two Kelly Cups (2011, 2006).
"It's a winning culture,'' Hughes said. "You hear that said about a lot of teams, even at the NHL level, but I don't think I really understood it, or appreciated it, until I got here in a situation like this.''
Besides, he said, sounding like a sage veteran at all of 25, what he wants most is victory.
"Honestly, I didn't have too many (personal) expectations at the start of the year,'' Hughes said. "To me, it was a year to get back into it. Now, I'm getting to that stage when I don't really care abut stats. I just want to win hockey games.''
Shuffling the deck
Murray said he likely will start All-ECHL second-team goaltender Mark Guggenberger in Game 3 -- that will mark Guggenberger's playoff debut for Alaska -- because the teams will play three games in three nights. Plus, he said, Guggenberger deserves a shot.
Gerald Coleman played the first two games of the series for the Aces and surrendered just two goals on 39 shots (.949 save percentage).
With rookie winger Andy Taranto (lower-body injury) not on the trip, Murray said Spencer Bennett will likely see his first playoff action. And with defenseman Brad Gorham home in Anchorage -- he's an engineer with BP -- Murray said B.J. Crum will likely enter the lineup.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
San Francisco Bulls
Best-of-7, tied 1-1
Game 3, Thursday, 6:15 p.m. ADT, Cow Palace, San Francisco
Radio: Live, AM-750 and FM-103.7 KFQD
By DOYLE WOODY