Heat defenceman James Martin trades punches with Milwaukee's Michael Latta during a game on Oct. 21.

Heat defenceman James Martin trades punches with Milwaukee's Michael Latta during a game on Oct. 21.

Rookie blueliner Martin learning the ropes

Over the past two months, it’s been awfully hard to wipe the smile off James Martin’s face.

Over the past two months, it’s been awfully hard to wipe the smile off James Martin’s face.

After passing through the NHL entry draft three times without hearing his name called, the 20-year-old defenceman fully expected to be back with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice this fall to play out his final season of junior eligibility.

But just 20 minutes after the most recent NHL draft wrapped up on June 25, the Winnipeg native fielded a call from the Calgary Flames, who extended an invitation to their summer development camp and training camp in the fall.

Martin took full advantage of the opportunity, overcoming long odds to earn a three-year, two-way contract with the Flames. He was subsequently assigned to the Abbotsford Heat, where he’s been absorbing the intricacies of the pro game.

“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Martin said, reflecting on his whirlwind transition from junior to pro hockey. “There have been a lot of learning experiences. It’s a lot different from junior – you’ve got to pay attention to the details in the D-zone.”

Martin earned his contract on the strength of a terrific performance at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton in early September. Heat head coach Troy Ward ran the bench for the Flames prospects squad, and said Martin played as well as any defenceman on the roster. That’s high praise, considering veteran Heat blueliners like T.J. Brodie – currently up with the Flames – Chris Breen and John Negrin were also in attendance.

“I didn’t know the guy before he got there, so I was pleasantly surprised,” Ward said of Martin. “It was his consistency, No. 1, in how he played every day, and No. 2, his physical play. He brought a different element to our team. We have a lot of fleet-footed guys (with the Heat), so his physical play caught our eye.”

Martin attributes his strong preseason to the fact he had a shorter off-season than usual, after making an epic playoff run with the Ice in the spring. The Kootenay squad rolled to the WHL title in dominating fashion, winning 11 games in a row at one point, and finished third at the Memorial Cup.

Martin called the whole experience “surreal,” and noted it was all the more special because he got to share it with his boyhood friend Cody Eakin.

Growing up in Winnipeg, only one block separated Martin’s house from Eakin’s. Their careers ran on parallel tracks as well – after playing minor hockey together from the age of five, they were both picked in the WHL bantam draft by the Swift Current Broncos in 2006. They both ended up joining Kootenay in trade deadline deals – Martin in 2010, Eakin in 2011.

“It’s been surreal,” Martin said. “I can’t believe we accomplished what we accomplished last year.”

Eakin, a forward, has had a more straightforward path in pro hockey than Martin – he was a third-round pick by the Washington Capitals in 2009, and he’s split his time this fall between the Capitals and the AHL’s Hershey Bears.

Martin has been more of a late bloomer, due in part to a bout of mono which sidelined him for a big chunk of the 2006-07 season and slowed his development.

“I lost about 35 pounds – I was on my deathbed for a while,” Martin recalled with a chuckle. “But I came back, and it was a tough climb.”

The journey may have been bumpy, but Martin is now living his pro hockey dream with the Heat. Ward said the youngster is still maturing as an athlete, but he’s been encouraged by Martin’s consistent willingness to play a physical style.

“He’s going through the process a lot of guys go through in their first year,” Ward said. “He has his days where he’s full of energy and full of life, and he brings that to the table. Then there are days that are typical of most 20-year-olds – they’re up and down, hit or miss a little bit. And that’s a natural thing you’d expect.

“But for the most part, he’s always had some type of physical presence in the games he’s played. The one thing I’ve really enjoyed about him is the fact I haven’t found him inconsistent with his physical play. If he can continue to do that, it kind of allows the rest of the team to follow along.”