Norfolk Admirals center Ryan Craig
got one of the best jobs in hockey at one of the worst possible times.
Heading into the AHL all-star break, the Admirals were taking on some serious water with a 17-23-2 mark. Coach Darren Rumble
was fired, replaced by Jim Johnson
, who immediately tabbed Craig, who had been one of three alternates, as the man to wear the "C."
"We were sinking. We were falling out of the playoff race, falling out of something to play for," Craig said. "We want to be playing for something in February and March. That's when it's fun to start playing hockey. Maybe it puts some more pressure on myself, being named that. That's fine."
Coincidence or not, Craig's promotion has been a lifesaver for the Admirals.
Since that point, Norfolk is 10-2-1-1. The team's goals scored per game has increased from 2.50 to 3.00. The goals allowed has dropped from 2.86 to 2.15.
"I just tried to reiterate Jim's message. We're a team that's learning how to win. The best way to do it is to experience it," Craig said. "We just refocused, said we had 38 games left to go. We're getting more confidence and finding ways to win hockey games. We're focused more on little details. We've got back to those details that winning teams seem to do."
It's a message that Craig, 28, has prepped to deliver a couple times. He was captain of Brandon of the WHL for two seasons, and also held that same role for Springfield in 2005-06. In what turned out to be a little twist on the challenge he faces this year, Craig began that season with Springfield, was called up to Tampa Bay after 28 games and the Falcons missed the playoffs without him.
"I've seen a lot of things. The biggest thing is if you do things yourself and you're the hard-working guy, being the professional, you can hold your teammates accountable and lead your team in the right direction," he said.
Craig, whose 184-game NHL career has been spent entirely with Tampa Bay, is attempting a dual recovery this season, revitalizing both Norfolk and his own career. He hasn't had an extended run in the AHL since those 28 contests with Springfield in 2005-06, but he's skated in 49 games for Norfolk this season, chipping in with 16 goals and 12 assists. Those numbers include his first three-point outburst of the season in a win over Lowell on Feb. 13.
"I feel as good as I have since I've turned pro," Craig said. "You know what? This year was about getting back, proving I can stay healthy, play at a high level. I believe when you win as a team, good things happen to individuals. I feel healthy, energized, ready to take a step forward, ready, for a lack of a better word, to resurrect my hockey career."
Familiar role for Simpson
-- Veteran tough guy Reid Simpson
is sizing up the ravages of time the same way he has several other foes during his two decades as a pro player.
With confident disdain.
"People say you slow down," he said. "But you really don't."
While that sounds counter-intuitive, if Simpson can even wrestle the ticking clock to a draw the Chicago Wolves' skill players are going to have a lot more protection on the ice.
The Wolves have brought Simpson in to fill their one void, the lack of a bodyguard. That might have seemed logical in 1989-90, when Simpson was a rugged rookie for Hershey. Or in 1998-99, when Simpson was at the peak of his career, skating for the Chicago Blackhawks
But now, when Simpson is 40 years old and bearing down on 41 this spring? And when he is two years removed from playing his last competitive game?
Sure, Simpson insists. It's no big deal.
"It's not coming in as a publicity thing. It's coming in to help this team win on a regular basis," Simpson said. "If an opportunity presents itself, I put my whole heart into doing it. That's not just in hockey. That's in life."
Simpson has been consistent in that approach. He's played in 301 NHL games, producing 18 goals, 18 assists and 838 penalty minutes over parts of 12 seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers
, Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils
, Chicago Blackhawks
, Tampa Bay Lightning
, St. Louis Blues
, Montreal Canadiens
, Nashville Predators
and Pittsburgh Penguins
. He also has 137 points and 1,178 penalty minutes in 328 career AHL contests with the Hershey Bears, Albany River Rats, Milwaukee Admirals and Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins.
His playing career seemingly ended in 2007 after two seasons in Russia. For the past two years, he worked as an assistant GM over there. This season, he returned to his home in Chicago to tend to a few business endeavors, including running a jewelry store.
A few weeks ago, the rejuvenated Wolves, all of a sudden flashing enough skill to become a factor in the West Division, decided they could use a little more muscle in their lineup. With Simpson free and close by, they made a pitch.
"The one element they felt like they were missing was a little toughness, someone who could settle things down here and there. It's nice to have some size. That completes the look of the team," he said. "I just think everything I've done, everything I've been around, a lot of it is coming down to how strong you are mentally. If you stay in shape and stay current with that side of the game, you don't forget how to play hockey."
Simpson's memory may stay sharp for many more years; his issue is how long his body holds up. He's not making any promises past the next few months, but from a Chicago perspective that might be enough.
"I just tried to reiterate Jim's message. We're a team that's learning how to win. The best way to do it is to experience it. We just refocused, said we had 38 games left to go. We're getting more confidence and finding ways to win hockey games. We're focused more on little details. We've got back to those details that winning teams seem to do."
-- Ryan Craig
"I'm not looking to lock myself up for three years. You go hard every night. We'll see what happens in the next 30 games, and we'll go from there," he said. "If it's working, we'll stay with it. If it isn't, we'll do what we need to make it work."
Quite the journey
-- The first puck of the Syracuse Crunch's historic game Feb. 20 has traveled across the decades and will be dropped from a height of 4,000 feet, give or take.
The Crunch is taking on Binghamton at the New York State Fairgrounds in what is the first outdoor game in AHL history. The ceremonial opening faceoff will employ a commemorative puck from the NHL's first organized outdoor game between Wayne Gretzky
's Los Angeles Kings
and the New York Rangers
on Sept. 27, 1991 in Las Vegas.
The team has hired a skydiver, Ray Maynard, to leap from a plane and land at center ice to deliver the puck.
"I know of the outdoor games of the NHL. It sounded very exciting," Maynard said. "It sounded like a great event to jump into. I'm hoping not to fall. But going onto ice, you never know."
Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon is putting the pressure on for Maynard to live up to his reputation as one of the best.
"Nobody's ever had a skydiver drop into a hockey game,” Dolgon told the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper. "I told him, 'If you don't hit center ice, don't come down. If you can't land on that dot, stay up there.' The guy has guaranteed me that he'll hit his spot and hand the puck over to Senator (Chuck) Schumer.”
The Crunch is targeting the AHL single-game attendance mark of 20,672. Even if that's broken, the new standard might not stand long. Dolgon is pondering placing a game in Syracuse University's Carrier Dome next season, a plan that could double that total.
Around the AHL
-- Chicago's Jason Krog
became the 79th player in AHL history to reach 500 points for career in a 4-1 win over Texas on Feb. 12. ... The Wolves will host John Anderson
Night at their game against the Houston Aeros at the Allstate Arena on Feb. 20. The team will honor its longtime head coach, who now serves as head coach of the Wolves' NHL affiliate, the Atlanta Thrashers
, with a pregame banner ceremony. ... The Adirondack Phantoms have announced their inaugural Hall of Fame class. They are Bill Dineen
, Ned Harkness, Greg Joly and Glenn Merkosky
. ... Portland's 7-4 win over Hartford on Feb. 15 was the Pirates' ninth-consecutive victory, the second longest winning streak in franchise history. ... Lake Erie allowed a franchise-low 15 shots to visiting Milwaukee in a 3-0 win on Feb. 10. ... Springfield goaltender Jean-Philippe Levasseur
made a season-high 49 saves to blank Bridgeport Feb. 14 for the Falcons' first shutout of the year. ... Albany scored a franchise-record five power play goals vs. Binghamton on Feb. 13. ... Bridgeport's Greg Mauldin
had 1 goal and 4 assists against Hartford on Feb. 13 to tie the Sound Tigers' single-game point record. ... Monsters goaltender Tyler Weiman
earned his first shootout win of the season Feb. 12 vs. Hamilton, the same night his bobblehead was given away at Quicken Loans Arena. ... Fifteen different Grand Rapids skaters registered at least a point in the Griffins' 7-2 win over Houston on Feb. 12. ... The seven goals allowed by Houston in that game was the most given up by the Aeros since falling 7-3 to Worcester Mar. 31, 2007. ... Grand Rapids' 2-1 overtime loss to Rockford on Feb. 15 marked just the second time in franchise history the Griffins have suffered two straight overtime losses (Nov. 28-30 2002). ... The New Year has been good to Milwaukee forward Hugh Jessiman
. Jessiman entered 2010 with nine points (6-3), but in 23 games since then he has totaled 8 goals and 8 assists.