Ontario Reign defenseman Chad Starling was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 1999 but has spent most of his 10 years as a pro in the ECHL. "I just enjoy playing and having fun with the guys," Starling said.
Jim Alexander, The Press Enterprise
Reign defenseman Chad Starling chuckled when it was suggested that he might be the Crash Davis of hockey.
But consider: This is a guy who is in his 10th year of chasing pucks professionally. The vast majority has been spent in the ECHL, two steps down from the league where everyone wants to be.
He spent time in Peoria, Utah and Cincinnati before signing with Ontario last year. He's played 556 professional regular-season games, 36 in the American Hockey League and 35 in the lower-tier Central Hockey League. He's had five cups of coffee -- apparently tall, rather than grande or venti -- in NHL training camps since being drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round in 1999.
Yet he keeps going even as other guys move up, just as the fictional catcher played by Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham" kept riding those Class A buses.
"I just enjoy playing and having fun with the guys," Starling said. "Most of the guys just love the game. There's going to be a time you've got to move on and get a real job. But I just enjoy coming out to the rink every day, coming to practice, getting here early.
"It doesn't hurt living in California, either."
As he spoke, leaning on the boards at the Reign players bench, he was the last one on the ice after practice, watching a couple of his cousins skate.
They're from Saskatchewan, where it was 40 below at the time. Obviously, living here does have its allure.
But there's this about hockey players: The game can be hard, brutal and unforgiving, yet it's rare to see one who doesn't relish gliding onto a clean, glistening sheet, be it practice or game.
And when the session is over, it's equally common that the Zamboni has to chase guys off the ice.
"If you don't love the game and you don't want to be here, there's no use being here," Starling said. "You might as well find something else to do. I think of all the guys we have in the room, everybody has a smile on their face.
"There's days you're upset, if you lost the night before or whatever, but it's important just to come in with a good attitude and respect the game, and good things will happen."
That sounds like it's coming from a coach-in-waiting.
Yet this isn't totally a case of an old guy brought in to mentor the young pups. Starling, 29, is a 6-foot-6 defenseman who won an ECHL championship in Cincinnati in 2008, and he's part of a group of veterans that Coach Karl Taylor brought in when the Reign franchise was launched last season.
"Chad's a big body and he's won a championship with Cincinnati," Taylor said. "We have a lot of guys we can rely on, but Chad's a part of that puzzle for sure."
Starling has mentored rookie defense partner and roommate Brian Kilburg. Starling has talked to him about playing a positional game, staying in the system rather than chasing opponents around the ice. Away from the rink, he's provided tips about being a pro.
Kilburg has an economics degree from Minnesota State, but he says, "I'm going to continue to play hockey until I can't do it any more."
Talk about leading by example.
Reach Jim Alexander at 951-368-9543 or jalexander@PE.com