SAN DIEGO — Alan Hepple has reached a place in his professional hockey career where the city, the salary and the organization no longer really matter--just as long as somebody wants him.
That's a strange place to be, considering Hepple, a defenseman, has the third-highest assist total on the International Hockey League's highest scoring team and was one of five Gulls named to the West Division All-Star team.
"I don't know if it's because of my defensive ability or the fact I have 26 points, but it's an honor; it's certainly nice," said Hepple, 28, who hasn't played in an all-star game since his junior days at Oshawa, Canada, 11 years ago. "It's going to be neat. And you're always looking to next year. If the Gulls don't want me back, maybe somebody else will see me out there and want to use my talents."
But in Gull Coach Don Waddell's eyes, Hepple won't need to posture for next year. Waddell, also general manager, sought to obtain Hepple more than a year ago. He finally signed Hepple to a one-year contract in August, after the Toronto Maple Leafs released him, and promptly named him team captain.
"I've played against him and I've scouted him for years, and every time I watched him he was playing hard-nosed hockey," Waddell said. "Characterwise, he always gives you 110%. He leads by example, and I've always admired that quality."
Waddell, who will be an assistant coach for the West at the Feb. 2 all-star game in Atlanta, put Hepple on his all-star squad not just because he has 23 assists but also because of the job he's done with a young Gulls defense that struggled early.
"The points go hand-in-hand with the team playing well," said Hepple, who was born in Blaydon-on-Tyne, England, but was raised north of Toronto. "But the most points I've ever had is 35 and I've got 26 already, and we're only halfway through the season. It's kind of nice to get some points and lots of ice time."
The Gulls are currently 25-15-3 (53 points), tied with Peoria for second place in the West behind the Kansas City Blades. The Gulls, who didn't get their 25th victory last season until Feb. 22, are in the midst of a franchise-record five-game winning streak.
They aren't close to Kansas City (35-11-2, 72 points) in the points race, but they've become a force nonetheless. They are 4-1-1 their past six games (including a two-game sweep Friday and Saturday at the San Diego Sports Arena) against the Blades, who have the league's best record. The Gulls, who wrap up this 5-0 home stand against IHL East leader Ft. Wayne on Tuesday and Wednesday, are playing their best hockey of the season.
With the team averaging a league-high 4.3 goals per game and boasting IHL goals and scoring leader Dmitri Kvartalnov (36 goals, 72 points) and assist leader Len Hachborn (43), the only attention paid to defense is when the team loses.
But Hepple and five other defenders have combined to score 85 points, including Sergei Starikov (22 points, 19 assists) and Minnesota North Stars rookie Brian Straub (15 points). Veteran Alan Leggett had three assists Saturday to give him 10 points, while Kord Cernich, on loan from the New York Rangers, has 12 points, including a game-winning goal.
"I knew they would get better as the season went on, but these guys have worked to get there faster than I expected," said Waddell, whose defense allows 3.81 goals per game but has averaged 3.5 over the last 18. "The young guys have learned and the veterans have gotten better as the year has gone on. But Hepple's been solid from the start."
Solid is a good way to describe Hepple, who at 5-feet-9 and 190 pounds was considered too small for a defenseman by Toronto. His NHL experience was limited to three games with the New Jersey Devils. But at Newmarket of the American Hockey League the past three seasons, Hepple felt he was good enough to get a trial promotion with Toronto.
"I've seen so many guys get so many chances, it seems like they've got nine lives," Hepple said. "I told Toronto, after some of the guys they called up, 'Just give me a chance. If I screw up, then it's my fault. Give me five or 10 games to prove that I can or can't play there.' To lose another five games with me in the lineup would have meant nothing to them.
"But I'm not bitter; I've had a great nine years playing in the minors. And I'll play 'till they kick me out."