Cam Atkinson is living his dream.
Cam Atkinson is living his dream.
It just might not always seem like it during this, his first training camp with Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella.
"He holds everyone accountable," Atkinson said of the notoriously uncompromising coach. "Camp has been hard, but it's good. It's going to help us in the long run."
Atkinson knows a little something about the long run. After offseason moves that saw the Blue Jackets part ways with Fedor Tyutin and Jared Boll, Atkinson, perhaps sneakily so, is the team's active leader in games played as a Blue Jacket with 300.
Throughout his professional career, Atkinson, a sixth-round pick of the CBJ in 2008, has been known as much for his size (small) and his countenance (youthful) as for his skill (considerable). Yet he finds himself, at the ripe old age of 27, as one of the two longest-tenured Jackets (Matt Calvert made his NHL debut before Atkinson, but Atkinson has played more NHL games).
"I consider myself a veteran guy, even though it's weird to say," Atkinson said with a smile in a recent interview at his Arena District condominium. "It's an honor to be in this league for a long time. The league's getting younger and younger, and I guess you can tell by the fact I'm considered a veteran guy. You can tell the younger guys look up to you as a mentor and a leader. I've always tried to lead by example on the ice, and you definitely have to lead by example off the ice too, whether it's in the gym or away from the rink."
Growing up in Riverside, Connecticut, a section of the larger city of Greenwich, Atkinson is the middle sibling of five brothers, all of whom played hockey starting at an early age.
"We had a big driveway," Atkinson said. "We'd always find ourselves out there playing one-on-one, two-on-two. It was the only time I ever played goalie."
Despite playing "pretty much every sport," Cam focused on tennis and hockey.
"We had a career day in fifth grade," Atkinson recalled. "A lot of the kids said they wanted to be firefighters or doctors, what-have-you. I said I wanted to play in the NHL. I knew what I wanted at an early age, and I knew I was pretty good at it. I knew hockey was for me."
His parents - father Tom, who works in the finance industry in New York City, and mother Ellen, previously a stay-at-home mom and now the owner of three consignment shops in Greenwich - were typical sports parents, up early and late making sure the boys got to practices.
"I don't know how they did it for all five of us. We had a pretty special thing as a family," Atkinson said, adding jokingly, "Mom still has to take care of us. I don't know if it's worse back then or now."
Cam transferred from his local high school to Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut, a boarding school with a long hockey tradition, where his teammates included future NHL-ers Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Nick Bonino of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was drafted in his senior year there, but chose to accept a scholarship to play hockey at Boston College with his older brother, Tommy. There he won an NCAA scoring title and a National Championship, and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's MVP, before turning professional.
It was also while at BC that he met his now-fiancée, Natalie Malone.
"I had never watched a hockey game," said Malone, a native of West Palm Beach, Florida. "My nana and my mom had watched the national championship game and my nana called and asked if I'd ever met Cam. She said he was so cute."
A teammate of Atkinson's introduced them. "I knew right when I met him," Malone said. Within a couple weeks she had met his family. They've been a couple ever since and became engaged this past summer.
While Malone finished law school (she passed the Ohio bar exam earlier this year), Atkinson spent his first couple pro seasons up and down with the Blue Jackets' then-minor league affiliate in Springfield, including the first part of 2012-13 during the NHL lockout. After the NHL season resumed, Atkinson joined the big club in Columbus for good, along with his buddy, Matt Calvert.
"We had met at summer camps before [we were drafted]. I knew he was a smaller guy like me so we hit it off right away," Calvert said of their on-ice relationship. "It's been fun when we've had the chances to play together. We both like to use our speed. He's always liked to score goals and I just tried to get him the puck."
Off the ice the two hit it off as well. Calvert will be among those in the wedding party when Atkinson and Malone are married next summer, and Malone and Calvert's wife, Courtney, are friends as well.
"We've grown together [and] seen each other's ups and downs," Calvert said.
"The relationship gets better and better every year," Atkinson said.
So does Atkinson's play. Last season he posted a career high in both goals and assists (27 and 26 respectively), leading the team in points. He is also the team's top overall scorer for the past three seasons combined.
"His size was the only reason he was [drafted so low]," said Blue Jackets television analyst for Fox Sports Bill Davidge. "He's got great hands, great agility, he sees the ice well and he's got great hockey sense. And he hates to lose."
Atkinson, as you might expect, said that, while he enjoys scoring goals, he is most concerned with team results.
"If I'm doing my part, it's going to help the team win. As long as I'm working hard the points will come," he said.
In addition to his veteran status and recent engagement, other trappings of maturity are also wearing well on Atkinson. Last year, he started Force Network Fund, a foundation that raises money for various organizations supporting the work of first responders and the military.
"It's something I strongly believe in," Atkinson said. "My two youngest brothers are EMTs and volunteer firefighters. I have a cousin who graduated from West Point and another who's a senior there. And my grandfather was in the military."
Family remains an important part of Atkinson's life. In the past couple seasons, since the Blue Jackets moved to the NHL's Eastern Conference, his parents and siblings have gotten to see him play more in person as the team has visited New York and Boston more frequently. And while he still considers Greenwich home, Atkinson considers Columbus his second home.
"I've lived in Greenwich my whole life. I've been here [in Columbus] six years, and Natalie and I have lived here together for three (along with their 3-year-old Pomeranian mix, Easton). [As a couple] this is our home," Atkinson said.
"I think the team believes in me and trusts me. I tell management every year that I hope to finish my career here."