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BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer email@example.com
Drafted by the Boston Bruins in the sixth round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft in 2006, Levi Nelson began his pro career in 2008 with high hopes.
After three years of mostly watching the game from the bench as a fourth-line player at the American Hockey League level, he was disillusioned.
"There were games I was only playing two three minutes a game. Hockey's not fun then," he said, "I don't think on any team a player should be playing (that little)."
Playing in Germany.
"I went over to Europe where it was just a good chance for me to get some confidence back, put up some numbers (44 points in 31 games) and just try to get back to being the player I think I can be," he said. "The only reason I went over to Europe was because I wasn't playing too much in the American League. I just wanted to forget about hockey and go have some fun again.
"I thought it was a good opportunity for me to head over there and see a different part of the world. It was a good experience but obviously my main goal was to come back and play in North America again."
His game, and spirit, rejuvenated, Nelson signed to play with the Condors.
Hockey is a bit more fun now -- Nelson always seems to have a smile on his face before and after practices -- but the overall results aren't what anyone expected.
"It's been a tough start so far," the Condors captain said of a 4-7-1-1 start, "but we're coming together as a team. We've got lot of great guys and we get along great. We're still trying to adapt to each other but I think we're getting better every game."
A rash of injuries starting six games into the season has resulted in juggled forward lines, and there have been changes defensively as well, but Nelson believes the team is on the right path.
"We played one of our best games of the year in that last game in Idaho (a 5-4 shootout loss on Saturday night)." he said. "There were a lot of good things but again we didn't play the full 60 (giving up a two-goal lead over the final 11 minutes). We just need to stay focused and play a full 60 and we'll start winning."
The shootout loss notwithstanding, it was a very positive ending to a six-game road trip for the Condors, who broke a five-game winless skid Friday night with a shootout win over the top team in the Western Conference.
"Last weekend was a positive weekend for us," Nelson said. "We're getting better in the areas we need to get better. We're seeing improvement."
At this stage of the game, improvement is exactly what Condors coach Matt O'Dette wants.
"We talk about it every day," he said. " It's not the start we're looking for but win or lose we've got to see progress. We gotta see growth, movement in the right direction. Whatever the end result is, we've got to be doing things better."
Nelson leads the team in points with 10 (four goals and six assists) but, like the team, has struggled to find his game. He had three goals in his first four games then went eight games with just a lone assist before putting up a goal and an assist on Saturday night.
"At the start of the year his line had success by outworking (opponents) down low and doing things hard," O'Dette said of Nelson and his wingers, Zach Corwin and Brett Perlini.
"It didn't have to be fancy. They kind of got away from that."
O'Dette tweaked lines a bit then Perlini went down with a broken jaw and Cohen with a concussion, forcing more changes to lines.
"This past weekend his line (with Jacob Lagace and Tyler Brenner now on the wings) kind of got back to doing that, being physical," O'Dette said. "His line had a ton of hits. One game Nelson has nine hits, which led the team, and their line was creating chances all over the ice."
That's some of the on-ice leadership O'Dette expected when he named Nelson captain. A role the center admits is a work in progress.
"It's definitely an honor to be named captain, knowing the coaches and players look up to you like that," he said.
"There's other great leaders that could have been named captain. We have a great group of guys and I'm trying to help lead the team any way I can. It's a part of my game I've got to work on and I'm getting better at it day in and day out."
It's a role O'Dette is willing to help nurture.
"Leadership is just like anything else; it's a skill that sometimes takes time to develop," he said. "He's still learning some of those things and we're working with him to get better, just like we're working with the players on the ice."