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Bryan Little surprised himself and GM by sticking with the Atlanta Thrashers

That would be Bryan Little, the 19-year-old Atlanta Thrashers centre who was captain of the OHL's Barrie Colts last winter and also helped Canada win another world junior championship. He went to the NHL team's camp as a longshot candidate for a roster spot and now is skating alongside all-star Marian Hossa.

"It's awesome," Little said after the morning skate in preparation for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. "It's kind of surprised me that I'm playing here right now.

"I'm fighting to stay every day and I couldn't be more happy to be part of the Thrashers."

The five-foot-11, 190-pound centre from Cambridge, Ont., had two goals and two assists in Atlanta's first eight games. He scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 13 against New Jersey and the team is having it mounted in a case for him.

GM-coach Don Waddell expected a lot. After all, he used his team's first pick, 12th overall, to draft Little in 2006, and what he's seen so far has exceeded expectations.

"He's doing really well for a 19-year-old player," says Waddell. "He came into training camp and we had all intentions of giving him lots of games but probably starting the year off with our AHL team (in Chicago).

"He proved to us from Day 1 that he was ready for the task. Every game, he just continues to get better. He's got a great passion for the game. He's got a great skill level."

As a rookie, and a teenager still, Little doesn't say a lot around his new teammates while in uniform, says Waddell.

"He's feeling his way through," says Waddell. "There are no issues with him at all.

"He's one of these guys that's got the respect of his teammates."

Waddell stepped behind the bench after firing coach Bob Hartley after the Thrashers lost their first six games.

"I'd never really seen anything like that before," says Little, who was just getting to know Hartley. "Obviously, it was getting frustrating losing.

"We couldn't get a win together, but we're looking forward now. It's a new season for us and we can't really dwell on what happened at the start of the season."

Little is a smart and productive player. He had 41 goals and 66 assists in 57 games with the Colts last season. Yet, he was unsure of his role when he started out with the Thrashers.

"I just had to go work hard every game," he says. "Bob told me before he left that I was kind of an energy guy.

"I was playing with some good players on the offensive side, too, so I kind of feel like I have to bring energy and offence to every game."

After being a kingpin with the Colts, he's just trying to fit in with the Thrashers.

"I was used to playing a lot of minutes in Barrie," he explains. "I was the go-to guy.

"It's a bit different now. I knew it would be. It's kind of good for me because there's not as much pressure on me as there was in Barrie. I can go out and work hard and kind of do my own thing."

In Atlanta, Little lives with defenceman Ken Klee and his family.

"He's been great for me," says Little. "He's told me kind of how the league works.

"It's been good living with him. He helps me out. Not only do I live at his house but I learn more about what it's like to be an NHL player each day."

Opponents are faster and stronger.

"I have to think faster," he says.

Arenas and crowds are bigger than in the OHL.

"It's like junior magnified. It's been a big change for me."

Skating in Air Canada Centre was a thrill, and Little admitted to being nervous facing the team he watched on TV when he was a boy growing up in Cambridge.

"It's pretty special coming back here and playing after watching them for so many years," he said.

The Thrashers were in Canada for the first time this season. Little funnelled 50 tickets to family members, and the Colts chartered a bus to bring in the whole team.

Meanwhile, with Finn Kari Lehtonen injured, the Thrashers are going with Swede Johan Hedberg and Czech backup Ondrej Pavelec in goal, and Waddell says he's not shopping for another goalie.

"We feel Hedberg can carry the mail," he says.



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