Jeff Bes is having the time of his life.
He never made it to the NHL like some of his 1993-champion world junior teammates - Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya, Manny Legace, Jason Smith, Rob Niedermayer and Martin Lapointe among them - but he has no regrets.
"I love playing hockey," he says over the long-distance line. "There's nothing better than getting up in the morning and doing something you love doing."
The 34-year-old native of Tillsonburg, Ont., has played in a lot of far-flung places but he's been a mainstay the last five years with the Laredo Bucks. Bes is leading the Central Hockey League with 55 points in 35 games. He's a plus-33 on the plus-minus chart, and there's nobody within 15 points of him in the scoring race.
"I worked really hard over the summer to get ready for this season," he says. "Getting older, I have to work hard to keep up with the younger guys."
"By being in top physical condition, I can continue to be successful. We've got a good team. I'm playing with good players. That helps. I'm going out there working hard every day, and I'm getting the bounces."
Bes also is an assistant coach on GM-coach Terry Ruskowski's staff. The Bucks are 25-8-2 for 52 points.
Like many boys growing up in Ontario, Bes dreamed of playing in the NHL and idolized the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"We were fortunate in Tillsonburg to have a good, solid minor hockey system," he says. "We had a lot of fun, and we were successful. We won a couple of OMHA championships. We had a good nucleus."
He went on to play for the major junior team in Guelph, Ont.
"I remember the one year we won four games all season - the first year the franchise moved to Guelph from Hamilton," he recalls. "I remember playing in the old Guelph Arena."
"It was a lot of fun. We got a lot better the second year with Todd Bertuzzi and Jeff O'Neill coming in. I turned pro and those guys went on and got to the Memorial Cup."
The 1993 world junior tournament created an indelible hockey memory. When first put together, the lineup wasn't expected to win medals.
"You look at it now and it was a high-powered team," he says. "Our goaltending was a question mark but Manny Legace came in and stood on his head and we won gold."
He watches former teammates now in the NHL on TV.
"It's great to see how successful they're doing," he says.
He was drafted by Minnesota, 58th overall in 1992, the first Guelph Storm player ever drafted by an NHL team. He attended a North Stars camp and two Dallas camps after the franchise moved to Texas but never made the NHL grade.
"Everybody has his chance," he says. "It came and passed for me, but I'm still enjoying each and every moment of playing hockey."
Now in his 16th pro season, he's played for 16 different teams in six pro leagues, including those in Finland and Germany.
"I couldn't think of doing anything else," he says. "Everywhere I've played, I've always been fortunate to take something positive from each and every place."
He's found a home on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"(The Bucks) have some young kids aspiring to get to the NHL and if I can help them with pointers or tips, any way I can, I get enjoyment out of that also," he says. "This is one of the best places I've played for fan and community support."
The combined population of the greater Laredo region and of Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side is nearly 600,000, and the Bucks are the top pro sports attraction. Getting to the championship series the last four years, and winning the President's Trophy twice, has helped fuel fan interest.
"When the team came here six years ago the big joke in Laredo was that nobody knew what ice was other than to put in a drink," says Bes. "Now you can't go into the grocery store without somebody telling you what's wrong with the power play."
"I'm really happy to be here."
The Bucks' average attendance so far this season is 4,238.
The six-foot, 190-pound centre is one of the league's best players, a former Central MVP.
"Hopefully, some day coaching might be in my future," he says.
He's a bachelor who drives an SUV and has a 1973 Ford Bronco with no roof for off-season fun.
"At 115 (Fahrenheit), it can get a little hot down here in the summer," he says, having just stepped indoors after mowing his lawn on a warm January afternoon. "It's probably extended my career playing in the heat."
Other Bucks from Ontario are Serge Dube and Andrew Desjardins of Sudbury, Alex Penner of Simcoe, Rane Carnegie of Toronto and Adam Rivet of Fort Erie.
Bes gets back to Tillsonburg most summers.
"You can take the boy out of the town but you can't take the town out of the boy."