Forgive Paul Mara if he had to pinch himself as a reminder that he was in his morning commute.
It was one of those windows-down, volume-up Southern California mornings, a postcard-esque drive from the Temecula Valley through the rolling foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains and past Santiago Peak towards the eastern stretches of Los Angeles’ exurbia and into the parking lot of Citizen’s Business Bank Arena, where a 75-degree December day greeted the 33-year-old defenseman as he stepped out of his car.
He describes it as “a pretty straight shot” north, and that’s at its most accurate if “pretty” is underlined. If he were any closer to the coastline, The Beach Boys would have written a song about this.
Make no mistake – Mara is not on vacation. On the contrary, he’s building back his conditioning and game shape into mid-season form as a member of the Ontario Reign, the first professional team he’s played for since saying what he hopes to be a temporary good-bye to the NHL after the 2010-11 season ran out on the Montreal Canadiens in a seven-game first round loss to the eventual champion Boston Bruins.
Tampa Bay’s seventh overall pick of the 1997 NHL draft, Mara spent parts of three seasons with the Lightning before a mid-season trade to Phoenix in 2001 that catalyzed the upwards trajectory of his young career. He spent four-and-a-half seasons with the Coyotes, topping out at 47 points in the post-lockout season of 2005-06. From there, a stop in his native Massachusetts with the Bruins followed, and eventually two and a half seasons with the New York Rangers, and an Anaheim Ducks stint sandwiched between a pair of partial seasons with the Canadiens.
He put a hiatus on his playing career last season to coach the boys hockey team at Bourne High School on Upper Cape Cod, an endeavor he described as a “great, gratifying, fun season” while helping improve the players’ skills on the ice and leading them towards adulthood away from it.
“It was a great experience coaching those kids and being on the other side of things after being a player for so long. Stepping into that role, it was great to be able to help the kids in different areas not only on the ice but off the ice with the issues that they deal with,” Mara said.
After one year, that playing itch resurfaced. Because of the year spent away from the NHL regimen and lifestyle, a good amount of rust had built up. Enter the Ontario Reign.
“Whatever the process is, that’s my end goal, to get back into the NHL. And whatever that process is and where that takes me, I have no idea,” Mara said. “But right now it’s here in Ontario, and I’m having a fantastic time playing with these guys and these coaches. It’s been a blast.
The feeling is mutual. Though the Reign has emerged as one of the ECHL’s elite teams in 2012-13 and moved within three points of the top overall spot in the Western Conference with a 4-2 win over Bakersfield on Friday, there are a handful of young, developing players who have grown in their young careers through the example set by players such as Mara.
Though rookie defenseman Cameron Burt isn’t Mara’s blueline partner, the four-year Rochester Institute of Technology standout has put the encouragement and advice gained from the 734-game NHL veteran to use in his transition from forward to defense.
“It’s so important for my game,” Burt said after Friday’s win. “Whenever I have a question, he’s there to answer it. With the other guys, he’s just a leader back there. He’s a veteran guy. He knows how to make the right plays. He’s never been shy about giving us an answer. He’s always open. He’s just fit in well with us. I mean, I don’t think you can put words on what a veteran guy like that does for us.”
Mara has been hands-on and supportive as a veteran, as have the other NHL veterans on the team, Minnesota’s Devin Setoguchi and Los Angeles’ Kyle Clifford. His own reason for playing in a league self-described as “Premier ‘AA’ Hockey” is to revitalize his own skill set so that when the NHL returns, he’ll be able to effectively illustrate that he can be of assistance defensively.
Thus far, the results have been encouraging. He has 14 points – all assists – in 21 games. After a plus-2 outing Friday, he ranks third in the league with a plus-14 rating. The positioning, the distribution of pucks on the power play and willingness to help his team in all situations is at a level high enough to warrant interest from teams at higher levels.
“I think two months into it, I think I’m exactly where I want to be,” Mara said. “There’s a process to it. You don’t just take a year off and expect to jump right back into where you left off. I’m feeling better and better every day. Hopefully sometime the NHL will come calling soon.”
Though his best NHL season followed the season lost to the lockout last decade, that entire process of waiting and hoping was as frustrating and disappointing as it is now.
“Last lockout, we lost a whole year and came back with a deal that probably wasn’t satisfactory, [one] that we probably could have had before the lockout even started,” Mara said.
“Being a player on that side, and seeing what’s going on now, we just don’t hope that’s the case again, that we could’ve saved a season with a deal that we’re going to make. The players have their stance and the owners have their stance. Right now it’s at a stalemate, but I know they’re making progress. In this game, all the players that are playing are making money and most of the owners are making money. So there has to be a common ground, medium ground where we can figure it all out.”
Head coach Jason Christie and his assistants have been successful thus far in setting up systems and getting a young Reign squad to buy in and play a hard-working, attacking brand of hockey. Though the team boasts one of the higher offensive outputs in the league, it can also reach back into its hip pocket to pull out a seasoned defenseman who isn’t afraid to back down from contact in the area around his own net and along the boards.
“He’s not just a flash in the pan. He’s played there a few years. He’s getting back there,” Christie said before referencing the contributions made by Mara, Setoguchi and Clifford.
“They do a good job being the leaders. That’s the number one thing. That’s the number one thing that we look for.”
In the road back towards the highest level of competition, Mara is certainly enjoying the ride – not that there are many who would find issue with a place conducive to wearing shorts in December.
“Ontario is an awesome place to play. The fans here, being so close to L.A., are extremely passionate. They know the game. The coaches have been great here. They’re very knowledgeable. Harpo [Mark Hardy] has been in the NHL. Jason has been around, coaching in this league for a long time now. The players – they’re great. There are a lot of college guys, a lot of young guys. They all have the energy and the tenacity to make the next level. And then living in Southern California always helps. You step outside…it’s 75 degrees today. It’s a huge bonus. The whole setup, the whole organization, they do it the right way. From the living conditions of the players, to the travel, to our facilities here – it’s all top notch.”
Of course, he hasn’t yet experienced an Interstate-15 Sigalert on his way to the rink, something that could tarnish the sunny skies above his picturesque commute with some storm clouds.
“Knock on wood, not yet,” Mara said. “Thank God I have a Prius. It’s nice on the gas.”
Bay Stater by upbringing, yet clearly Californian.