Defensive specialist Bass carves out niche

By Jason Menard

Any lover of music can tell you that while the vocals, guitars, and drums are important to creating a good song, it’s the bass that gives music its soul. That recipe holds true for the Mississauga Ice Dogs, as team captain Cody Bass provides the rock-solid foundation upon which the club’s aspirations have been built.

“Cody obviously is our captain and undisputed leader. He sets the bar for everybody else particularly in terms of work ethic and commitment to be a player,” head coach Mike Kelly explained. “I mean this is a real focused young man. Being a National Hockey Leaguer is first and foremost in his life and he just goes for it.

“He’s got the utmost respect from his fellow players. He’s a real, real special ingredient and a real special player for the Ice Dogs.”

At first glance, Bass’ numbers won’t wow you. Now in his fourth year with the Ice Dogs franchise, the 19-year-old Owen Sound product has career highs of 16 goals and 25 assists, earned last season. This year he’s on pace for a steady, but not spectacular season, with four goals and eight assists in 18 games so far.

But Bass is not going to fill the net at any level. His game is all about the intangibles – the commitment to the uglier parts of the game that good teams need. Bass compares his game to the Kris Drapers and the Ryan Smyths of the NHL. Kelly, on the other hand, offers a loftier, Hall of Fame comparison.

“I think [Cody]’s had that innate ability right away to understand what his strengths were. I think that Bob Gainey, going back to my era, understood the same thing,” he said. “I mean, Bob Gainey wasn’t going to be a 35 or 40-goal scorer, so he took his strengths and decided he was going to be best in the National Hockey League as a defensive forward. Cody has taken very much a similar approach.”

It’s an approach that Kelly said he believes will serve him well throughout his career.

“Let’s face it, teams die for those guys that you can go deep in the playoffs with and win a Stanley Cup with. That’s what owners are looking for,” he said. “The glamour guys who can score 40 goals are nice, but only if they’re going to end up on the plus side of the ledger – then you’re OK at the end of the night. Cody will end up on the plus side of the ledger, even if his personal stats are somewhat modest.”

Bass’ play earned him an invite to Team Canada’s World Junior Championship selection camp. And he believes that his commitment to defense will serve him well in vying for a coveted roster spot.

“I’m not going to try to change anything. I’m not going to change the way I play. I have to play the same way that got me to this point,” Bass explained. “I’m just going to go there and try to take a leadership role, be a third or fourth-line checker and hopefully they’ll use me in that role and I won’t have to change my game.

“A lot of guys that go to that camp have to change the way they play to fit into the puzzle, but hopefully I won’t have to.”

Call it the round peg in square hole syndrome. Kelly added that previous incarnations of the junior squad have attempted to take offense-minded players and mold them into a defensive role. He expects Bass to dominate that aspect of the game – but not just for his own team.

“Oftentimes [Team Canada] takes players and they have to redefine their role for the National Junior team. It might be taking an offensive player and asking him to play that shut-down role or that penalty-killing role,” Kelly said. “I think where Cody is special is where that’s his strength. There’s no redirecting or redefining of his role. He loves to do that and takes absolute pride in it.

“I’d be real surprised if there’s going to be a better defensive centre/penalty killer/shutdown guy in the entire tournament – never mind Team Canada – than Cody Bass.”

The only challenge facing Bass is a self-described upper-body injury. He’s attended camp regardless and said prior to leaving that he’ll just push through it. But even injured, Bass truly lives, breathes, and sleeps hockey. This was no more evident than at a recent warm-up. Although still in his street clothes, Bass hung out on the periphery of his teammates as they warmed up for a game. Stick in hand, he absentmindedly stickhandled, dangled, and took shots with a roll of tape – staying involved in the game, watching over the team, all without consciously doing it. Kelly explained that those attributes have made him the player he is.

“When you’re dealing with a lot of teenagers there are a lot of distractions in their lives. He’s a heck of an example of how to park whatever else is going on in your life for that two-and-a-half hours that you’re on the ice or in the gym,” Kelly said. “Cody is real committed in the gym. He’s the first one to go and take care of public appearances and speak on behalf of the hockey team. He’s had two NHL training camps and I know it’s struck me that he’s shared with the team – and myself – in team meetings what he’s seen, what it means to be a pro and make your living, what it means to support your family through it.

“There is no nonsense when it comes to Cody; he understands the business side of it. And yet he’s got a little boy’s passion for playing the game as well. When you’ve got those two things going for you, you’re going to be pretty successful in this business.”

Bass doesn’t just understand the business of hockey – he understands what he needs to do to improve.

“It’s definitely the offensive game,” he said. “My biggest thing is my defensive side and the way I read the game in the defensive zone. That’s always been my thing since I came into junior hockey. Now I have to focus a bit more on the offensive game and try to bury my opportunities.

“It’s not like I don’t get opportunities, it’s just that I’ve got to start bearing down and finishing them.”

Many people believe that while defense can be learned, offense is something that can’t be taught. However, Bass seems to be taking a very Zen-like approach to the inevitability of the arrival of his offensive game. “I think it’s just going to come with me maturing as a hockey player and maturing as a person. I think once that comes and once I start settling down out there I think it’s all just going to come. And once it does, there’s going be a lot of pressure off my shoulders again.

The scouts agree. While they see him fitting in the NHL as a grinding, in-your-face, defensive stopper, the fact of the matter is that offense is still a part of the game.

“He’s a hard-working strong guy and he’s a good skater. I think his forte is going to be adjusting to a defensive type role,” one scout explained. “Remember, most of the guy who are third and fourth-line players in the NHL displayed some offensive prowess at the junior level.

“You’ve still got to have enough puck skills and hockey sense to chip in, but I think he’s got the potential someday to be there.”

Understanding that, Kelly said that he’s tried to give Bass every opportunity to develop that aspect of the game.

“I think it’s also a responsibility we have to players as an organization to help them grow their game so to speak,” Kelly explained. “Cody’s going to play in the National Hockey League, but I think he’s going to be expected to be that third-line, energy center/penalty killer, but he’s also going to be expected to score 12-13 goals a year and be a 35 or a 40-point guy and to do that you’ve got to have those types of opportunities.

“The opportunities may come from getting ice time in those key offensive situations, or maybe it’s getting power play time. I think we have an obligation to put him in those situations and he’s handled it pretty well.”

Bass has been to two Ottawa Senators’ training camps already in his young career. In a somewhat surprising move, the Sens signed Bass after his first season – something neither coach or player expected, but both welcomed.

“Going to camp and them signing me was just a lot of weight off my shoulders. It showed that they’re comfortable with me and they’re sticking with me,” Bass said. “It was a huge relief. I just have to focus on playing hockey now and I don’t have too much else to worry about.”

In addition to appreciating the commitment Ottawa has shown in his young charge, Kelly said the experience of playing with quality people has aided Bass’ development.

“It’s unusual that they signed him after his first year being drafted. Usually they’ll wait through two years, but I think it fit for Cody and it fit for Ottawa to get that done soon,” Kelly said. “I think he sees a lifestyle that he really wants desperately. He’s seen the example of some real pros in that organization, whether it be [Wade] Redden or [Chris] Phillips or the like, and he’s really taken an awful lot out of that.

“He’s just not going to leave any stone unturned in his path to be a National Hockey Leaguer and he brings that example to us on a day-to-day basis.”

While things are looking up for Bass in the present and the future, his recent past has included some challenges. Ice Dog Owner Eugene Melnyk purchased the Toronto St. Mike’s Majors earlier this year and announced plans on moving that franchise into Mississauga, while divesting himself of the Ice Dogs. That left the team wondering where – and if – it would be playing. Now, with that summer of turmoil behind them, Bass said the club’s just focusing on the here-and-now – and that includes a run at the OHL championship.

“During the summertime we were focused on that and I’m sure it was in the back of a lot of the guys’ minds. What’s going to happen with the team?” Bass said. “Once we got back on the ice and started playing again, it’s no longer on our minds at all. We can’t focus on the stuff that we can’t control. We’ve just got to go out and do our best and try to win a championship.

“It’s my last year and it’s some other guys’ last year,” he said. “We have a good team. I know we can do it.”

After that? Well, Bass’ thoughts on the future are akin to the style of game he plays – strong aspirations, but fundamentally sound. “Hopefully I’ll be with Ottawa of course, but realistically I’ll be in Binghamton.”

But Kelly doesn’t expect Bass to be in the minors for long. In fact, he sees a current NHL example in Columbus of the role that he expects Bass to be playing for the Senators in the near future.

“He reminds me an awful lot of Manny Malhotra in a lot of ways,” Kelly said. “Manny was a first-rounder, he scored a little bit more than Cody did as a 17-year-old, for example.

“But when it comes right down to it both of them are going to be shut-down type specialists, character, win-at-all costs, jump-on-my-shoulders-follow-me type of players.”

The type of players coaches love – and the type of players you need to win with. The Senators have long had a dearth of that type of player. But perhaps by adding a little Bass, they’ll make sweet music in the not-too-distant future.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.