BY: Gerry Cantlon, Howlings
It was 20 years ago they came to play hockey just the same,
They have always come in style,
So let me introduce to you the Hartford Wolf Pack clan…
HARTFORD, CT – Apologies to John, Paul, George, and Ringo for the literary thievery, but the Hartford Wolf Pack open their 20th AHL season at 7 pm tonight the XL Center against the Montreal Canadians top farm team, the St. John’s IceCaps.
This team is not the same team that took the ice for the Pack last season. 17 players who played ten or more games from last season’s roster have departed to various new hockey ports. On the other hand, they have added some interesting new pieces as well as some important veterans to help shape and guide the team for this coming season.
“It’s an exciting time of the year,” Head Coach Ken Gernander said. “The guys are chomping at the bit to get going. You can evaluate individuals, and you make the cuts, now you get to see how you stack up against the rest of the league.”
Gernander, who has spent all twenty seasons in Hartford, has watched the evolution of the team and athletes that have worn the team’s sweater.
“A lot of things have changed and for one, in the salary cap era you used to supplement teams with high-end free agents at the NHL level (and AHL), so the onus on development is so much more important now than it was back then. I know I sound ancient, but the kids are different today.” Gernander said. “The cell phones and internet didn’t exist when I started out, and you have to change with the times. It changes how you teach and instruct. I still have a little bit of old school mentality and reserve the right to revert to that sometimes.”
Having veteran leadership to pair with younger players is important to stitch together the mosaic of the team.
“We have several players returning who can fill that leadership role and that wasn’t the case every year, so that will be great to have some continuity to build off to start with,” The Pack’s winningest coach stated. “Those guys have a pretty good idea and can help carry the torch, and we have younger players we brought in, a couple of draft picks and acquisitions, that are young, promising guys. I think we have a real good look to complement. It is a real good mix.”
One of the major veterans Gernander mentioned will be its captain, Mat Bodie. The veteran defenseman got the C late last season after the Ryan Bourque trade. This season represents a new page for all of them, returning players especially.
“You want to make the new guys as comfortable as possible because it is an adjustment to the AHL whether you come from college, major junior, or Europe,” Bodie, entering his third season, said. “You have to try to help them learn the professional game and play the style the team is looking for.”
Clearly, one of the team’s biggest strengths is in between the pipes.
Magnus Hellberg, who will start the first game, and his understudy or goalie 1B, Mackenzie Skapski.
“Both guys are very strong competitors and will be battling for playing time. So we’re very comfortable whichever one is playing for us,” Bodie said. “It’s great for the defenseman when you have two great options like that. When they make those big saves, it’s felt throughout the lineup.”
Skapski wants to get off to a better start than last season. After getting his medical clearance to play, he struggled until the end of last season mostly with the Pack’s ECHL affiliates, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. He was able to prepare more this off-season after last summer was spent more in recovery mode from his June 1, 2015, right hip labrum surgery.
“I’m ready for an exciting year,” Skapski said. “I’m hoping for good things individually and for the team. I felt like it was a good preseason in New York. It wasn’t good our not making the playoffs, but I used the time well. I spent a lot of time in Vancouver working on strength and mobility and worked with a good group of people, and I’m back where I want to be.”
Skapski was able to work on a few pieces of his game early.
“I skated earlier, about three times a week. I really hit the ice hard in July and August. I dedicated my time to my training concentrated on my three keys. Be at the top of my rectangle, (second) play in the blue paint and be calm and patient, and to see the passes and to be able to react. The third was stay square to the puck.”
Skapski certainly sounds like a good student of the Allaire School of Goaltending.
Gernander is trying to look at the whole situation when it comes to Skapski.
“Last year was a tough year, but at the end of the year he was back to the form he was the prior year, and that wasn’t yet one year removed from the surgery, and it was major surgery. He pushed himself hard and I know he was ahead of schedule in his rehab, and from a workload situation, was ahead of schedule. The body has to heal.
“There are all those things you can do to expedite things, but at some point, you have to let nature take its course. Because he put all that work and energy into (rehabbing) and when it didn’t go the way he wanted it to go, it was hard emotionally, and everything he went through in Greenville last season, that didn’t transpire the way he wanted. It was very hard on him, but that did make him mentally that much stronger. He is a stronger player now physically and mentally for everything he put himself through.” Gernander said.
The Pack will have Marek Hrivik and Nicklas Jensen up front. The two had good chemistry once Jensen arrived mid-season in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks. It helped propel the Wolf Pack to a solid second half performance. They will lead a team that features many younger forwards making their pro debuts.
“We’re toying with a whole set of combinations for (Friday) night. Hrivik and Jensen had chemistry playing together last year. We’re trying combinations with several different looks. We’re not trying to forecast too much to other teams how we look,” Gernander said with a wry smile.
Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, who played some CT prep school hockey at Kent, leads a young crew of forwards. Ryan Gropp (2nd round draft pick), Michael Joly (free agent signee) and Robin Kovacs ( 3rd round pick) join Nieves up front.
“Look at our roster as it stands, we have twelve players. That’s a pretty good indicator.” Gernander said.
One of the additions is Tanner Glass. The veteran forward makes his second stint with the Wolf Pack after an 18 game stint last season. Glass is an important addition as the new season commences.
“We had good conversations here so far,” Gernander said. “He was a character guy here last year, and when he was recalled, he had some good hop in his step. From his point (of view), he had a good situation here last year, and from my standpoint, he did everything I asked of him and brought those intangibles (to the team). Everyone who comes here brings something different to the table and guys of a strong character don’t view it negatively and handle the adversity and work to make it not last. In his case, that speaks to his character and how he has handled it.”
The first-ever goal scored by Hartford twenty years ago was by P.J. Stock in Philadelphia. The first goal scored at home was by Pierre Sevigny. Now, Sevigny’s son Mathieu, who was born in Hartford, is playing junior hockey with Drummondville (QMJHL).
Tonight’s opponent, the St. John’s IceCaps, for the second season in a row, are in their last season. This time, it’s the Canadians who will move their top farm team. Next season, the Habs will move their AHL affiliation to Laval, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, to play in the Place Bell Centre. The team lost one goalie, Charlie Lindgren, to recall as a backup to former Wolf Pack, Al Montoya, who will start against the Buffalo Sabres as Carey Price (listed with the flu was a no go).
The team did, however, gain 6’6 forward Mike McCarron, who was one of the last cuts by Montreal. He played well for St. John’s last year before being recalled for the second half of the season.
Other players to watch for St. John’s include forwards, Nikita Scherbak, who battled injuries last year, Jacob De La Rose, and Charles Hudon.
Zachary Furcale will get the start in net. Furcale was a first round pick in 2012 and will be backed up by Bryan Pitton. The ex-Springfield Falcon is on recall from the Brampton Beast (ECHL).
The sale of the AHL Binghampton Senators to Ottawa Senators owner, Eugene Melnyk, and the team’s relocation to Belleville, Ontario for next season was approved the AHL Board of Governors.
Late player moves include former Quinnipiac standout goalie Michael Gartheig, reassigned to the Alaska Aces (ECHL) from the Utica Comets. By the way, there are no direct flights there.
Binghampton reassigned Ex-Pack Alex Krushelnyski to the Wichita Thunder (ECHL) from Binghamton.
Former CT Whale, Kris Newbury was cut by the Reading Royals (ECHL).