J.P. Hoornstra, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
For the group of eight to 10 friends and family who commute from Irvine to Ontario to watch C.J. Stretch play for the Reign, the rookie forward is beginning to make it a worthwhile drive.
Stretch re-entered the lineup Friday after a 20-day absence and played in all three games for the Reign over the weekend. He was credited with three shots on goal in Sunday's 7-3 loss to Utah, one of which went in on a breakaway in the first period.
Stretch also assisted on the Reign's first goal, joining Shawn Collymore on the rush and feeding the center perfectly for a one-timer from the slot.
"He's trying to be a good soldier," Reign coach Karl Taylor said following the game. "He's a young kid. He's a rookie. He's trying to learn his way. He had some energy tonight and he's just got to learn how to play well defensively."
Ah yes, defense.
Like many California-born and raised prospects, the offensive part of the game came more naturally to Stretch, who scored 30 goals in his final junior season with the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers.
That earned the 21-year-old forward a one-game tryout with the Reign last season, in which he scored his first professional goal against the Las Vegas Wranglers. He re-signed with the Reign, but playing time has been slow in coming since.
Stretch took advantage of a more open offensive scheme in Kamloops under coach Barry Smith and his successor, Guy Charron.
"In the (WHL), you can have a few lines that are mostly defensive lines and one skilled line," Stretch said. "But in pro hockey you have to be a two-way player and skilled defensively and offensively."
As Taylor explained, "playing defense, everybody thinks you're sitting back, but you're not sitting back. ... Good defense is trying to get the puck back so you can score. If he plays hard defensively he's going to have the puck more and have more opportunities to score."
That came naturally to fellow Southern Californian Tim Kraus, who played against Stretch in the WHL and long before, going back to when the two played roller hockey as kids. The difference was Kraus' junior coach, Don Hay of the Vancouver Giants, who also had brief stints behind the bench for the Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes.
The art of the forecheck and penalty kill "was nothing new to me coming here," Kraus said.
Still, he and Stretch were known as scorers in the WHL, which is no coincidence.
"Growing up, our age group, everyone was playing roller hockey," Kraus said. "Everyone had good hands, good vision, things like that. All those guys are going in the first round (of the NHL draft) now and they all played roller hockey growing up."
Stretch wasn't drafted during his first year of eligibility, but three of his teammates on the California Wave club team were: Jonathan Blum, Colin Long and Mitch Wahl.
If he wants to join them in the NHL some day, Stretch must work to improve his play without the puck and his strength. Looking to add to his 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame, Stretch said he spent the summer training under the tutelage of Ducks strength and conditioning coach Sean Skahan.
He also practiced with several Ducks players, as well as NHL stars Mikhail Grabovski and Sheldon Souray, during informal sessions in September in Anaheim. Further education came during training camp with the American Hockey League's Manchester Monarchs.
That's some good company for a rookie ECHL player, but Stretch knows he won't be handed anything in his first season.
"I have to battle for my spot out there. It's not just a given," he said. "I've got to produce out there and get in some opportunities, to get some chances to keep myself out there."
Dwight King, who became the first Reign player to appear in an NHL game on Nov. 17, is scoreless through six games for the Kings.
The 21-year-old left wing, a healthy scratch Monday against the Ducks, also has two penalty minutes and a minus-2 rating.
Goalies Martin Jones (2-0, 1.50 GAA) and Jeff Zatkoff (2-0, 2.00 GAA) led the AHL's Manchester Monarchs to four consecutive victories. During the streak, defenseman Colten Teubert scored his first AHL goal and right wing Bud Holloway notched a goal and two assists.
Right wing Geoff Walker scored his first goal of the season and had an assist in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' 4-3 victory over the Rochester Americans on Saturday. Walker has seven points and a plus-5 rating in 20 games for the first-place Penguins.
Forward Greg Hogeboom extended his scoring streak to four games for the Central Hockey League's Texas Brahmas on Saturday. He leads the team in scoring with seven goals and 17 points in 16 games.
Defenseman Andrew Martens had three assists in three games this week for the CHL's Wichita Thunder, giving him six assists and eight points in 16 games this season.