Tommy Grant arrived in Hartford in late March unheralded but hardly bashful in his demeanor.
Grant had a bit of an edge from the get-go. Nothing cocky, mind you, just an air of confidence that he belonged in the AHL with the Connecticut Whale after his best of four seasons at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Befitting the tenure of his attitude often accompanied by a wry smile, Grant had two assists in his pro debut, a 4-2 loss at the Providence Bruins on March 27 after signing an amateur tryout contract 24 hours earlier and 10 days after completing his senior year at UAA. The Whale brass thought so much of Grant so quickly that they signed him to a free-agent contract two days later.
Grant finished with three assists in seven regular-season games and then scored his first professional goal and added an assist as the Whale was eliminated from the playoffs by the Atlantic Division champion Portland Pirates in six hard-fought games.
During the postseason, Grant was caught in the often strange doings of “the hockey gods,” which he uttered with a laugh. In Game 2, the Pirates’ Derek Whitmore picked off Grant’s clearing attempt at the left point and took a shot that went into a virtually open net with 7:40 left after Grant inadvertently ran into Dov Grumet-Morris and spun around the Whale goalie. Whitmore then scored the winner at 12:04 of overtime off another broken play, converting a 2-on-1 with Brian Roloff after Whale center Francis Lemieux’s shot hit defenseman Tim Conboy’s shin pad and ricocheted into the neutral zone.
“It obviously was kind of like a brain cramp,” Grant said of his play on the tying goal. “I tossed the puck up the wall thinking I had a guy there and there wasn’t. Then I just turned around to see that their guy had the puck and didn’t see where Dov was and knocked into him. It was an unfortunate thing, but the guys were really good in the (dressing) room about it. And Dov just picked me up right away and said it’s hockey and to just to keep playing.
“It definitely helps having guys like that around. It shows we had good leadership. It was clearly my mistake, and for a guy like that to say that that’s hockey and things like that happen … He’s been around for awhile and was a great leader in our room, so it goes a long way, especially with the young guys.”
While “the hockey gods” can taketh, they also can giveth. In the next game, Grant was in the right place at the right time when Ryan Garlock raced into the right circle and flipped a backhand centering pass that glanced off Grant’s skate and past Pirates goalie David Leggio 3:03 into the game for his first pro goal.
“Garsy made a great play to drive the guy wide and beat him,” Grant said. “The play never happens if he doesn’t do that. He kind of threw one towards me, and it was just one of those plays where it hits your skate and goes in. Right place, right time.”
The officials conferred to make sure Grant hadn’t kicked the puck in, and when they agreed he hadn’t, the Whale had a 1-0 lead on the way to a 3-1 victory.
“I was stopping and didn’t make any kind of kicking motion,” Grant said.
Grant also appreciated that he got to play again after the unfortunate incident in Game 2.
“It would have been easy just to bury me at the end of the bench after a play like that,” Grant said. “It showed a lot of trust in the coach (Ken Gernander) to put me right back out there. It definitely helped my confidence going into Game 3 as well, to know that they believed in me, that it was just a mental error and to learn from it and just be better.”
Rangers management saw Grant’s time with the Whale as quite beneficial.
“It was about adjusting the pace of his game to the pro game, and that’s why it was important to get him into Connecticut,” Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark said. “He got to see the size and strength of the players at that level, and he knew what he had to do over the summer to be ready to come back for his first year of pro.”
Little wonder that the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Grant said joining the Whale for nearly a month was “a great decision.”
“I got a chance to play with older players, better players, more skilled players who are so much smarter,” Grant said. “When you make a jump to any level, it’s obviously going to be different, but I kind of learned the smaller parts of the game are things I had to work on, like being stronger over the puck and in the corners and in front of the net. That’s probably going to be the most important part for me, winning my one-on-one battles in the corners and getting the puck out of our zone that hopefully the offense will come from there.”
Offense also can come from being positioned correctly, which is also more prevalent in the pros than in the college or junior ranks.
“Everybody is in the right position, which at times makes it a bit easier because guys aren’t running around,” Grant said. “You have to be mentally focused every shift to stay in the right position so guys can find you. In college there’s a lot of run-and-gun, so it’s a lot different when you get to the AHL level. That’s also something I had to work on and adapt to my game because you don’t want to get caught in the wrong position.”
After the Whale was eliminated and Grant had his exit interview with team management, he returned to his home in Kelowna, British Columbia, not far from his favorite team while growing up in North Vancouver. His favorite now is the Rangers, but it still wasn’t easy seeing the Canucks lose Game 7 at home to the Boston Bruins.
“The city was crazy,” Grant said. “My parents still live in Vancouver, and it was wild down there, especially what happened afterwards, which was unfortunate. A couple of bad fans ruined it for a great city like Vancouver, but all in all, it was a tough pill to swallow for them, especially after 1994.”
That was the last time the Canucks made the Stanley Cup finals and also lost in Game 7 to the Rangers, who ended a 54-year championship drought as Cheshire native and future Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
“The ’94 finals was a really tough pill for me to swallow,” Grant said. “But looking back on it now, I’ve got kind of a different view. Now I’m happy.”
Grant then beamed and chuckled about the ironic turn of events. He didn’t get to any games in Vancouver this year as he was preparing for the prospects camp at the Rangers training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., and learning from viewing on television.
“I just kind of watched the games more as a studying deal than as a fan,” Grant said.
Grant, 24, was signed by the Rangers off his fourth season with UAA of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in which he led the Seawolves with career highs in goals (16), points (32), game-winning goals (five) and shots on goals (114) and ranked second in assists (16) and penalty minutes (57) in 37 games. He helped the Seawolves to a WCHA first-round upset of 17th-ranked Minnesota, getting one goal and one assist in the two-game series March 11-12. He also had one goal and one assist in the Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup two-game series Feb. 25-26.
Grant finished his UAA career with 45 goals, 45 assists and 179 penalty minutes in 134 games. Before joining the Seawolves, he had 53 goals, 57 assists and 230 penalty minutes in 157 games with the Victoria Salsa and Westside Warriors in the British Columbia Hockey League. In 2006-07, he led Westside and set BCHL career highs in goals (36), assists (39) and points (75).
Two seasons later, Grant skated on a line with center Paul Crowder, who signed with the Rangers in the spring of 2009 and then played the 2009-10 season with the Wolf Pack, notching 12 goals and 14 assists in 79 games as they missed the playoffs for the only time in their 14-year history. The Rangers were also interested in defenseman Lee Baldwin, who signed his first NHL contract on March 22, 2010 after completing his freshman year at UAA.
After Crowder was released and before Baldwin split last season between the Wolf Pack/Whale and Greenville of the ECHL, Grant attended his first prospects camp with the Rangers after tryouts with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks.
“There were other teams talking to me as a free agent after college, but after the (Rangers) development camp last year, it left a good taste in my mouth,” Grant said. “When the season was over, I told my agent that New York was where I wanted to go, and if he could get a deal done that would be my favorite place to go.”
Grant got his wish, and after scoring two goals in three scrimmages in his second go-round with the Rangers’ top prospects, Grant set out to get stronger and faster during offseason workouts and continue what he started with the Whale as he prepared for a second prospects tournament Sept. 10-14 in Traverse City, Mich.
Others named to the 24-man Rangers prospects team on Monday were goalies Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer, forwards Ryan Bourque, Carl Hagelin, Kale Kerbashian, Andrew Yogan, Christian Thomas, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Jordan Hickmott, Tayler Jordan, Shane McGolgan, Randy McNaught, Michael St. Croix, Jason Wilson and 2011 first-round pick J.T. Miller, defensemen Blake Parlett, Jyri Niemi, Lee Baldwin, Collin Bowman, Peter Ceresnak, Samuel Noreau, 2010 first-round pick Dylan McIlrath and Tim Erixon, the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick in 2010 who was acquired for two second-rounders and Roman Horak on June 1.
Missiaen, Hagelin, Kerbashian, Yogan, Parlett, Niemi and Baldwin were with the Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale for at least part of last season. Miller, the 15th pick on June 24, completed a weeklong stay at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Saturday, getting one goal in four games against Sweden and Finland. The 29 players, including former Yale standout Kenny Agostino, will be cut down more in December.
The Rangers prospects play Sept. 10 against the St. Louis Blues at 7 p.m., Sept. 11 against the Dallas Stars at 6 p.m. and Sept. 13 against the Carolina Hurricanes at 3:30 p.m. Placement in the round robin will determine whom each team faces in the championship round Sept. 14 at a time to be determined. For the first time, MSG Network will telecast the Rangers games, and players then report to training camp Sept. 15 at the MSG training center.
FORMER WOLF PACK TOUGH GUY STILL ON LIFE SUPPORT
Former Wolf Pack left wing Garrett Burnett was best known as an enforcer, but his reputation didn’t protect him during a bar room brawl that put him on life support.
Now the British Columbia government is suing more than 30 people, including the police chief in Delta, B.C., to recover what it spent on Burnett’s lengthy hospitalization and recovery. The B.C. Supreme Court lawsuit, filed Aug. 9, said Burnett, nicknamed “Rocky,” was smashed over the head with a bar stool, injuring his brain and putting him in a coma and on life support.
Delta Police Chief Jim Cressford was named as the person responsible for the two investigating officers, Paul Uppal and Lorne Pike, who the lawsuit said failed to safeguard exhibits such as video surveillance.
The fight occurred on Boxing Day, 2006 at the Cheers Nightclub inside the North Delta Inn. The lawsuit alleges the bar owner and its dozen employees failed to make sure Burnett would be safe, didn’t properly alert emergency responders after the assault and didn’t have a proper system for watching alcohol consumption. Ten unknown patrons were additional defendants.
The lawsuit outlines a long list of injuries that Burnett sustained on top of his brain injury, including broken facial bones, chipped teeth, loss of speech and coordination, double vision and memory loss. The allegations have not been proven in court, and the lawsuit doesn’t specify a dollar amount for the health costs.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Burnett had one goal, two assists, 22 fights and 184 penalty minutes in 39 NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks in 2003-04. The 16 teams in his checkered minor-league career included the Wolf Pack (six goals, one assist and 346 penalty minutes in 62 games in 2002-03) and the New Haven Knights and Danbury Trashers of the United Hockey League. … Former Wolf Pack goalie David LeNeveu has signed an AHL contract with the Oklahoma City Barons. LeNeveu has played most of his career in the AHL, posting a 103-137-23 record with a 2.84 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage in 273 games with Springfield, Utah, San Antonio and the Wolf Pack. He has also played in 22 NHL games with the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets. An AHL All-Star as a rookie in 2004, LeNeveu had his most successful season in 2007-08, when he split time between San Antonio and Hartford, compiling a 17-10-5 record, 2.32 GAA and .916 save percentage. LeNeveu, a 6-foot-1, 187-pounder from Fernie, B.C., was a second-round pick of Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. Before being drafted by the Coyotes, LeNeveu was a standout at Cornell University.
FORMER QUINNIPIAC STAR RE-SIGNS WITH ROAD WARRIORS
The ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors signed returning forwards Connor Shields and former Quinnipiac University standout Brandon Wong and added newcomer Brett Robinson.
Wong, 24, started last season with the Wolf Pack and was scoreless in six games before being loaned to Greenville, where he scored the first hat trick in Road Warriors history on Jan. 14 against the Gwinnett Gladiators as part of a rookie season in which he had 21 goals and 25 assists in 64 games. The 21 goals for the 5-foot-10, 185-pound wing were sixth among ECHL rookies in the regular season, then he had two goals and two assists in 10 playoff games.
Shields, 27, a Dartmouth College grad, returns to Greenville for a third pro season after getting 16 goals and 31 assists in 55 games before being called up to the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals for the final five weeks of the season. He was an ECHL All-Star as a rookie in 2009-10, leading the Johnstown Chiefs with 28 goals and 34 assists in 70 games.
Robinson, 26, joins the Road Warriors after two seasons with the Cincinnati Cyclones. He scored nine goals in 23 playoffs game in 2010, the last being the winner as the Cyclones captured their second Kelly Cup in three years. Last season, the former Mercyhurst College standout had six goals and 10 assists in 23 games before an injury in December ended his season.