Archive for March, 2016

Chris Brown a Symbol of Hockey’s Expanding U.S. Roots

March 16, 2016

Here’s a piece I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website on recently-acquired winger Chris Brown:

A look at the “birthplace” column of the Wolf Pack’s roster would reveal many of the typical places of origin for hockey players.

One would see a number of different Canadian locales, a couple of Minnesotas, a Michigan, a Massachusetts and several European cities.

One hometown suffix stands out, though, and that is the “TX” that follows Chris Brown’s birthplace.

Brown, who hails from Flower Mound, Texas, located just northwest of Dallas, is one of the poster boys for how much the U.S. hockey footprint has expanded in recent years.  Gone are the days when, as was said of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team, hockey in this country was largely synonymous with “a bunch of guys from Minnesota and Boston.”

So how does a young player get from “deep in the heart of Texas” to the University of Michigan, as Brown did, and eventually to the highest levels of pro hockey?Action Shot for Blog - 03-17-16 - Chris Brown

“Obviously it’s non-traditional,” the 25-year-old right-winger said recently.  “I grew up playing in Dallas up until I was 14 years old, had a lot of good coaches that came through the Junior Stars organizations.  And then I moved away to Detroit to play for Detroit Honeybaked my midget year, which really kind of kicked off my hockey career.

“I never thought I’d make it out of Dallas, hockey was just sort of a fun thing for me.  I played other sports like football and baseball too.  So I kind of worked my way through a move when I was young, it was tough on my parents, obviously, it was tough on me, to let me go away when I was 14.  It’s been a different experience, being from a non-traditional state, but it’s got me to where I am now.”

Once he got to “Hockeytown”, as Detroit is often referred to, and enjoyed excellent success in one of the most traditional of hockey states, Brown was on the fast track to becoming an elite performer on the frozen pond.

“Playing in Detroit was kind of like playing football in Texas,” Brown remembered.  “It’s more of a religion there too.  It was a good experience, I had a lot of good friends on that team, a lot of guys that are playing in the NHL now, and in the AHL.  We had a great team, they were very welcoming as well, to allow a kid from Texas to come up and play in Detroit.”

After a fine midget season, in which he was the top goal-scorer on that stacked Detroit Honeybaked team, the then-16-year-old Texan landed a spot with the U.S. National Team Development Program.  That is USA Hockey’s elite training program for players under 18, which is meant to prepare them for playing on the country’s national teams.  In existence since 1996, the USNTDP has been a major factor in the blossoming of hockey talent further across the U.S..

Brown’s two years in the USNTDP, during which one of his teammates was Ryan Bourque, the man the Rangers organization traded to acquire Brown, were another key stepping stone.

“It gets you all the exposure you could ever ask for, internationally, playing against some of the best guys,” Brown said of the national program.  “Actually I played against Hriv (Slovakian-born Wolf Pack teammate Marek Hrivik) growing up, too, for a couple of years.  The hockey world’s very small.  And so, whenever you get a chance to represent your country, and get exposed to colleges your second year, and all that kind of stuff, it makes the transition a little easier going into pro hockey and into college hockey.”

At the time Brown was part of the USNTDP, it was based in Ann Arbor, MI, and that’s where Brown would stay for three subsequent years, skating for Coach Red Berenson’s University of Michigan Wolverines, with current fellow Wolf Pack veteran Chris Summers as one of his teammates.  During all that time up in the northern reaches of the country, though, Brown always stayed true to his Lone Star State roots

“I was born in Houston, raised in Dallas, so Texan through and through,” he said with a smile.  “It’s something that I really pride myself on.  Some guys probably get irritated hearing about it all the time, but I wear cowboy boots, I got all that stuff going on.  It’s not the hockey hotbed of the country, but there’s a lot of good players that are coming through there.”

The game of hockey continues to spread its sphere of influence in the U.S., as evidenced by the fact that this year’s USNTDP Under-18 Team roster includes a Californian, a Floridian, two players from St. Louis and one each from Idaho and Maryland.  High-level junior programs are proliferating virtually everywhere in the nation, and the NHL’s nationwide penetration helps spread interest, and spur the construction of rinks where there never before would have been enough interest to support them.  Still, Brown feels that the path to elite hockey success for young players in non-traditional hockey areas will remain a difficult one.

“I don’t think it’s going to be easy, I think there’s still going to be that challenge,” he said.  “I think there’s a lot of guys, including myself, that are trying to pave that path for other guys to make it a little easier, but the California kids, the Texas kids, the Floridas, those kids are still going to have a tough time.  Some of the other sports, like football and baseball, are still going to rule those states.  Personally, I played football to play with all my buddies, so it’s kind of one of those things, if you want to do it, you’ve got to really commit to it.  You don’t necessarily have to move, that’s just a decision that I made.  The programs are obviously getting better in those non-traditional markets.”

Drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009, following his second season in the National Team program, Brown signed with the Coyotes in March of 2012, after the conclusion of his junior year at Michigan.  His first year of pro was a rousing success, as he scored 29 goals, tops among 2012-13 AHL rookies, in 68 games with the Portland Pirates and earned five NHL games with Phoenix.

The next year he got six games with the Coyotes and had 14 goals and 35 points in 51 games with the Pirates, before being swapped to the Washington Capitals in a trade-deadline deal.  The 2014-15 season saw Brown score 17 goals in 64 AHL games with Hershey and get into five NHL contests with Washington, but this year’s campaign has been marked by little but frustration for the 6-2, 209-pounder.  He did get one game with the Capitals, but dressed for only 20 of the 34 for which he was on Hershey’s roster, and was held to 3-6-9 in his AHL action.

“This year’s been difficult,” Brown acknowledged.  “I started out with an injury and having to battle through that, that’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that, and then a tough situation in Hershey.  But at the same time, there’s a lot of similarities that I see in this organization that I saw with Portland.  So I’m looking to get that opportunity and looking to get that scoring touch back.”

The trade that swapped Brown for Bourque was completed February 28, less than 24 hours ahead of the NHL trade deadline, marking the second time in four pro years that Brown changed addresses virtually at the last possible moment.

“The first time was a bit of a shock, the second time I was kind of a little more ready for it,” Brown said of his two trade experiences.  “Every year the trade deadline comes, you get a little more prepared.  It’s a little chaotic for about 48 hours, but the guys have done a great job here of welcoming me, and the coaches too.  So it’s nice to be here.

“I was excited, it’s obviously a fresh start.  Kind of funny I got traded for [Bourque], since I played with him before.  I’m really excited to be here and to be a part of the organization.”

Making the move to the Wolf Pack even more enjoyable for Brown was the presence of his old college buddy Summers, with whom Brown also played for parts of two seasons in Portland.

“I played with [Bourque] when I was at USA for two years, so I got to know him, and then I played with [Summers], my freshman year he was a senior, he was the captain,” Brown said.  “So it was a little funny coming back to see him, but he’s one of my best friends.  He’s actually standing up in my wedding, so it was nice to see him and his family and kind of have that familiar face come into the locker room to show me around.”

Beyond the personal connection, Brown has another reason for being upbeat about the move to the Ranger organization.  That is the Rangers’ positive reputation, in players’ minds, for putting a premium on talent development.

“This organization’s done a really good job of developing players, there’s always been a lot of guys that have been here and then up in New York,” Brown said.  “So I’m looking forward to obviously continuing that and trying to get up there as well.

“I’ve had a lot of experience playing against the Wolf Pack, and you see a lot of guys that I’ve played against are now up with the Rangers.  So it’s pretty well known that this organization does a really good job and takes a lot of pride in developing their players.


Callup Gives Wolf Pack’s Hrivik Extra Spark

March 10, 2016

Following is a piece I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack forward Marek Hrivik:

The Wolf Pack’s Marek Hrivik had spent more than three-and-a-half seasons, and 246 games, in the AHL before receiving his first career NHL callup from the parent New York Rangers February 21.

Hrivik had done much quality work for the Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale since coming out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the end of March, 2012, notching 40 goals and 115 points in those 246 games and handling all three forward positions, but had never been in a position to have his name called for Ranger duty.

When the call finally came, and Hrivik stepped out on to the Madison Square Garden ice against the Detroit Red Wings that night, it made all of the waiting worth it.

“It felt really good, it couldn’t get any better, first NHL game for the Rangers, in the Garden and against Detroit,” Hrivik said recently.  “It was just an unbelievable feeling.”

There was no bitterness on Hrivik’s part, either, that it took so relatively long for his NHL chance to come.

“I just knew there was a really good team up there and that a lot of guys weren’t going to get injured,” the 24-year-old Zilina, Slovakia native said.  “No injuries and a great team up there, that’s a tough way to get a callup, but I just try to play well here and obviously I got rewarded.”Action Shot for Blog - 03-10-16 - Hrivik

Hrivik did well with the reward, too, registering one assist and a +2 while averaging 8:49 of ice time in four games.  He played mostly on a line with NHL veterans Dominic Moore and Tanner Glass.

In the view of Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, even though Hrivik is now back at the AHL level, getting that first callup is great for his development as a player.

“It gives him a chance to experience the NHL pace, and to see how he fares against NHL competition in real regular season games,” the Wolf Pack’s bench boss elaborated.  “I think he played well and acquitted himself well, so that should be a source of confidence coming back to us now, and I think it was a well-deserved callup on his part.”

“I felt good out there,” Hrivik added.  “I think I was making some plays, our line played really well.  We scored two goals in those four games I’d been up there, I think we played well.  Obviously I’m here (with the Wolf Pack) now, but I’ve just got to keep working hard and hope that I’ll get the chance again.”

Now that he has finally gotten an opportunity to experience the Big Show first-hand, Hrivik is convinced that the biggest challenge to playing at that level as opposed to the AHL is less about the skill level as about reading and reacting to the play.

“It was just the thinking and making the right plays at the right time, that’s the biggest difference, I find,” he said.  “The guys are not skating faster, they’re not bigger, they’re not stronger, it’s just the decision-making and the skilled plays that you have to make, especially on the blue lines.  I think that was the biggest difference, and just to execute.”

Hrivik’s contributions to the Rangers generated positive buzz in the New York market, and he feels as though the Ranger group appreciated how he was able to fit in.

“I was getting a lot of information from the guys during the games, in the meetings and the video,” Hrivik said.  “They were telling me what to do, they helped me a lot.  And they gave me feedback, the day I got sent down I got a call from the coaches, and they said they were happy with me and just be ready for the next opportunity.”

The way Gernander sees it, the timing was perfect for the big club to make good use of Hrivik’s best attributes.

“They were looking for someone that can kill penalties and be good, sound defensively on a fourth-line role, but also I think they were looking to spice it up offensively on that fourth line,” Gernander said.  “He seemed to fit the bill in all three categories, and as advertised, I think he did a good job.”

Hrivik can also take some solace in the fact that the main reason why he was returned to the Wolf Pack was a factor beyond his control, and had nothing to do with his play.  When the Rangers acquired Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes February 28, just ahead of the NHL trade deadline, and did not lose a roster player in the deal, they needed to clear a roster spot.

Hrivik was philosophical about being back with the Wolf Pack, and is determined not to over-think.

“I don’t really know what was the situation behind that, but it’s just the way it goes,” he said.  “It’s a hard business, and sometimes you’ve got to just swallow it and just go with it.  It’s just the way it is, and they do the best they can up there to help that team to win.”

Having had that first NHL “cup of coffee” has made Hrivik extra hungry for more, and determined to keep up the AHL level of play that put him in line for the first callup.

“That gives you kind of that extra push, when you know you’re playing for something and you want to get up there and you have the chance to do it,” he said.  “It gave me a taste, and I’m going to be buzzing and just trying to earn it again.”

If Hrivik needs to enhance the “carrot on the end of the stick”, so to speak, he can remind himself of the relative luxury of the NHL lifestyle.  Traveling on chartered planes, staying in four-star hotels and enjoying the best dining that the best cities have to offer makes for a pretty nice deal.

“It’s something that you can get used to easy,” Hrivik chuckled of the perks of NHL life.  It’s just something that those guys get rewarded for how good they play up there.”

Meanwhile, back in the AHL, Hrivik wasn’t away from the Wolf Pack that long, only a week, but came back to a locker room that had just undergone a major change.  That was with captain Ryan Bourque, who was basically a contemporary of Hrivik’s in terms of Wolf Pack experience, having just been traded to Washington for fellow veteran winger Chris Brown.

“I was a little surprised, but on the other hand I want to see Bourquie do well,” Hrivik said of his reaction to the change.  “We’ve been together here since my first year, four or five years.  We’re going to miss him, for sure, he was a great leader in the room and a great player.”

Still on hand with the Wolf Pack, though, is Hrivik’s linemate Nicklas Jensen, with whom Hrivik had enjoyed excellent chemistry since Jensen’s acquisition from Vancouver January 8.  Hrivik was happy to reunite with his Danish wingman, and hopefully pick right up where the two left off when Hrivik was called up.

“He’s a really skilled guy,” said Hrivik of Jensen.  “He shoots the puck, he scores goals, so I’m just trying to create some space out there for him.  And now we’ve got [Daniel Paille] on the line too, he’s got a lot of experience from the NHL.  So I hope we’ll do well.”