Senators give fresh chance to AHL journeyman Jessiman

Another player might have hung up his skates and called it a career.

Another player might have hung up his skates and called it a career.

A year ago at this time, Hugh Jessiman was skating in a New York arena without a contract, “with this Russian coach, getting bagged every day, just me and this other guy, day in and day out,” he says. “And that’s how you create your confidence because you have to believe in yourself in those times when your back is against the wall.”

Way, way back in 2003, the New York Rangers made hometown boy Jessiman – 6-6 and 231 pounds – their first round draft selection, 12th overall. But after six long seasons in the American Hockey League and a mere two NHL games with the Florida Panthers to his credit, the phone didn’t ring with a new offer last summer. The best he could get was a last-minute tryout with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.

Jessiman, a winger, responded with the best year of his pro career, registering 27 goals, 17 assists and 108 penalty minutes in a combined 67 games with Lake Erie and the Abbotsford Heat.

In July, the Ottawa Senators called, giving the 28-year-old another shot, delivering the message that the AHL isn’t all about young prospects. After 502 games with seven minor league teams, from British Columbia to North Carolina, he has seen plenty. If he impresses enough down here and there is an NHL season, maybe, just maybe, Senators fans will see Jessiman for a few NHL games against physical opponents. The departures of Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner to free agency opened the door slightly for a player like Jessiman.

“They were pretty forward with me, right at July 1,” says Jessiman, who missed Sunday’s workouts due to a minor shoulder injury. “They said we need size. We don’t have a lot of it. We think you can be a Dwight King kind of guy for us and if willing to take that chance, we’ll sign you.

“I’m not a heavyweight fighter, but I’m not afraid to stick up for my teammates and drop the gloves. Both here and (in Ottawa), I can do that. It might be a touch different role here than (in Ottawa).”

Jessiman freely acknowledges that wasn’t his specialty when he was a teenaged star. He was originally drafted after scoring 23 goals and 24 assists in 34 games with Dartmouth College in 2002-03.

Asked if he has had to adjust his game to survive, he offers a wide grin. He quickly discovered that to stay alive in pro hockey, his size was his best asset.

“I was forced to not only use by body, but back when I came in here, five, six, maybe seven, years ago, there was a lot more fighting, it was a lot grittier,” he says. “It was a different game. Hartford and New York wanted me to be a gritty, two-way power forward, but to do that, you have to be able to stick up for yourself and your teammates. So I had to learn how to fight. You learn the hard way.”

Once upon a time, Jessiman says he might have been considered overrated, due to high draft status. Now, he believes he’s underrated, partly because has discovered, through trial and error, how vital it is to be prepared and dedicated for every game. It’s a lesson the Senators young forwards should take to heart.

“It’s a tough league,” he says. “A lot of these young guys will go through this in the next year or two or three…or four, if it takes them as long as it did for me. It takes awhile for guys to bring the same game every night. It’s really hard to do. Not everybody can do it.”

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