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Hrkac lacing 'em up for a run with Aeros

by Lindsay Kramer
As coach of the men's hockey team at Concordia University in Wisconsin, Tony Hrkac's job is to bring good players into the program.

One way to accomplish that is to show he can do more than talk and teach a good game. Almost four years after he took his last serious shift, the Houston Aeros are giving him a chance to get back on the ice and practice what he preaches.

Houston has brought Hrkac, 42, in for the team's stretch run. If the forward gets some AHL action, it will be his first since 2004-05 with Milwaukee. In 18 pro seasons, Hrkac has played in 1,266 games in the NHL, AHL and IHL.

''Being behind the bench, there are times when you want to (play), and you can't. I guess those competitive juices took over,'' Hrkac said. ''I kept myself in good shape. I'm going to give it the best shot I can. It will be tough. I don't have any illusions in my head where I'll step in, it will be a cakewalk. But I've played there (AHL). I know what it's like.''

Hrkac was recruited by Aeros assistant Luke Strand, who knew Hrkac from a previous coaching clinic. Hrkac didn't really expect to un-retire, but when Concordia's season ended, Hrkac took the bait. The first couple of skates with Houston didn't do anything to change his mind that he can pull off this encore.

''I kept up and felt pretty good. I'm still in one piece,'' he said after his first full practice. ''I'm a little sore. There was a little bit of physical play, but nothing too outrageous.''

Even if the numbers aren't what they used to be -- he has 964 pro points -- Hrkac hopes interacting with the Aeros' young players gives him a little insight for when he returns to Concordia next season.

''You never stop learning as a coach or a player,'' he said. ''I'll get their viewpoint of different things. It can't hurt to learn a new system.''

Even with his busy new schedule, Hrkac's quest to find new faces to bring into those systems never ends. Hrkac said he might mention to a recruit or two that he's still got enough game left in him to earn some AHL minutes.

''I try to throw that in there. Maybe they'll look me up, see what I did in my playing career,'' he said. ''Maybe they'll come to Concordia. It doesn't hurt.''

Having a good time -- Punch in the number for Jon Sim's cell phone and one of the ringback tones you might hear is Alan Jackson's ''Good Times.''

The lyrics convey the singer's need to shake off a hard week's worth of stress by letting loose with a little fun. Although hardly the nine-to-fiver that Jackson portrays, Sim can relate to the urge for such enjoyment.

''It's a good song,'' Sim said. ''I try to stay positive, keep things upbeat.''

Fair enough, but who could figure Sim would find his AHL version of a good ol' honky-tonk in Bridgeport?

Actually, it makes all the sense in the world.

Although the forward is with the Sound Tigers because he was nudged off the New York Islanders' roster, he still can commute to visit his wife and two children on Long Island. And at least Sim can skate with the hottest team in the AHL, one that's sprung to the top of the East Division.

Sim, 31, hasn't lost the scoring touch from his last AHL go-round, in 2004-05 with the Philadelphia Phantoms, whom he took to the Calder Cup with 35 goals and 26 assists. In his first seven games with the Sound Tigers, he contributed 7 goals and 2 assists.

''I think before I got sent down my game was getting strong. When I got sent down, it continued,'' said Sim, who produced 9 goals and 6 assists in 49 games for New York this season. ''The week that I've been here, it's been good. They (his teammates) all care for each other. They all enjoy what's going on, and that's winning.''

Still looking on whatever sunny side a demotion brings, Sim also will get plenty of time to craft the next stage of his career. He has one year left on his contract with the Islanders, and this season marks a comeback from a 2007-08 in which a bad knee injury limited him to two games.

''At the start, the first bit of (this) season was tough,'' Sim said. ''I'm like everyone here. I want to get back to the next level. I'm still playing the game I love. I'm still enjoying it, that's for sure.''
Friends and enemies -- Friendship is one thing, but new Syracuse Crunch goalie Kevin Lalande knows how to take care of business, as well.

"Being behind the bench, there are times when you want to (play), and you can't. I guess those competitive juices took over. I kept myself in good shape. I'm going to give it the best shot I can. It will be tough. I don't have any illusions in my head where I'll step in, it will be a cakewalk. But I've played there (AHL). I know what it's like."
-- Tony Hrkac

One of the most impactful minor-league swaps at the trade deadline was the one that brought Lalande to Columbus from Calgary in exchange for a 2009 fourth-round pick. That's true in more ways than one.

Lalande went 3-0 last week, stopping 111 of 114 shots. He's also temporarily altered the seasons of two of his best friends in pro hockey.

Those would be Crunch goalies Sebastian Dahm and Dan LaCosta. Dahm was a teammate of Lalande's with Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League, and LaCosta got to know Lalande as an OHL opponent. All three players kept in close touch during the season, and Dahm and LaCosta have hung out with Lalande in the summers.

But Lalande's arrival pushed Dahm to Johnstown of the ECHL, and his hot start has stolen some of LaCosta's minutes.

''If you're a hungry athlete, that's the way you have to think. You want to play every night,'' said Lalande, a second-year pro. ''It's a healthy competition at the rink, but when you walk out of here it stays at the rink. We both want to play a lot. I'm sure down the road it's going to make us better athletes.''

That's when the competition figures to get really interesting. Either LaCosta or Lalande could be the leading contender to earn a job as Steve Mason's backup in Columbus next season.

''If it comes down to that, obviously it's a good situation for us,'' LaCosta said. ''You have to look out for your own well-being. But what happens on the ice stays on the ice.''

Around the AHL -- Manitoba and Vancouver have renewed their affiliation agreement through the 2011-12 season. ... Hershey captain Bryan Helmer played his 900th regular-season AHL game March 15, becoming just the second defenseman -- and 12th player in league history -- to reach that milestone. ... Grand Rapids' Francis Pare has become one of just five rookies in team history to score more than 20 goals in a season. ... Milwaukee's 2-1 victory against Grand Rapids on March 15 was the Admirals' sixth one-goal win against the Griffins this season. ... By picking up a point in their shootout loss to Chicago on March 14, the Admirals became the first franchise in AHL history with at least 90 points and 40 wins in six consecutive seasons. ... Binghamton has a 21-4-4-1 combined record against Atlantic, North and West division teams. ... Veteran NHL forward Miroslav Satan had a goal and 3 assists in a 7-2 win against Albany on March 16 in his debut for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Satan had not played in the AHL since his rookie season of 1994-95, with Cape Breton. … The Amerks tied an AHL season-high with three shorthanded goals in a 4-3 shootout loss to Hamilton on March 15. The other team to score three shorties in a game this season was Hamilton -- against Rochester on Nov. 16. ... Albany scored five goals in the third period of a 5-3 win against Norfolk on March 11, and allowed five in the first period of 5-4 loss to Philadelphia on March 14. ... There were five crowds of 10,000-plus in the AHL over the weekend, led by 12,899 in Chicago on March 14. ... Worcester's 4-1 win against Hartford on March 15 marked the Sharks' first regulation triumph against the Wolf Pack at the DCU Center in eight tries since Apr. 6, 2007.

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