Malcolm Cameron could be chairman of the twinning committee. The native of Cole Harbour used to play and coach at Wolfville’s Acadia University, and current Acadia coach Darren Burns was a linemate and roommate.
Cameron now works in Beaumont as head coach of the ECHL’s Texas Wildcatters, and when he beats the bushes for players each autumn he always checks out the crop of graduating Acadia skaters.
He snagged the best of the lot when he signed Kevin Baker to a Wildcatters contract for 2006-2007. Playing for Acadia last winter, Baker was named Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s hockey player of the year.
The 27-year-old native of Kingston, Ont., has scored 10 goals and has a team-high 16 points in helping the Wildcatters to the best start in franchise history, 6-2-1.
“It’s a little weird going to the rink in shorts but once you get in the rink, no matter where it is, you’re there to play hockey,” says Baker.
Cameron, 37, who played junior hockey with the father of NHL sophomore star Sidney Crosby before enrolling at Acadia, has mostly Canadians in his lineup.
Defenceman Jean-Francois David, the Shawinigan Cataractes junior star from Blainville, Que., leads ECHL defencemen with 12 points.’
Paul Albers of Melville, Sask., who with the Vancouver Giants led all WHL defencemen with 62 points last season, is an impressive rookie on the Texas blue-line.
Forward Brandon Cote of Swift Current, Sask., the humanitarian of the year in Canadian major junior hockey when he played for the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, has five goals and seven assists.
Goaltender Matt Yeats of Innisfail, Alta., has a .919 save percentage. Yeats got into five games with the NHL’s Washington Capitals in 2003-2004.
It was getting Baker that turned a good lineup into a possible championship contender.
“He’s a sniper who can find the holes similar to how Brett Hull scored all his goals,” says Cameron. “He’s a dynamite power-play player, too, and one aspect of his game I wasn’t aware of was how gritty he is. He’s not afraid to take a hit to make a play.”
Baker played major junior hockey for the OHL’s Belleville Bulls after making the team as a walk-on candidate. He was picked by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1999 NHL entry draft, 193rd overall, after a 44-goal junior season. He played three pro seasons with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters, the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs and the AHL’s Saint John Flames before deciding to go back to school at Acadia, whose students swell the population of the Annapolis Valley town an hour’s drive from Halifax to about 7,000 during the school year.
“I either had to stick it out in pro hockey or go back and get my degree,” he explains. “I have no regrets about going back.”
The six-foot-one forward led the Atlantic conference with 24 goals and 23 assists in 28 games for Acadia last season. After three years in Wolfville, he emerged with a kinesiology degree.
By the time he closed his last textbook, he was eager to get back onto a pro team.
“I missed it,” he says. “I like the game so much, and I missed getting paid to do something I love.
“In college, we just played 28 games during the year. The focus was on the academic side. I wanted to play more hockey.”
His current linemates are former Dallas Stars draft pick Marco Rosa of Toronto and Mike Bayrack of Edmonton, an eight-year pro.
“We had instant chemistry,” says Baker. “Each person brings something to the line. That’s why it works so well.”
They all want to move up to the nearby Houston Aeros of the AHL.
“The goal is to get to the A and stick there,” says Baker. “I can put the puck in the net.
“Every league I’ve played in, I’ve been a scorer.”
Beaumont is a city of 115,000 about 45 kilometres inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The petrochemical industry is the largest employer. The Wildcatters averaged 2,630 paying customers for the three home games they have played. The numbers will rise if they keep winning.
“We were very fortunate to get some kids to buy into what we’re trying to do here,” says Cameron. “The two previous years, this team wasn’t very good. We’ve turned things around.
“I’ve sold guys on the fact I’ve had good success getting players up to the AHL.”
Now that he’s back in the pros, Baker intends to make the most of it. He’s off to a great start.