As well as San Antonio right wing Chad Kolarik is handling this whole rookie thing, he's also learning that if you don't play your cards correctly, road trips can really stink.
Consider the Rampage's current 12-city, 6,526-mile road trip. One of the keys to withstanding a gauntlet like that is making the right moves to get your laundry done. Four games into the trip, Kolarik had an empty-net quality chance to pull that off at the hotel in Rochester.
But the catch was that the load had to be at the front desk by 8 a.m., and, well, dirty clothes or not, that wasn't happening. Another layover long enough to do more laundry might come a few days down the road, at a point when the garments could be at code red in the tear-inducing department.
"I slept through it. Most of the guys forgot. It's a little early,'' he said of Rochester. ''I'll be fine.''
That's a given. The former University of Michigan star has already held his nose and battled through a grimier stretch, one in which his team emitted all the aroma of a locker room full of used gloves.
The American League definitely takes a toll on your body. You worry about it, especially coming from college. You have to manage your body, eat the right things, get enough sleep. - Chad Kolarik
Kolarik is tied for third among AHL rookie scorers with 37 points, but the real bow on his season so far has been the way he's remained consistent and unfazed even when the Rampage started 2-20-0-1. San Antonio is much better now, while Kolarik is just as dependable a point producer as he's always been.
''He's been one of our most consistent players. Through all that, he competed hard. There was no real fall off,'' said Brad Treliving, assistant GM of the Phoenix Coyotes. ''It (team slumps) tests players to come to the rink every day and battle through that adversity, and Chad's done that.''
Kolarik's steadiness comes from a wide range of exposure during his formative hockey years. His older brother, Tyler, was a former star at Harvard who also played for the Syracuse Crunch. Tyler is a little shorter than the 5-11 Chad, and a much scrappier player.
Tyler pushed his body through a couple of bruising seasons as a checking-line forward before deciding he'd had enough. He quit the sport and now works on Wall Street in New York. Years later, on the cusp of his own pro career, Chad wondered if the sport chewed up his brother, what would it do to him?
''Yeah. Definitely. The American League definitely takes a toll on your body,'' said Chad, 23. ''You worry about it, especially coming from college. You have to manage your body, eat the right things, get enough sleep.''
Kolarik also banked some major mental investments by playing two seasons with the U.S. national under-18 team from 2002-04. His teammates there were a virtual who's who of U.S. hockey for the next decade, including Ryan Suter, Matt Lashoff, Nathan Gerbe, Cory Schneider, Phil Kessel, Jack Skille and Jack Johnson.
|Chad Kolarik (right) is cross-checked by a Toronto Marlies player during last year's Calder Cup playoffs. |
Kolarik's immediate memory of that time is a painful one. During one drill, he recalls taking a shot and then pulling up. Suter didn't have the same off switch, and he plowed over Kolarik even though there was no pressing need to do so.
''That's the difference that makes him that good. He never gives up,'' Kolarik said. ''It was good to play with all those guys. It helped my skill level.''
The Coyotes agreed, figuring he was worth a flier in the seventh round of the 2004 Draft. That looked like a blue-chip investment his brother would be proud of when Chad ranked third in the nation in points (56) as a senior in Michigan. Overall, Kolarik appeared in 163 career games for Michigan, collecting 174 points. The steady improvement that has become Kolarik's trademark in San Antonio had its origins in a Wolverines sweater.
''The thing I worked on when I was in college was consistency,'' Kolarik said. ''I worked on that last year, just getting up for every game, treating every game like it's your last. It's all mental. I'm definitely in it for the long haul (this year). It felt like I got my second wind (around Christmas) and was playing better hockey.''
Kolarik might have enjoyed a low-key curtain-raising this season, except that he long ago blew his own cover. He joined the Rampage at the end of last season and produced four goals and two assists in seven playoff games.
Treliving, who didn't know what to expect of other newcomers, had Kolarik pegged as a difference-maker before summer turned to fall.
''You can teach certain things in the offensive zone. But that innate ability to be crafty around the net, he's got,'' Treliving said. ''He's got sneaky skill. He doesn't need a lot of room. He doesn't have the prettiest stride, but all of a sudden he's beat somebody. At the end of the night, you are going to go, 'This guy was an SOB to play against.'''
|Coyotes prospect Chad Kolarik is on the forecheck during a rookie game against the Los Angeles Kings. |
Kolarik has a welcome tag-team partner in that regard, a security blanket in the form of teammate Kevin Porter. Porter has been Kolarik's teammate for the past six seasons, four at Michigan and two in the national program. For much of this season, Porter has been the left wing on Kolarik's line.
''It makes the game that much easier. It definitely gives you that extra boost,'' Kolarik said. ''If you are down for a game, you have a guy who can pick you up. We've played together so long. We just try to get ourselves in the right position so we can find each other with the puck.''
Sometimes a guy just has to go it alone, though. The Rampage's four-wheeled home away from home has given Kolarik time to smooth out the edges on his third-best sporting talent (after hockey and golf).
That would be a little PlayStation action, specifically the Navy Seals game SOCOM. Porter doesn't get into that. It's probably just as well. If any other player on the bus claims they are better than Kolarik, he suggests you treat those words with skepticism.
''They might think they are,'' he said. ''But consistently over time, I'm in the top two, at least.''