TORONTO – The phone rang in early December with good news waiting on the line.
Job security had been rather tenuous at that point for Will Acton.
"Well in the hockey world whenever the coaches or management tell you to get a place that's when you know you're going to be around," said Acton, a humble native of Stouffville, Ontario.
He answered his phone that day and it was a call from Dallas Eakins, the Marlies head coach. "It was a day off and he called my cell phone and he said 'Hey, you've played well, you've earned a spot on my team so get yourself a place and get out of that stinking hotel'," recalled Acton of the conversation with Eakins. "It was certainly a moment I'm probably going to remember for a long time."
Living out of a suitcase in a downtown Toronto hotel up until then, Acton had been admittedly fraught with the stress and imbalance of an uncertain hockey future. Snatching the singular grain of a five-game tryout upon his exit from Lake Superior State University, the 25-year-old had earned himself a job with old-school work ethic, hockey smarts and a knack for the defensive game. The six-foot-two pivot rapidly evolved into an anchor of the Marlies shutdown line alongside fellow upstarts Jerry D'Amigo and Greg Scott.
"Ever since Will got in he's had this quality about him," said Scott thoughtfully. "It seems like he's got a little fire under him and he wants to get after it.
"He doesn't want to be on the bottom of the totem pole, he just wants to keep climbing."
"When you get a moment where you assert yourself in a certain role and you feel like you assert yourself on the team [and] they tell you to get a place, that's obviously really a good feeling to reflect," said Acton. "But that passes pretty quickly. You come to the rink and there's people behind you playing well and people ahead of you playing well and you've got to be on top of your game at all times; that's our job as a pro. Just comes with the territory."
Inked to a one-year deal with the organization in late July, Acton finds himself in a considerably more secure place this fall, returning as an underrated cog in the Marlies quest to make good on the Calder Cup which eluded them last season. But for whatever security he's been afforded this time around Acton has no active plans to ditch the work and settle in. He even kept his summer job at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, pitching in as he has since age 14 from time to time this past offseason.
"Some of us in the minors aren't making the big cheques that everyone might think," he said with a grin. "Everyone's dream is to play in the NHL, but for now you've got to do what you've got to do and I have no problems doing that."
1. Acton boasts a personal motto of 'onward and upward', refusing to become complacent after his climb to an American League job last season. "I'm where I am right now, I'm grateful, but at the same time none of that really ever leaves you in professional sports, your spot's always up for grabs," he said. "There's always people coming in behind you trying to take your job and it's your responsibility to try to always improve upon what you're doing and that's what I'm trying to do."
2. Of Acton's ongoing work at the golf course this past summer, Scott smiled and said, "That's kind of rare to see. I guess it means he's got a good golf game then." He then added of Acton's work ethic in a more serious manner, "I think that comes from where he came from. His dad was a hard worker and it just translates right down to Willie." Will is the son of former NHL player and long-time Leafs assistant coach, Keith Acton.
3. Korbinian Holzer was expected to make the jump to the Leafs at some point this season, but remains with the Marlies with the lockout continuing to loom. "I'm happy I can play down here instead of sitting at home and just skating by myself," he said. "I think this league will be a lot better than last year competition-wise and player-wise; there's a lot of skill coming down from the NHL who are established players in the NHL. It's a good learning curve for you and if the season should start at some point it's a nice way to get ready for it."
4. If Dallas Eakins had just one gripe at the moment it would be the shortened preseason schedule. The Marlies played just two games – both wins against Hamilton over the course of three nights – leaving little time for a comprehensive roster evaluation. "I just wish for the kids that we would've had more exhibition games," said Eakins. "I wish that NHL season would've been going so these guys would've played a couple NHL exhibition games or at least got in one and then they come down and play in a couple more and I get to see them against better players."
5. Eakins is currently icing a roster that includes five forwards lines, eight defencemen and three goaltenders. The group will stay intact through the weekend, but could change in short order if injuries are minimal and the lockout continues. "I can't have these guys sitting and not playing," said Eakins of those players slated to be extras when the regular season kicks off against Rochester on Saturday. "It's just not healthy for anybody. That's when we would try to re-evaluate it and maybe send them out to play somewhere."