Opportunity knocking

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

The other day we told you about Winnipegger Mike Keane, the 16-year NHL vet who wonders if the new, salary-conscious NHL might squeeze out older players like him.

Well, for every Mike Keane there's a Nigel Dawes or Rejean Beauchemin, young stars fresh out of junior hockey, minimum-wage contracts in their pockets and stars in their eyes, hoping their time has come.

You'll probably remember these two from the World Junior Hockey Championship in Grand Forks, N.D. Dawes the speedy Team Canada forward, Beauchemin the goalie behind No. 1 man, Jeff Glass.

Since that gold-medal moment, the two Winnipeggers closed out their junior careers in the spring, then collected their championship rings in the summer.

What happens this fall, though, has them as anxious as they've ever been.

It's time to find out if they have what it takes to play professionally.

On Sunday, Dawes will leave for New York, where he'll attend his first training camp with the Rangers. Beauchemin leaves for Philadelphia a few days later. Two 20-year-olds chasing yet another dream.

"Representing your country, winning a gold medal, trying to make it to the NHL -- that's why we play the game, and what's fun about it," Dawes was saying yesterday, after a brisk skate with about a dozen other pros and prospects at the River Heights Arena.

Dawes represents an interesting study, in that he might just be a test case, of sorts, for the new-look NHL.

As a 5-foot-8, 187-pounder, skating and scoring are his game. Of course, the road to the NHL is littered with under-sized junior stars who never made it all the way.

If there's a type of player, though, that should flourish from a crackdown on hooking and holding, Dawes is it.

'PLAYS INTO MY HANDS'

"For smaller guys like me who can skate and move the puck and excel on the open ice, it definitely plays into my hands," he said.

And what hands.

Dawes' goal-scoring totals with the WHL's Kootenay Ice the last three years: 47-47-50.

Another set of numbers, the NHL's new salary structure, doesn't hurt him, either, particularly on a team like the Rangers, a traditionally big spender forced to unload some of its high-priced help this summer.

"There's a great opportunity in New York, I think, with the new CBA and the amount of spots they have open ... how they've been rebuilding and developing their prospects and wanting their prospects to jump in to fill those roles," Dawes said. "They said they'd give me a good, long look. Now it's up to me to prove I belong ... show I can play at that level."

A fifth-round draft choice in 2003, Dawes is no sure-fire NHLer.

Beauchemin, taken by Philadelphia in Round 6 that same year, is in a similar boat.

A combination standup/butterfly-style goalie, the Prince Albert Raiders product is all butterflies when it comes to attending Flyers camp and stopping shots from the likes of Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Keith Primeau.

"I'm nervous right now, thinking about it," Beauchemin said. "I just want to have a good first impression, work hard and learn a lot. Go to camp, give it all I've got and see where I end up."

If it's the AHL, so be it. There are worse ways to make a living, right?

One thing Beauchemin and Dawes seem confident about: they haven't left anything to chance, working their tails off this summer to be ready.

Because life only presents you with so many opportunities. And with all the changes in the NHL, this would appear to be a dandy.

"A lot of times that's all it is, being in the right place at the right time and getting that shot," Dawes said. "And I don't want to go there and just let it slip away."


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