Saturday, March 30, 2013

Smallish Matt Calvert always stands out

By Larry Wigge

John Houseman doesn't make commercials these days. But if he did, his bit for Smith Barney Investments from 1979 would still earn a gold star.

In it, he said, "Good investments don't walk up and bite you on the bottom and say we're here. Finding them takes good old-fashioned hard work, research. ... Smith Barney: They make money the old-fashioned way. They e-a-r-n it."

Matt Calvert has e-a-r-n-e-d every bit of credit he has gotten for climb from low-on-the-radar to Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Brandon, Manitoba, native, was the fifth-round pick, 127th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by Columbus. By his own admission, Calvert, all 5-foot-10, 175 pounds of him, didn't fall off a turnip truck or some such thing. 

Matt Calvert began making plays in tight spaces and snapping wrist shots past goaltenders. Calvert used his soft hands for equally honest yet less celebrated tasks -- he flipped burgers for Wendy's, he cleaned swimming pools, he pumped gas at a Mohawk filling station and he took pride in his greasy aprons and oil-stained uniforms.

You could say this story is sort of out of sight out of mind. But that wouldn't apply here, because Calvert was a positive influence the first-round selections of Brayden Schenn (who went fifth to Los Angeles in 2009 and now plays for Philadelphia) and Scott Glennie (who went eighth to Dallas in 2009). Each of the threesome played on the top line of the Brandon Wheat Kings.

"You can call me a third wheel, back seat, off the radar, I don't care," said Calvert. "We had a great line and no one is going to tell me I didn't contribute a lot to it."

One team executive said about Calvert: "We have a couple of scouts near Brandon and they never filed any reports on him. None to my knowledge."

There's always a player or two whose number just keeps catching your attention. Hard worker. Character player who plays with a great degree of passion. No quit. This phenomenon is true, especially when you have a little more than 200 players on hand for this type of prospects bonanza.

Calvert is confident enough in his own abilities to admit he won't let anything anyone says about him deter his attempt to make it to the NHL.

"Hey, I was only 5-1 when I was 16. I've heard all the stories. Like, 'Hey kid, get off the ice so the real players can practice' since I was little," Calvert laughed after he thought about what he had just said. "Maybe I should have worded that differently.

"But it is what it is. I never really thought about the NHL until Columbus drafted me."

Calvert can't recall how many times he was cut from youth teams. The story was always the same, coaches liked his ability and speed, but he was simply too small.

At age 15, he was 5-1 and 110 pounds. Matt's father, Leo, who works for Westman Communications Group in Brandon, an internet/cable company, remembers talking to a junior scout, who ended a conversation with: "Call me if he grows."

Still, there's no inferiority complex there.

"I've been cut from so many teams over the years because of my size I don't worry about that," Matt added. "When I turned 16, I never got a single letter from a Western Hockey League team (invitations to that junior league's training camps). It wasn't until after my third year of midget that (Brandon coach) Kelly McCrimmon called me and offered me a tryout."

Matt says his dad encouraged him to go back for a third year of midgets, in which he had his best season ever.

"Kelly McCrimmon gave me a chance to play at the Junior A level, but I don't think I could have made it this far without the confidence my parents have in me and my dream to play hockey professionally," Calvert said.

The Calvert's, Leo and Alice, Matt's mom, who works for Brandon University. Both are blue-collar people who pushed him.

"While I'm pulling the sweater over my head for each game, I think of their words ... 'Keep on fighting, son. Follow your dream,'" Matt said, wearing all of his emotions on the sleeve of his Columbus practice jersey Tuesday. "They were the ones who were confident I'd grow up from the 5-1 kid when I was 16 ... and they were right."

Scott Glennie has yet to make an impact on the NHL. Meanwhile, Calvert had six goals for the Blue Jackets.

"Don't worry about Matt," Glennie said of his Brandon linemate. "He's got all the confidence in the world in his ability."

There's even more to his growth to this small player.

"Since Traverse City in September of 2009, I learned to be a professional," Calvert said. "My first thing as a pro, I felt I should be here. I got comfortable ... or whatever."

There always seemed to be one or two players ahead of Matt Calvert, so he went down to Springfield of the American Hockey League during the lockout, where he put up 10 goals and 11 assists in 34 games.

"I felt awesome down there earning my stripes," he continued. "I know this is the place I want to be. These are the best players in the world.

"Some players were called up over me."

I've written too many, too small, too slow, too this, too that stories to know that it's a will to win and the size of a player's heart that really counts. At that point, you realize that Matt Calvert has just as good a chance to show everyone that he's no different than a Martin St. Louis, Daniel Briere, Steve Sullivan, Doug Gilmour, Theo Fleury and so many others who have transformed small size into big in the NHL.

Teammate R.J. Umberger says, "He plays like he's 6-foot-3 in the corners. His play in the hard areas is what stands out."

Matt Calvert stands out.

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