Knotted at one win apiece with the Manchester Monarchs, with the remaining three games in their best-of-five series to be played on the road, the Norfolk Admirals have to overcome an obstacle to advance past the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Fortunately, for team captain Mike Angelidis, overcoming obstacles is second nature.
Angelidis, a sixth-year pro out of Woodbridge, Ont., slugged his way through 375 career minor-league games before making his NHL debut with the Lightning on Jan. 24 of this past season.
During his NHL debut, a 4-2 Lightning win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Angelidis scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot, igniting Tampa Bay’s offense on a night the Bolts won their fourth straight game.
While thousands of loyal Lightning fans were on their feet to cheer for the goal, nothing could match the look of sheer elation on the 26-year-old Angelidis’ face that could be seen all the way from the farthest reaches of Tampa Bay Times Forum.
“It felt unbelievable,” Angelidis said that night. “It was a dream come true. During the celebration, I thought I was going to faint.”
Although everybody in attendance could see the look of happiness on Angelidis’ face, the only way to truly understand his joy is to know what the scrappy center went through to reach that point.
Before getting called up by the Lightning in January, Angelidis had spent the entirety of his five-and-a-half-year professional career in the minor leagues, skating for the Admirals, Albany River Rats and Florida Everblades.
While the bumps and bruises that come with a long professional hockey career are taxing on any player’s body, for minor-league players, arguably the most exhausting aspect of their careers is the travel schedule.
Unlike the NHL, where chartered flights, five-star hotels and high salaries are the norm, minor-league players mostly travel overnight to games on cramped buses, while making an average salary that’s merely 1/8 of the NHL minimum.
After a while, minor-league players get used to the sort of lifestyle that accompanies their career choice and each passing bus ride becomes hardly distinguishable from the one before it.
However, the bus ride that Angelidis took on the night of Feb. 18, 2009 will be one that he will never forget.
Then a third-year pro in the American Hockey League with the Albany River Rats, Angelidis and his teammates were coming home on an overnight bus ride from Lowell, Mass. when disaster struck.
“I was half sleeping and then I heard the bus driver yell when we started swerving,” recalled Angelidis. “The next thing I know, the bus was flipped on its side. It sounded like we were going down a hill, but we were actually knocking into the guard rail.”
While driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike near the New York border just before 3:00 a.m., Albany’s bus driver hit the gas just as the team’s Yankee Trail Coach bus was coming up on an icy patch of highway during a snowstorm.
Losing control on the icy highway, Albany’s bus flipped onto its side and smacked into the road’s guard rail, leaving half the bus sticking into the middle of the highway during the pitch black of winter night.
“I remember guys crawling out of the hatch on our bus,” said Angelidis. “I ended up being one of the lucky ones. I had a few cuts and some bruised ribs, but one of my teammates had a broken neck and another had to get over 100 stitches. Lots of guys had concussions. Looking back, it’s one of those things where you just thank God that nobody died.”
Angelidis celebrates scoring his first NHL goal during a January callup to the Lightning. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
While the crash was determined to be an accident, it’s still something that could be hard for a player to cope with, given their torn emotions between looking out for their own physical well-being and not wanting to allow opportunities to impress team management to pass by from being taken out of the lineup.
“It was a scary thing to have to deal with,” added Angelidis. “It’s tough, but you learn to cope with what happened as time passes.”
A week after surviving his team’s horrific bus accident, Angelidis was back in the lineup for three games in four nights, all while taking overnight bus trips between Bridgeport, CT., Wilkes-Barre, PA. and Syracuse, NY.
Eighteen months after the accident, Angelidis left Albany to sign and play for the Norfolk Admirals, scoring 20 goals in 2010-11 and helping a Lightning AHL affiliate advance to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
This past fall, before his second year in the Lightning organization, Norfolk head coach Jon Cooper tabbed Angelidis to be the Admirals’ captain for the 2011-12 season.
“Angelidis is the identity of our team,” said Cooper. “He scraps for everything he gets and has given a lot to our team. That’s also why he got to go up and play with the Lightning this year. This organization is one that tries to reward these types of players.”
With Angelidis captaining the Admirals, Norfolk recently went on a 28-game winning streak that was 10 games longer than any other streak in any league in 108 years of professional hockey.
Although the team dropped its most recent game this past Saturday and is now tied in its best-of-five series with Manchester, the task of advancing later this week presents captain Angelidis with just another obstacle.
And Angelidis has yet to face an obstacle that he hasn’t overcome.