It’s no Stretch seeing Wave alum in NHL soon
C.J. Stretch has been around the block enough times that he’s on a first-name basis with most of the families’ pets.
Far from skating in circles, however, the Irvine native continues his push toward his ultimate goal – playing in the NHL.
Once unlikely, it now seems within reach as the center will attend the New York Islanders’ main camp this month and is signed with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“I’m excited. This is my fourth NHL camp and third main one,” said Stretch, who also has attended camps with the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers. “I know what I’m coming into, and I’m just trying to prove myself. I figure I’ll have a week to be as good as possible.”
How Stretch reached this point is inspiring when one considers how far he’s come since his days with the California Wave 89s.
A key cog on one of the state’s all-time powerhouse youth teams, he ventured north – way north, bringing his perpetually sunny disposition to Kamloops of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
Once in the inland British Columbia hockey haven, he scored 248 points while playing the second-most games ever (341) for a Blazers franchise with a decorated alumni list, which includes Scott Niedermayer, Jarome Iginla and Mark Recchi.
Stretch’s skill, honed through years of playing roller as well as ice hockey, was apparent to anyone he played with or against.
“C.J. was one of the best roller players around in our age group,” said Wave teammate and WHL and AHL foe Jonathon Blum. “Roller developed his hands. He has some of the best hands in California. He’s a very, very skilled player with puck.”
It was just a matter of going outside with his two brothers, Bill and Scott, and some high school and ice hockey friends.
“We’d play keep away in the street for hours,” Stretch said. “It was everyone for themselves.”
Stretch capped his WHL career with 86- and 81-point seasons, but he didn’t draw much attention from NHL teams. Or AHL teams.
So he returned to Southern California to play for the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, scoring a goal in his first game to close out the 2009-10 season. He played portions of the next three seasons for the Reign, hitting a high-water mark of 62 points in 60 games in 2012-13.
“He definitely did get overlooked, which was surprising,” Blum said. “C.J. fell into the California kid category – a skilled guy who might not be gritty enough. Over the past few years, he’s developed a two-way game.”
Stretch’s final two seasons in Ontario included a series of AHL call-ups – three lasting 23 games with the Houston Aeros in ’11-12 and 17 games with Oklahoma City Barons the next regular season.
“When I got called up, that built my confidence,” Stretch said. “I was a third-, fourth-line guy, but I saw the first- and second-line guys and I knew I could play at that level.”
The NHL lockout of ’12-13 repressed several pros, including Stretch. He found a role in Ontario’s top six forwards, and it carried over to Oklahoma City, where “I knew I could put points up in the American League.”
With the Barons’ season three weeks from completion, he was sent back to Ontario for the Kelly Cup Playoffs and scored four goals in a game. He returned to Oklahoma City and added nine points while playing all 17 Calder Cup Playoff games for a Western Conference finalist.
“My teams hadn’t had a lot of playoff success (in the WHL), but I was hungry to win in the postseason, and my coach knew it,” Stretch said. “That was my first big playoff push.”
The push continued last season, when Stretch put up 29 points in 72 games for the Barons while further reinventing his game.
“I never knew where I’d be in the lineup. I was hoping to be a first- or second-line center, but I bounced around,” Stretch said. “I became a utility player, but the coach always kept me in the loop. I had to adapt, but that’s how pro hockey is.”
Now that he’s rounded out his game, could an NHL home be in Stretch’s future?
“If I keep pushing, my dream will come true,” he said.
– Chris Bayee