It seems that each season Norfolk Admirals fans find a defenseman upon whom to vent their frustration. Burke Henry, Johnathan Aitken, Marty Wilford and Dustin Byfuglien have all been heckled by spectators frustrated by what they view as inconsistent play.
Add Vladimir Mihalik to the list. The second-year rearguard hasn't played as well this season as he did in the second half of last season, making him a bit of a lightning rod. The good news is that the big Slovakian is developing in spite of the rough reception and he played perhaps his best game of the season Friday in a 4-1 defeat of visiting Albany.
“He's taken a few cheap shots and started playing with an edge,” said Norfolk assistant Alan May, who oversees the defense. “When he gets upset he focuses on the game and doesn't worry about anything else.”
What Admirals fans must remember, say the coaches, is that while Mihalik is 6 foot 7, he's also only 21 years old and still adapting to his big frame. Because he doesn't yet have the agility he will likely gain in the coming years, Mihalik is sometimes a step behind in the defensive zone, but he's also dealing with a nagging and unseen ailment.
The youngster suffered a shoulder injury during the Lightning's trip to the Czech Republic at the start of the season. It may not heal until summer provides time off, but Mihalik is gritting it out, even if he doesn't receive credit in the stands.
“When you put on pads and a jersey, no one can see what's hurting you and there are no excuses,” May said. “It's not the kind of injury that keeps you out of the lineup, but there are things you can't do and guys can become tentative going into the corner.”
Head coach Darren Rumble said Mihalik genuinely cares about improving and often seeks feedback on his play.
“Vladdy's not kissing up when he does it,” Rumble said. “Playing well is important to him and you can't give up on a guy like that.”
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Rumble is a large man himself and certainly proved his toughness during a lengthy career as a defenseman in the NHL and AHL. But he shuddered after Friday's game when he discovered an unexpected guest in his garb. Conducting a newspaper interview while changing into a track suit, Rumble discovered a cockroach in one of his sneakers. There was a brief and startled scramble and the offending insect was soon splattered on the Scope locker room floor.
As unpleasant as that experience was, Rumble can top it. He said that last season, after he had tied his skates in preparation for practice, he felt what he thought was a pebble in one of them. Then the pebble moved, wriggling on top of his foot and up towards his ankle.
Rumble, who said he's never removed a skate so quickly in his life, found a cockroach that time as well.
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The Philadelphia Phantoms will likely move to another city because the Spectrum arena is scheduled for demolition after the season. That means Norfolk's closet AHL neighbor will now be the Hershey Bears and that a road slate already constituting hundreds of hours of bus time will become even more formidable.
AHL president Dave Andrews was asked at the league's recent All Star Classic press conference what affect he saw the Phantoms' relocation having on the Admirals.
“It's not something we can really do anything about,” Andrews said. “Norfolk is a strong franchise. Ken Young's a terrific owner.
“Norfolk is just going to be further away, a longer bus ride or flight. It would be nice if at some point we can fill in back down around the Philly area or stay in the Philly area with the Phantoms and make that connection easier.”
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Admirals goaltender Mike McKenna, who played three games in as many nights this week, wears the No. 56 in honor of his father, who drove a car with that number as an amateur racer in the Midwest. McKenna, who is a serious fan of all sorts of racing, wrote the following in a recent blog post on the Admirals' Web site:
“I’ve attended IndyCar races in Toronto, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Nashville, and practice for the Indianapolis 500. I’ve seen Formula 1 at Indy and NASCAR in Las Vegas; World of Outlaws in St. Louis and countless late-model, modified, and sprint car shows on dirt ovals throughout the country.
“I made a point to catch the NHRA drag racing series when it came to Las Vegas. I’ve even seen snowmobiles in Watertown, NY. Racing has run in the McKenna family blood for years. My grandpa took a strong interest in it, my Dad actively competed for a number of years, and even I attempting racing go-karts on several occasions.”