On April 23, the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, saw their season end after a six-game defeat in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. For most of the players and staff in Norfolk, that was the end of the 2010-11 season.
However, six players would trade their red, blue and gold Admirals sweaters for black, blue and silver Lightning jereseys. Blair Jones and Mattias Ritola, who each spent significant time with the Lightning in 2010-11, along with Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Mike Angelidis, Mathieu Roy and Dustin Tokarski arrived in Tampa Bay in the middle of the Lightning’s comeback from a 3-1 first-round series deficit to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pouliot, Roy, Angelidis and Tokarski form a group known as the “black aces.” According to hockey lore, this term was coined by Hall of Famer Eddie Shore, who used it to refer to players on his Springfield Indians clubs that were trying to work their way back into the lineup. He called them black aces because he felt they had run out of luck due to injury or being punished.
Today, the term certainly doesn’t denote bad luck or punishment for the Norfolk four – or the Norfolk coaching and training staff, who have also become part of the Lighting’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
“The coaches and management of the Lightning and Admirals decided to bring these players up because they were deserving,” said Norfolk Head Coach Jon Cooper. “One of the things that we wanted to make sure of as an organization was that when guys got called up, those guys deserved to be called up. I think the organization really stuck to that all year long. There were tons of deserving guys in Norfolk. But there were only a small number of opportunities available, so we couldn’t take everybody.”
Over the last several weeks, the aces have worked on and off the ice nearly every day. Their job is to be ready to play if their name is called.
The Admirals are familiar with this concept. In a single day during their playoff run, they lost two players to injury and another two to NHL recall, necessitating the AHL playoff debuts of young Lightning prospects Alex Hutchings and Charles Landry. Hutchings had only one game of AHL experience under his belt while Landry had literally arrived in Norfolk following the conclusion of his junior season only hours before playing in his first professional game.
“We saw what can happen first-hand in Norfolk - we lost so many guys,” said Angelidis. “Our role is to be ready at any time. You work out hard and are always mentally ready because you never know what’s going to happen. We try to have fun, but we stay focused.”
While there is no guarantee that the black aces will see playing time, they are gaining valuable experience that they can use in the future. For Angelidis, it’s his first taste of the NHL in his fifth professional season.
“I was really excited when I found out I was going to Tampa,” said Angelidis. “You dream as a kid to play for the Stanley Cup. It’s a great learning experience to see the way the guys are working and preparing, and how intense it is. Also to see the atmosphere - the fans are unbelievable down here.”
Tokarski knows that he has a tremendous opportunity to preview what he hopes to play a leading role in someday. The second-year professional is one of the top goaltending prospects in the Lightning system.
“You do a lot of watching,” said Tokarski. “During the games, you pick up a lot. You know that when the time comes, it will be an easier transition because you will have a better idea of what to expect.”
Cooper agrees that the black aces – including himself and the rest of the Norfolk coaching and training staff – have been given a great opportunity to prepare for what they hope will be an NHL future.
“You’re making sure that you are not walking into a situation in the future where you are awestruck,” said Cooper.
While the black aces may practice separately from the remainder of the Lightning, they still have been made to feel an integral part of the Tampa Bay squad. Additionally, Cooper, Norfolk assistant coach Mike Flanagan, Norfolk athletic trainer Brad Chavis and Norfolk equipment manager J.W. Aiken have also been put to work to assist the Lightning in achieving Tampa Bay’s ultimate goal. It’s something for which Cooper is very grateful.
“One thing that I believe separates this organization from others is that they really keep everybody involved,” said Cooper. “They’ve brought the Admirals staff to Tampa Bay and made them a part of their own staff. The learning experience with that is second to none. They’ve really made us feel a part of it. We’re enjoying the ride.”
It’s a ride Cooper and the black aces hope will conclude with a celebration people in both Tampa Bay and Norfolk will enjoy. Until then, they are enjoying the hand that they’ve been dealt while hoping to go all-in if they are called upon.