The best birthday presents that Norfolk forward Radek Smolenak has gotten the last two years are ones he's earned himself.
On Dec. 3, 2007 - his birthday - Smolenak was recalled from Mississippi of the ECHL to Norfolk. On Dec. 2, 2008, he was promoted from Norfolk to Tampa Bay.
Smolenak played in six games for the Lightning before returning to the Admirals. With that in mind, there's only one thing to wish for come early December 2009.
"Hopefully, I'll be an NHL player by that time," he said.
Or maybe a lot sooner. Smolenak, a third-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2005, has dug his skates in, refusing to give up anything he's earned so far.
Smolenak played in 20 AHL games for Springfield in 2006-07, producing just a single assist. When he was promoted from Mississippi to the Admirals in the middle of 2007-08, he finished the year with 15 goals in a half season. This season, the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Smolenak has 12 goals and 10 assists in 26 games for Norfolk.
"If you want to be an NHL player, it doesn't take a day or two weeks," said Smolenak, 22. "It can take a couple of years. When I was down in the ECHL, I realized I had to change my whole game. I played a little tougher. I learned to play every shift."
That's been apparent in the way Smolenak has attacked the net since his return to Norfolk. Smolenak responded to his demotion with a goal in his first game back, two in his second and another in his third. All were Admirals wins.
"It's a better chance for everyone to be in the NHL if the team is successful," Smolenak said. "When I was up there, when they sent me down, I realized what I need to be better at. Get better defensively, be stronger on the puck, be stronger on the walls. The stuff I was doing before, it was not good enough to be a regular NHL player."
It still isn't, at least not in his eyes. Smolenak is visiting New York over the holiday break to see his friend Petr Prucha, a forward with the Rangers. The plan was to catch a game against the Capitals. Even though he is just days away from having played at that level - and who knows how long away from playing there again - Smolenak has no misconceptions about his vantage point.
"I'm in the 'A' right now. I cannot say I'm an NHL player," he said. "It's something nice when you see the NHL game, you can say you played a few games there. Hopefully, I can get there as soon as I can." Riding the hot streak
-- Bridgeport goalie Nathan Lawson headed to a Las Vegas vacation this week with an important accessory for that city - a winning streak.
It's a bit of an accident, really, as most hot runs are. At the start of the season, Lawson was with Utah of the ECHL. That team was scheduled to play in Las Vegas near Christmastime. His family in Calgary figured they'd take advantage by flying down for the game.
If you want to be an NHL player, it doesn't take a day or two weeks. It can take a couple of years. When I was down in the ECHL, I realized I had to change my whole game. I played a little tougher. I learned to play every shift. - Radek Smolenak
In early November, Lawson was promoted to Bridgeport for the first AHL stretch of his career. Lawson made that roll of the dice by the Sound Tigers pay off with a 6-0 record, 1.61 goals-against and .941 save percentage. Lawson isn't going to Utah any time soon. But why waste a chance to go to Vegas? His family kept their plans, and Lawson flew out to meet them for an extended gathering.
"It worked out very well,'' said Lawson, 25. "It's perfect. We'll go see a couple of shows, but it's more 'take it easy' on this type of trip."
Lawson deserves the rest. Along with starter Peter Mannino, he's helped Bridgeport stay near the top of the East Division despite the loss of anticipated No. 1 Yann Danis to the Islanders. He went into the holiday break with a shut out of Lowell on Dec. 21.
"I've just been working hard in practice, be ready for when they throw me in," Lawson said. "I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn't know how long I was going to be here. I was anxious. I know I can play, it's just a matter of showing people and staying ready for every time I'm in the net."
Lawson said he isn't going to test whether his run of success will carry over to Sin City, though.
"I like to play cards with the guys," he said. "But I'm not a big gambler." Similar, yet different
-- An odd question ran through the mind of Syracuse Crunch forward Mike York as he sat in the team's locker room a couple of weeks ago: What in the world is Todd Harvey doing here?
Right family, wrong brother.
York was looking at Kevin Harvey, Todd's younger brother. York played with Todd on the New York Rangers, and even though Todd is eight years older, Kevin could pass for his twin.
"I saw him, he looks exactly like Todd. I figured he was related somehow," York said.
In terms of hockey DNA, though, Todd and Kevin are more like very distant cousins. Todd is a former No. 1 pick of the Dallas Stars who played in 671 NHL games while Kevin, 24, was a ninth-round pick by Calgary in 2003 whose seven games with Syracuse represent his first at the AHL level.
Todd said Kevin is the better pure skater, but Kevin's meal ticket is his energy level and steel wool style. At 6-foot-2, Kevin is three inches taller than his sibling and he put that physical presence to use by compiling 122 PIM, 3 goals and 7 assists for Reading of the ECHL this season. In his first seven games with the Crunch, the wing injected some much-needed energy into the lineup with 2 goals and 38 PIM.
"He does his job. He does what he has to do," York said.
"I can score goals," Harvey said. "I'm just at the point of my career where this (scrapping) is what I have to do to stay in pro hockey. My brother was successful. If I work hard, I'm going to be successful, too. I'm my own person."
When the Crunch played in Rochester on Dec. 14, Todd, who lives in Hamilton, Ontario, was able to swing by and watch his brother play for the first time in years. Kevin said Todd told him he looked like he fit in nicely at that level.
After years of skeptical scrutiny from others because of his last name, Kevin appreciates another supportive eye assessing his game.
"(Todd said) be a good guy in the locker room, bang bodies, be an energy player," Kevin said. "I was always judged as Todd Harvey's brother. It wasn't an issue for me. I took a long path, but it's starting to pay off." Around the AHL
-- San Antonio goalie Josh Tordjman broke the franchise record with his 45th career win by beating Chicago on Dec. 19. ... Bryan Helmer of Hershey and Rory Fitzpatrick of Rochester will serve as honorary captains of at the 2009 AHL all-star game next month in Worcester. Chicago's Don Granato will coach the PlanetUSA squad, returning him to the city where he coached the Worcester IceCats from 2000 to 2005. ... Hershey forward Alexandre Giroux is two goals shy of his sixth consecutive 20-goal season in the AHL. ... One reason the Phantoms collected 15 of a possible 16 points in December: no one on the entire roster had a minus rating for the month. ... At the break, the first- and sixth-place teams in the West are separated by five points. ... Binghamton had been the only AHL team yet to score a shorthanded goal this season before winger Danny Bois tallied two of them last week. ... Albany has been blanked seven times this season; that's the same number of times it was shut out all of 2007-08. ... Grand Rapids has thrived during hectic schedules this season, as it is now a combined 9-2-0-1 when playing three times in as many nights and 7-0-0-1 when playing four games in five nights. ... Syracuse's current nine-game losing streak is one shy of the franchise record. ... The Crunch's power play is 4-for-76 during its last 14 games (5.26 percent). ... Worcester (16-14-0-0) and Manitoba (21-8-0-0) are the only AHL teams yet to suffer either an overtime or shootout loss this season.
Author: Lindsay Kramer | NHL.com Correspondent