Friday, August 15, 2008

Bellemore one step closer to NHL dream


There’s a certain beauty in following the Ontario Hockey League.

Players like Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Rick Nash, Joe Thornton and other OHL stars over the years deserve their status as high draft picks and sign National Hockey League contracts befitting their status.

But there’s also room in the OHL for players like former Plymouth Whalers defenseman Brett Bellemore, Plymouth’s 12th round pick in 2004 and a sixth round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft.

After being skipped over during his first year of eligibility, Bellemore wasn't even on Central Scouting's draft list for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft when Carolina decided to select him, working on a recommendation from Plymouth president and general manager Mike Vellucci, who had coached Bellemore for two seasons.

With no fanfare, the Hurricanes signed Bellemore last spring to a multi-year, entry-level contract. So instead of playing an overage year this season in Plymouth, Bellemore is penciled in to start in the American Hockey League with the Albany River Rats.

Bellemore’s career path is different from Stamkos and the rest of the high-end talent in the OHL, but the end result won’t be much of a change from his OHL days if he faces Stamkos again in the NHL.

“Brett is a big and smart defenseman who can log a lot of minutes,” said Ron Francis, Carolina assistant general manager and director of player development. “He played well in Albany at the end of the year and we look forward to watching his development as a professional.”

“I’m really excited about it,” Bellemore said with a smile. “Nothing’s final, of course – I still have to work really hard going into training camp and play well – but it’s exhilarating and a lot of fun. It just goes to show you that anyone can do well in this league and make an impact on a team, whether it’s something small like being a stay-at-home defenseman or anyone of those big-name guys that puts up the points.”

“We saw a lot of potential in Brett, even though he was a 12th round draft pick at the time,” said Plymouth head coach Greg Stefan. “We thought with his size and reach, there would be something there. Fortunately for us, he came into his own during our championship year (2006-07) and became one of the better stay-at-home defensemen of all of junior hockey.

“He came back last year and was a stalwart defenseman for us in playing 30 minutes a game. After we were eliminated in the playoff, Carolina decided to give him a chance in the playoffs with Albany of the AHL. It’s going to hurt us, in losing him, because he was going to be a go-to guy. But on the other hand, it’s great to see our players reach their goals by signing NHL contracts. We wish him the best.”

Go back to the 2006-07 and Bellemore was a healthy scratch for the six weeks of the season. It was tough to watch, but to Bellemore’s credit, he kept a positive attitude.

“Obviously, it wasn’t fun sitting out,” Bellemore said. “The coaching staff (Vellucci and Todd Watson at that time) was good about it, telling me what I needed to do. I believe I worked really hard and worked my way up and good things started to happen.”

A funny thing happened on the way to a championship year. Bellemore and defensive partner Zack Shepley complimented each other so well they became the Whalers shut-down defensive pairing against all the top lines in the OHL. Bellemore led the entire Canadian Hockey League with a +48 plus-minus rating.

“Zack and I are the exact kind of player – a stay-at-home d-man,” Belemore said. “We had fun trying to shut down guys. It was awesome.”

Fast forward to last spring after the Whalers were eliminated by Kitchener and Bellemore headed to Albany. There’s always an adjustment for players moving up a couple of levels. Albany’s head coach then, Tom Rowe - who has since moved to Carolina as an assistant - expected Bellemore to go through a learning process.

“To be honest, I thought he might be overwhelmed at this level,” Rowe said about Bellemore during his time in Albany. “But he’s done a great job for us and he’s definitely in the mix to play for us in the playoffs. At this level, he needs to continue to learn how to do things quicker and deal with the pace of the game. But Belly’s a real competitive guy and is not afraid to stick his nose in there.”

Some players say the game can get easier as they move up the hockey ladder. Bellemore kept his approach simple in Albany.

“If you’re going up against big-name players up front, all you have to do is chip the puck off the glass and they’re gone. It’s also tougher (because) the players are faster, a lot stronger and a lot bigger. So it’s a little bit of both.”

Bellemore has worked out in Plymouth periodically this summer, but is not scheduled to attend the Whalers’ training camp starting August 25. Instead, he’ll report to Carolina’s camp.

“Plymouth’s a great place to play and that was on the agenda before I went to Albany,” Bellemore said. “I love playing in Plymouth, along with the guys and the coaches. But the plan right now is to start in Albany, so I hope everything turns out well.”

Things have worked out well for Bellemore, the anti-Stamkos.

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

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