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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Justin Hodgman says he's not about to back away from the expectations that face him during his fourth stint with the Komets.

Friday, October 13, 2017 1:00 am

Hodgman welcomes pressure

After 3 previous stellar, yet brief, stints, center thrilled to be back

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Justin Hodgman loves the pressure. He sees the hockey fans in Fort Wayne as both demanding and knowledgeable, so it's a perfect place for him to be as a center heading into the Komets' 66th season opener Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum against the Toledo Walleye.

Of course, he's set the bar so high in his previous stints with the orange and black that the expectations on him will be particularly high. He has played only 54 games with the Komets and totaled 25 goals and 58 points, winning three straight championships from 2008 to 2010 in the now-defunct International Hockey League.

“I got such a thrill playing here every night. I don't think, as players, you can truly understand what it's like to play in front of these fans and the expectations until you do it,” said Hodgman, who first joined the Komets as a rookie fresh from the Erie Otters of the junior-level Ontario Hockey League and is now 29. “Every organization, the expectation is to win every game. But it's a little bit different here, and I love it. I thrive in those scenarios, and I can't wait to do it for a full season.”

Hodgman performed at such a high level in his three previous stints with the Komets – he was the playoff MVP in 2008 – that the expectations on him will undoubtedly be unrealistic. He's never had a slump in a Komets uniform because, frankly, he's never been here long enough to have one.

But he pointed out that he's helped the Komets out from plenty of adversity. His most famous goal, the Turner Cup-clincher in triple overtime of Game 7 in 2008, came after Fort Wayne trailed Port Huron 3-1 in the finals. And in 2010, the Komets had to again recover from a 3-1 series deficit to Port Huron in the semifinals before a finals victory over Flint, which had a roster that included current Fort Wayne captain Jamie Schaafsma and assistant coach Ben Boudreau.

“We had our adversity. We were down 3-1 and I got to experience that. Maybe I haven't seen (a cold spell) at the Fort Wayne level, but I've experienced some pretty important scenarios before where the expectations were pretty high (to turn things around). It'll be different here, but it won't be foreign,” said Hodgman, who last season played in Finland and the Czech Republic, totaling 10 goals and 22 points in 31 games.

Hodgman's early career success with the Komets springboarded him to higher levels of North American and international hockey, most notably a five-game stint in 2014 with the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, whom Fort Wayne is affiliated with for the first time this season. Hodgman had one point in the NHL, a goal in his first game against the Florida Panthers and goaltender Roberto Luongo.

“Playing in the NHL gives you that confidence,” Hodgman said. “The experience I got being with, and learning from, those pros, those guys who are among the best in the world like Shane Doan and Keith Yandle, (was amazing). And learning from (coach) Dave Tippett was one of the most special things in my career. He's probably one of the best coaches I've ever learned from and, obviously, I owe a lot to him for giving me the chance to go to training camp to make the team and giving me a chance in the regular season.”

Prior to playing for the Coyotes, Hodgman, a 6-foot-1 native of Brampton, Ontario, had been a productive player in the Triple-A level American Hockey League for the Toronto Marlies, accruing 19 goals and 41 points in 80 games, and skated in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

He totaled 77 AHL games with Portland and Chicago from 2014 to 2016, amassing 11 goals and 41 points, and is hoping a return to Fort Wayne can again prove he deserves a shot at a higher level. But he's here for more than that. Fort Wayne has been home since he first arrived and this is a chance for his kids, Braelynn, 8, and Zayden, 6, to see him play.

“I'm here for a reason,” Hodgman said. “I want to play in front of my kids. I want to be around my kids. But I'm 29 years old, and I've got a lot of good hockey left. I hope to earn some American Hockey League looks. ... My focus is winning here and the rest will take care of itself.”

Whereas Hodgman followed the lead of players such as Colin Chaulk, P.C. Drouin and Konstantin Shafranov in his previous stints in Fort Wayne, he'll now be expected to be a mentor. Oddly, though, he'll be taking in the glitz of opening night like any other newcomer because he's never been here to start a season and only played 20 regular-season games with the K's.

“It's just different (being here for training camp). I won't say it's weird, but it's a completely different aspect, and I'm taking it all in as if I was a rookie,” Hodgman said. “I have to imagine they're all such exciting times in Fort Wayne. I was here for other exciting times at the end of the year, and it's definitely going to be cool to be here for the whole process.”

jcohn@jg.net