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AHL veterans give their all and never give up hope of another shot at NHL

The only NHL goal he's scored, back in the 2001-2002 season when he was with the Columbus Blue Jackets, was a fluke.

It was in Boston. He'd had good scoring chances in the game and just missed. Then, as he was about to leave the ice on a line change, he dumped the puck towards the Bruins net.

"The puck dipped and went between Byron Dafoe's legs," he recalls.

The team had the puck framed for him and it's on a basement wall in his Montreal home.

Darche, who now plays for the San Jose Sharks' farm team in Worcester, Mass., lines up for the Canadian team to skate against the Planet USA in the AHL all-star game Monday night (7 p.m. ET).

He played in Germany last year and returned to North America after the Sharks called to try one more time at making it back to the NHL.

It's the same with all the players who'll be on the ice for the AHL all-star game. The carrot of playing in the big league is always enticing regardless of age. Those who have had a taste of the NHL crave to return for a full banquet.

"I didn't want to end my career and feel, 'What if?' I'm 30-years-old and I wanted to give it one more shot," says Darche.

He's making the most of it. He has scored 25 goals and assisted on 25 in 46 AHL games.

Darren Haydar leads the league in scoring with 89 points - 22 more than the next-closest player. He has 59 assists and had a consecutive-games points streak that set a league record. The stick and puck he used for the last point is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Haydar, 26, played two games with the Nashville Predators in 2002-2003 and has been in the minors ever since.

"It seems like a long time ago," he says of his cameo in Music City USA. "Guys I played with and against are in the NHL now and I think that, given a chance, I can belong at that level."

He's in the Atlanta Thrashers organization now, playing for the Chicago Wolves.

"My dream is to play at the NHL level and that's why I decided, and Nashville decided, it was time for me to move on," he explains. "Being in (Nashville's) organization I felt I was being overlooked . . . I had been there for so long.

"I wanted to try a different organization to see if there was a chance I could move up somewhere else."

The five-foot-nine right-winger hasn't been called up yet because the Thrashers haven't had enough injuries to create an opening for him.

"I think it's just a matter of time," he says. It's unfortunate for me . . . it's a bit disheartening but we know that coming in. I have to continue working for it and hope I get the call.

"I play as well as I can and hope, whether it's another team or Atlanta, at some point in time . . . I just want to play consistently every night to open their eyes and let them know I'm in Chicago and I'm ready whenever they're ready to give me a chance."

From nearby Milton, Ont., he'll have family and friends in the Ricoh Coliseum for the AHL all-star game.

"I'm definitely looking forward to it," he says.

Martin St. Pierre is another small forward who'll try to open some eyes Monday night. The five-foot-nine centre is second in AHL point race with 67, including 17 goals. The native of Embrun, Ont., played two games last season and seven this winter with the Chicago Blackhawks, and intends on playing so well in the all-star game and with the Norfolk Admirals when the schedule resumes that there'll soon be another call-up.

"It was awesome," St. Pierre says of his nibble at the NHL.

More than the ego gets stroked with call-ups. The NHL minimum is US$450,000, but players like St. Pierre earn less than $75,000 at the AHL level.

"I make in one day in the NHL what I make in two weeks in the AHL," he says. "You strive to be in the NHL because it's your dream ... it's fun to be there, and the money always helps."

St. Pierre, 23, amassed 110 points in his last major junior season in Guelph, Ont., and he was to play against former Storm teammate Ryan Callahan of the Hartford Wolf Pack on Monday.

Seeing small forwards such as Daniel Briere and Martin St. Louis star in the NHL gives him hope his size won't hold him back.

"I have to adapt. Maybe it'll take longer. I have to work twice as hard. I just have to put my time in and, hopefully, it works out for the best."

The oldest player will be Mike Keane, 39, who earned Stanley Cup rings with the Montreal Canadiens, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche. Keane has played 1,161 NHL games, and he'd love to skate in the NHL again.

"It's a longshot but stranger things have happened," he said.

He's with the Manitoba Moose in his home city of Winnipeg now, and was looking forward to Monday night.

"It's very special for me - my kids get to watch their dad play in an all-star game," he said.

He doesn't lord his seniority over the younger players. He's working as hard as ever, mucking in the corners for loose pucks and checking with determination.

"Everyone wants to make it to the next level and hard work, determination and doing the right things at the right time are what it takes," he says.

If anybody had a right to sulk about being in the minors, it would be goaltender Jason LaBarbera. He spent all of last season making big-league money with the Los Angeles Kings. Because of his age, 26, and experience, he'd have to clear waivers to rejoin the Kings, so they haven't called for fear of losing him.

"It's kind of a mess," he says.

He's stuck with the Manchester Monarchs, but he's not complaining. The Burnaby, B.C.-born goalie is playing his heart out.

"Who am I to go into the Manchester locker room and sulk and complain? Those guys are trying to get to the NHL, too," he says. "People are watching and I take pride in how I play and how I represent myself.

"That's the way I've always looked at it. The game is supposed to be fun so there's no use sulking and not having fun and losing hockey games."

So, like the others wearing the Canada and Planet USA sweaters, the joy of playing the sport they love and the push to regain a seat at the big-league table keeps them going.

"It's nice to be part of this," says LaBarbera. "To be selected for an all-star game at any level is an honour."


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