While Connor Carrick was waiting to hear his name called at the 2012 NHL Draft, his younger brother, Hunter, was sitting beside him, listening to hundreds of names he didn't recognize.
Joining in with the spirited crowd in Pittsburgh, Hunter began playfully booing each team that was called, eliciting a warning from his older brother that he'd better not boo when a team took him.
Five rounds later, Carrick was shaking hands with George McPhee, then the general manager of the Washington Capitals, and letting his new team in on a secret.
"I ratted my brother out," Carrick said. "I let them know, 'Hey, this kid was booing your staff.' He was as red as a goal light."
Connor Carrick would like to be back in the NHL but the 20-year-old understands the best place for him to continue his development is in the AHL. (Photo: JustSports Photography)
Now 20 years old and one season removed from his NHL debut with the Capitals, Carrick's humor and candor keeps him buoyant when surrounding circumstances threaten to sink him. Last season he made Washington's opening-night roster and had one goal in three games.
A week later he was loaned to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. He played eight games before sustaining an injury that sidelined him into December. However, he was healthy enough to play for the United States at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
"I came back to North America with a little more confidence than I had before I went over," he said. "It was just so important for me to remember what it was like to be a leader, and really, really just be yourself. It's your first year [in professional hockey]; you're nervous about everything."
Carrick's experience on the ice is impressive for his age. He spent two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program, and after the Capitals drafted him he spent the 2012-13 season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.
"He's a kid that’s still developing [but] he's got a tremendous upside," Hershey coach Troy Mann said. "One of his strengths is certainly his vision; he sees the plays very well. His breakout ability is another. He's an offensive defenseman who's going to have plenty of opportunities to anchor one of our power-play units."
During his season with Plymouth, Carrick had 12 goals, 44 points and a plus-27 rating in 68 games, seizing the opportunity given to him by the Whalers to play big minutes on the power play and the penalty kill. He will be counted on to log big minutes this season with Hershey.
"It's been fun to be able to come back and try and play bigger minutes," he said. "That way when you come into a game you're more used to handling the puck and you're more confident in being able to bring a play in."
The additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington have deepened the organization's defense group, something that isn't lost on Carrick. But knowing that there is always someone willing to take your place is a motivator to constantly play at a high level. And that's at the AHL level as well as the NHL.
"I think here in Hershey we've created a great environment for the players that once they settle in, they know that the ultimate goal is to get back to the NHL," Mann said. "But at the same time they need to work on areas they have to get better at to make sure that the next time they get called up they're up there full time."
Mann was an assistant coach with the Bears when they won the Calder Cup in 2010, and that Hershey team had current Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner. It's this success that has Mann confident in the Hershey formula.
"There's nothing wrong with developing at the AHL level, especially when it comes to defensemen, because they tend to mature a little bit later," Mann said. "We want to make sure they're 100-percent ready when they do get up there."
Like any line of work, pro hockey comes with its own set of unwritten rules: Where to sit on the bus, who to grab a quick lunch with, where to sit during film sessions. Little things that people on the perimeter of the game don't see as day-to-day issues become a nerve-wracking exercise of fitting into the bigger picture. Carrick isn't a stranger to this as he's still finding his way on and off the ice. But on nights where turnovers lead to goals, or plays go awry because of a misstep, Carrick's level of maturity far exceeds his age.
"I've gotten better as I've gotten older because I realized the ineffectiveness of sulking," he said. "The game is going to go on with or without you. You've just got to get back on the horse."
Nobody's future in pro sports is guaranteed. In an organization as deep as Washington's, the drive to be consistent every game is paramount, but knowing he is a part of something great helps keep that drive alive.
"There is a very, very qualified defenseman there to pick up some of the minutes you're willing to give up by not executing," Carrick said. "We've definitely got a really good defensive corps here. I'm proud to be a part of that."
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