Acton worked hard for opportunity to play his first NHL game
Son of Oilers associate coach has his father’s fire for the game, but not his skill level
EDMONTON - Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins says centre Will Acton is like “a smell that won’t go away.”
Eakins means that in a good way with the soon-to-be 26-year-old Acton, whose journey to the big leagues starts Saturday night in his first NHL game. The Oilers have split their squad into two for a pair of exhibition games with the Calgary Flames, with one group including the centre Acton at the Scotiabank Saddledome and the other at Rexall Place.
Acton is the son of Oilers associate coach Keith Acton, who won a Stanley Cup with Edmonton in 1988 as a feisty, skilled pivot. He isn’t just window dressing at this training camp. Realistically, he could be the Oilers’ fourth centre this season if he beats out Anton Lander.
Eakins, who coached Will Acton with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, admittedly has a soft spot for the late-bloomer, who was never drafted and fell into the pro game after graduating from Lake Superior State with a degree in finance and economics. This is a guy who was still cleaning members’ clubs in the backshop at a golf course in Toronto for about $10 an hour, even after getting his first pro sniff with the Marlies.
While Eakins admires the skill set of a Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner or Jordan Eberle, all first-round picks, he has a different admiration for the never-say-die guys like Acton and fellow Marlie forward Ryan Hamilton, who will also be part of the Oilers’ squad in Calgary.
“You admire them differently. I was sitting in the seats admiring how they (Gagner, Hall, Eberle, Nail Yakupov) would handle wobbling pucks in the air and get them right on their tape and they wouldn’t miss a stride,” Eakins said about Friday’s scrimmage. “But to see guys who weren’t drafted, still sniffing around (the NHL) ... that’s what you want to see from all of your guys.
“If you can get that (competitive level) not just from the workhorses, but the lifeblood of the team from your skilled guys and get that sort of grit, they’ll take their games to another level.”
Acton is a genuine feel-good story. There is no pretense to him. His dad is Eakins’ righthand man, but if he makes the Oilers, it’ll be on his blue-jeans work ethic, not his genes.
“From the time I was 14 or 15, I was trying to make the Single A team back home … I was always the guy on the bubble, but I always seemed to find a way to bring something to the table,” Acton said.
“In school, there were always players a lot better than me, but I always tried to make an impression. There’s other things to help a team than getting the game-winner.”
Keith Action, who played more than 1,000 NHL games, scored a game-winner for the Oilers in Game 1 of the 1988 final against the Boston Bruins and was prominent in the Oilers’ group celebration on the ice after their Stanley Cup victory.
“He’s got a picture of that hanging in the basement and I always kid him that I’ve never seen him smile that much. And he made sure he was right up front. He wasn’t going to be hanging out in the back,” said a joking Will, who doesn’t have his dad’s skill, but inherited Keith’s fire for the game.
“My dad didn’t get out to see me much because he was coaching, but when he did, after games, he’d pull me into the garage when we got home and we had two sticks whacking each other,” said Will.
“I got the tryout with the Marlies when they had a lot of injuries at the end of the year and they’d been eliminated from the playoffs. They said I might get some games, but if somebody came back (from the injured list), I’d be the first one out the door.
“I took it as a great opportunity. Luckily, I made my mark there and made the team the following year.
“I’m certainly not comfortable by any means, but that’s a good thing. I’m trying not to think too much of this being my first NHL game,” Will said.
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