One of the fun things about covering (and watching) sports is the joy that comes from watching the underdog triumph over all odds and get to the top. It can be a team -- like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team -- or a player. Just someone or something that overcomes overwhelming obstacles that would doom a lesser team or person.
Tom Brady may be on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame, but he was just a sixth-round draft choice. Roy Oswalt may wind up as the greatest pitcher in Astros history, but he was an afterthought, drafted in 23rd round of baseball's amateur draft. And don't forget Mike Piazza, the last player drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 amateur draft (in the 62nd round) only as a favor by Tommy Lasorda to Piazza's father. And right now, on the Houston Aeros, that underdog against all odds might be happening all over again.
Defenseman Max Noreau was not drafted into the NHL coming out of junior hockey. He was invited to a prospect camp of the Minnesota Wild in 2007, but failed to earn a contract. He did get a deal with the then-Texas Wildcatters of the ECHL. After three games, the Aeros came calling, and he's been on the team ever since. He earned a contract with the Aeros that season, and following the season, in 2008, he signed a multi-year with the Wild, the parent club of the Aeros.
In that time, he's gone from a guy who couldn't get a contract to become one of the AHL's leading offensive-minded defensemen who tomorrow night will be playing in the AHL All-Star Game.
After Saturday's two-assist game, Noreau finds himself tied for second on the team in points with 30 (10 goals and 20 assists). His 10 goals is tops in the AHL for defensemen, and his 30 total points tie him for first in the league.
"It was a lot of sweat and tears," Noreau said of his efforts. "It wasn't always easy, not getting drafted and not signing with Minnesota right away. They put me to the test, and I'm grateful for that. They gave me a chance. It's going to be a fun week at the All-Star Game."
So in three years Noreau has gone from an undrafted free agent to an All-Star.
"So that's a pretty good progression if you can go from a little bit of East Coast your first league, and only an AHL contract, to then your second year getting a NHL contract to your third year being an All-Star," head coach Kevin Constantine said. "So one would just hope in Max's case that there's that continual progress year after year. Because what is the next step, probably the National Hockey League for him."
The Aeros gave Noreau the chance because he's the kind of player that Constantine loves. He's willing to work, to work hard, and to work within the system. He listens to the coaches, and he's more concerned with what happens with the team than he is with his own stats.
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"There's no doubt that offensively, Max has been so, so important for us..." Constantine said. "He's so, so energetic every night, and so active all over the ice. And -- [former Aeros defenseman Clayton Stoner] was contributing some of that, even strength for us, when Clayton was here -- and now it seems like Max even has to do a little more. We at times -- he's so energized we at times have to put the reins on him a little bit just to save some of his energy for the rest of the game."
Noreau may be energetic, but he claims to just be following orders.
"The last couple of years, they've been trying to get more D in the offense," he said. "And trying to get the guys back there more jumping into their routes...I'm just trying to have energy out there, and I'll listen to him [Constantine]. I'll do whatever he says."
The team slumped last week, and with the slump they dropped from third to sixth in the standings. They haven't been scoring much, and they're still suffering from injuries. Noreau says that everybody on the squad is going to have to step up and do his job, and the goals are going to have to come from unexpected players like Matt Kassian and J.P. Testwuide -- both got their second goals of the season on Saturday night. But the underdog, the undrafted Noreau, might end up being the team's best chance of making the playoffs.