Every National Hockey League team that makes the playoffs carries an expanded roster in the postseason. The group of players called up from the American Hockey League, as well as injured players working to get back into the NHL, is collectively known as the “Black Aces.”
The term “Black Aces” originally had a negative hockey connotation. It originated with the legendary Eddie Shore, who purchased a minor league team in 1940, and began to refer to spare roster players by that term in reference to the bad omen that superstitious card players believe comes about from being dealt the ace of spades. Shore said that the team was in bad shape if it had to use its Black Aces in a game, especially during the playoffs.
Over the years, however, Black Aces have come to have a much more positive meaning; more akin to an “ace up the sleeve” that a hockey team can draw upon to help win a game in times of adversity. For a team with the sort of depth enjoyed by the Philadelphia Flyers, being selected as a Black Ace means that the organization feels the player is capable of contributing if needed during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In Philadelphia, gaining Black Ace status it is not merely a symbolic reward for a good minor league season and it is certainly not an indictment of the players’ ability as it was in distant past. Players with the Adirondack Phantoms have competed amongst themselves all season to become Black Aces for the big club during the playoffs.
On April 17, two days after the end of the Phantoms’ AHL season, the Flyers named their Black Aces for the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: defensemen Erik Gustafsson, Brandon Manning and Oliver Lauridsen, forwards Harry Zolnierczyk, Ben Holmstrom, Matt Ford, Tye McGinn and Tyler Brown plus veteran goaltender Michael Leighton.
Most of this group practices each morning at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, in sessions coached by Blair Betts, Derian Hatcher and Ian Laperriere. At times, they have been joined by Flyers veterans who are rehabilitating from injuries, including James van Riemsdyk, Nicklas Grossmann and Andrej Meszaros. In addition, Flyers rookie forward Tom Sestito, who recently recovered from groin-tear surgery, is a mainstay at the Black Aces practices.
To a man, each of the Black Aces has a singular mindset: approach each day’s practice as if the Flyers will call him to suit up in their next Stanley Cup Playoff game.
“The most important thing is to stay ready at all times,” said Zolnierczyk, who split the 2011-12 season between the Flyers and Phantoms. “You have to work hard for your opportunity, and make the most of it when you get the chance.”
It is not hard for the current Black Aces to find sources of inspiration. Last year, Zac Rinaldo made his NHL debut during the playoffs after spending the entire regular season with the Phantoms. He is now a full-time Flyer. Likewise, Eric Wellwood was a member of the Black Aces last season. This year, the speedy forward has dressed in every playoff game for the big club.
“I learned a lot when I was there [with the Black Aces], “Wellwood said after Wednesday’s Flyers practice. “I thought it was productive for me. I kind of got the feel for how the team prepares in the playoffs…. I think it helped me for this year.”
Already in the 2012 playoffs, Gustafsson was called upon after Grossmann suffered an injury in Game 4 of the Flyers’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The rookie ended up being a key contributor in the team’s series-clinching win in Game 6.
Gustafsson now skates solely in the “main group” practices led by Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette. Manning, meanwhile, has been doing double duty of late, working out with the Black Aces in the earlier sessions and then joining the NHL group in the subsequent sessions. When the Flyers have needed a third goalie for game day warmups, erstwhile starter Leighton has donned the pads to step in.
The Black Aces sessions are conducted at a high tempo. With a limited number of players on the ice, there is opportunity for the skaters to receive greater individualized attention from Betts (the forwards) and Player Development Coach Hatcher (working primarily with the defensemen). Laperriere has done some chalk-talk work, demonstrating aspects of the Flyers’ system to the young players.
Hatcher has worked with many of the Black Aces since last offseason. He is pleased by what he’s seen from this year’s group, especially the young blueliners.
“It’s fair to say that these guys have all improved significantly from the start of the season,” said Hatcher. “Guys like Manning and Lauridsen have put in the work, and we’ve got faith in them. In the playoffs, the teams that win are ones that have depth. We’ve got a good group.”
For their part, the Black Aces can’t help but pay close attention to whatever Hatcher, Betts and Laperriere tell them. Combined, the three men have 2,867 games worth of NHL regular season and playoff experience. They are here to help the young players, but will not hesitate to be bluntly honest in their assessments of where each player needs to improve in order to further his chances of performing effectively at the NHL level.
“They all work very hard,” said Laperriere. “Just as one example, I really like Ford. He’s got good hands and works very hard. It’s not easy for those guys to skate every day when they may not play at all. They’ve got the right attitude.”