Archive for April, 2016

Wolf Pack’s Newfoundland Journey a Trip Home for Luke Adam

April 15, 2016

Here’s a piece I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack forward Luke Adam:

It took until the very end of the Wolf Pack’s regular season for Wolf Pack forward, and St. John’s, Newfoundland native, Luke Adam to get a trip back to his hometown, but that only made the return sweeter for the sixth-year pro.

“It’s awesome, I couldn’t be happier to be at home,” Adam said Thursday, as the Wolf Pack prepared for playing their final two regular-season games at Mile One Centre in St. John’s Friday and Saturday.  “You get to see a lot of friends, a lot of family, a lot of people around the rink that it wasn’t too long ago that I was coming down watching the games here.  It’s great to be back.”

Not only did the 25-year-old Adam grow up in St. John’s, he also spent a big chunk of his formative years knocking around the Mile One Centre, tagging along with his father Russ.  The elder Adam, himself a former pro player, was an assistant coach with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, the first AHL franchise to call Newfoundland home, for their last four seasons of existence.

“My dad was coaching here when I was ages 10-15,” Adam said.  “So I was the rug rat running around the dressing room, and it’s definitely cool to be back and to be able to take advantage of playing here in front of the hometown.”Adam Action Shot

A decade has gone by since Adam shared those times with his dad around the Leafs’ locker room, and pondering all that has happened since then gives him a chuckle.

“It’s crazy, the amount of things that have happened throughout my career, especially in this building,” Adam said.  “Being the kid running around the dressing room and then that team ended up leaving, and I ended up playing Major Junior hockey here for two seasons in this rink.  And then that team (the St. John’s Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) ended up leaving, and now I’m back as a visiting player.  So it’s been a full circle, that’s for sure, but it’s definitely neat.”

And even as young as he was when his dad was on the Maple Leaf staff, Adam feels that what his behind-the-scenes access allowed him to absorb has played a major role in his subsequent success as a player.

“Just being able to watch hockey as much as I did, and even having him at home, seeing his coaching preparation and teaching and that kind of stuff, it definitely helped a lot,” Adam said.  “Him and my mom have both been such big influences in my career, and it’s definitely helped to be around the game as much as I was.”

As he referenced, Adam got an up-close perspective on two different teams closing up shop at the Mile One Centre, but he sees the AHL as now being on solid footing, in its second go-round in his home city.

“I think they get great support,” Adam said of the St. John’s IceCaps, who are in their fifth season of AHL play and whose average attendance  this season is roughly 500 short of the Mile One Centre’s 6,287 capacity. “I know people love watching hockey, people are passionate about hockey around here, that’s for sure, and it shows in how well they support the team here.  It might be a bit of a distance (for visiting teams) to travel and whatnot, but at the end of the day, it’s definitely a place in the league that loves the team and loves hockey.”

After four years as a Winnipeg Jets affiliate, the IceCaps acquired a new NHL partner, the Montreal Canadiens, this offseason, a change that Adam sees as another positive for the future of pro hockey on “The Rock”, as his home province is affectionately known.

“All my buddies are either Montreal or Toronto fans, and most everyone around here is the same way,” he said.  “So I knew when the Habs decided to move their farm team here that it was going to be well supported.  It’s definitely a team that people are loyal and passionate about, which is nice and definitely helps.”

The Wolf Pack’s junket to St. John’s is actually the second leg of a longer trip, which saw them start out in Portland Sunday and then head to Toronto on Monday.  Before jetting to St. John’s, the Wolf Pack pulled off a season-saving, 3-2 victory over the league-leading Toronto Marlies in a school-day, morning-start game on Wednesday, with Adam’s 12th goal of the year midway through the second period ending up as the game-winner.  He scored that marker while centering the Wolf Pack’s fourth line between Nick Tarnasky and Tyler Brown, after several games playing either left-wing or center on the second line, alongside Nicklas Jensen and, when he wasn’t on recall to the parent New York Rangers, Marek Hrivik.

“It’s nice to be able to have four lines on any team and to be able to roll them over, like we’ve had some success doing,” Adam said.  “It’s definitely a nice feeling to be able to chip in offensively and get that goal in a do-or-die-type game.  Hopefully we can continue to do that.”

Adam has been all over the Wolf Pack’s depth chart this season, and has honed his versatility while finding himself in a number of different roles for Head Coach Ken Gernander and his staff.

“It’s definitely been a different year for me,” Adam admitted.  “I’ve been put in situations that maybe I’ve never been in before, I think I’ve played all three positions, on all four lines.  It’s been different, but whatever Ken sees me helping the team best.  He’s obviously making decisions trying to win games and put us in the best position to win.”

And wherever he is situated in the Wolf Pack’s forward group, and with whomever he is playing, Adam has tried not to change his approach.

“Obviously some little tendencies are going to change in your game, but for the most part I try to bring the same sort of energy, same sort of game,” he elaborated.  “Maybe a little bit more of a grind game with Nick and [Brown], but those guys are good players and they’re going to make plays, and they’ve shown that all year.  You just try and keep the game as simple as possible, and the same level, playing on all four lines.  That’s what we’ve had success doing, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

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Wolf Pack’s Nieves a Man of Many Talents

April 7, 2016

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on newly-added Pack centerman Boo Nieves:

Like most hockey players who advance as far as the pro level, the Wolf Pack’s Cristoval “Boo” Nieves was thoroughly wrapped up in the game from a very early age, and was blessed with extremely supportive parents who went out of their way to help him chase his dream.

That is not to say, however, that Nieves, or his mom Joanne or dad Rafael, had such tunnel vision that they were consumed by hockey and thought of little else.

In fact, the Nieves family has another passion that Boo finds nearly as rewarding as the game that earned him a college scholarship to the University of Michigan and is his chosen profession.

“Music means a lot to me,” Nieves, who majored in Music at Michigan, said in a conversation after a recent Wolf Pack practice.  “Music’s a huge part of my family, my dad’s really into music, my mom’s really into music.  I picked up the guitar when I was about 12 or 13 and then drums after that, and then piano in college, so it’s definitely something that is a passion of mine.  It’s been really fun at Michigan because it’s kind of an escape from hockey.  I kind of get two different worlds.  It’s nice to get away from hockey, go up to North Campus and play some instruments, and I’m glad I took the music route.”

That path started from an early age for Nieves, who was surrounded by an eclectic mix of musical influences at home.Nieves Action Shot

“My mom, she’s just a huge music fan,” Nieves said.  “She was always playing like Elton John and people like Boston, The Who.  It was always kind of like bumping in the kitchen in the summertime, and my dad was actually a DJ when he was younger.  So he was kind of more in the, like, electronic music.  He would make some music and mash-up songs, and I kind of grew up around that.  I started picking up some instruments, and just kind of never looked back.”

Nieves’ musical talents and level of interest are such that he has entertained thoughts of trying the music business as a second career, but not until after what he hopes will be a long and successful run as a pro hockey player

“It’s definitely something I’ve put a little bit of thought into, maybe after hockey’s done, maybe down the road take a stab at some musicianship,” Nieves said.  “But I haven’t really thought too far into it, more focused on hockey right now.”

That focus has led to the Syracuse, NY-born Nieves playing four successful years at U. Michigan, and being selected by the Wolf Pack’s parent club, the New York Rangers, in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft.  That was after two seasons at Kent School in western Connecticut, playing for coach Matt Herr, a former Michigan Wolverine and NHL and AHL player.

“It’s nice to be back in a familiar state,” Nieves said with a smile, of his return to the Nutmeg State to join the Wolf Pack.  “Kent was awesome.  Matt Herr was a huge influence on me going to Michigan, and he helped me to get there.  I speak to him every once in a while.  It’s been a really good experience ever since I went to Kent.  I’m really happy I did, it really helped set up my future at Michigan, the little things, like time management and being on your own and playing hockey.  I’m glad I started at Kent.”

After finishing at prep school, Nieves could have tried the Major Junior route, and possibly navigated a shorter route to pro hockey, but four years of playing in Ann Arbor for legendary Wolverines coach Red Berenson turned out to be a boon for Boo.

“I’m very happy, it’s been a really good experience at Michigan,” he said.  “Everything that I did there, and everybody that was there, the coaches, the staff, they’ve all set me up to be successful and to come here (to the pros).  And school-wise, I’m going to graduate pretty soon, so it’ll be nice to have a degree under my belt, as well getting to the same place (pro hockey) as I would have anyway.”

Nieves feels, too, that the preparation for pro that he received playing in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) his freshman year, and the Big-10 thereafter, takes a back seat to no other.

“I think it helped a lot,” he asserted.  “There’s been a lot of guys who have come out of those two leagues, especially in the more recent years, that have played in the AHL and even broken into the NHL, guys that I played with, like (Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan) Larkin and (Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach) Hyman and (Carolina Hurricanes winger Phil) Di Giuseppe.  Guys like that had put their time in there and had come out and had been successful.  So it’s definitely helped a lot to play against guys who were already ahead of me, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Nieves’ arrival has enhanced what was already a strong U. Michigan presence in the Wolf Pack locker room.  In addition to Nieves, Hartford veterans Chris Summers and Chris Brown are both also former Wolverines.  Although both Brown and Nieves were gone from Ann Arbor by the time Nieves arrived in the fall of 2012, he still feels a connection with his two new Wolf Pack teammates.

“It’s pretty cool to have two other guys who attended Michigan here with me,” Nieves said.  “We’ve had some good laughs about stuff we’ve done together there, and things that all the guys do when they’re at Michigan.  It’s been good to have them there, it’s nice to have some familiar faces, and it helps my transition even more.”

Nieves stands 6-3 and weighs 200 pounds, which qualifies as solid NHL size, but the attribute that has kept him among the ranks of elite prospects is his skating speed.

“I definitely feel like speed’s my best asset, especially because of my size,” Nieves said.  “Not many guys can move as quick as I can at my height.  So I definitely think that’s been a strength of my game, and growing up my coaches always would say, ‘Speed kills.  As long as you can stay ahead of the other guy, just make sure you’re doing everything at a higher pace than them, then you’ll be fine.’”

Through the first two games he has played with the Wolf Pack, Nieves has noticed a difference in the pace of play between the AHL and NCAA Division I, but it has not been as big of a jump as he thought it might be.

“It’s definitely a little faster, but I was more surprised with how strong other guys are,” Nieves said.  “You feel like you’re playing against men out there, and it’s been kind of tough at first, but I’m starting to catch on.”

In addition to foot speed, another calling card that Nieves has developed throughout his amateur career is acumen in the faceoff circle.  He credits that to the guidance of his venerable college coach, who has been helping collegians develop in Ann Arbor for three decades.

“After practice every day, Coach Berenson would make me do faceoffs,” Nieves said.  “And I’m glad he did because he would watch video on guys in the NHL and he would send them to me, guys like (Montreal Canadiens great Saku) Koivu, and he talked about just making sure you know what the other guy’s doing, more or less, and not worrying so much about where the ref’s hand is.  It’s just making sure that you’re beating the other guy.  I think the best tip he ever gave me was that I don’t necessarily have to win the faceoff, I just can’t lose it clean.”

All that work on faceoffs has already served Nieves well in AHL action, as one of two assists he picked up in his first two Wolf Pack games was as a result of winning a draw.  On that play, he set up a goal by Daniel Paille, who, along with Brown, has flanked Nieves in is first pair of pro outings.

“I think it’s gone pretty well so far,” Nieves said.  “It took me the first few periods of the first game to kind of get going and get up to speed, but Brown and Paille have been really good with me and they’ve really helped me out a lot.  They’ve made the transition definitely a lot smoother.”

For Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, Nieves’ arrival was timely, given his ability to play center and the fact that the Wolf Pack had lost veteran pivot man Travis Oleksuk to an injury.

“He’s (Nieves) given us a little bit of depth down the middle, and that was a big boost for us, given that Olie (Oleksuk) was out, gave us a little bit more flexibility,” Gernander said.  “You can certainly see that he skates well, and he picked up an assist his first night.  It’s been pretty good stuff.”

Gernander has been impressed by the 22-year-old Nieves’ approach as well, and by his ability to hit the ground running.

“He’s just joining us, so it’s not like he’s had all kinds of time to get acclimated to things,” Gernander said of Nieves.  “I’m sure there’s a little bit of adrenaline working in his favor, but a guy that’s doing things, making plays, being proactive, certainly that’s the mindset you want to have.”

Nieves and fellow recent Wolf Pack addition Steven Fogarty, a product of the University of Notre Dame and a third-round selection by the Rangers in 2011, are hoping to follow in the footsteps of defenseman Brady Skjei, who earned a callup to the Rangers April 5.  A year ago at this time, Skjei was in the same position as Nieves and Fogarty are in now, that is, a high-round Ranger draft pick right out of college, just getting his feet wet with the Wolf Pack.

“Brady’s a guy that we’ve known for a few years now and one of the first guys we said hi to when we got here, and it was definitely the most familiar face,” said Nieves.  “He was kind of helping us, guide us around here, making sure we know what we’re doing and making sure we know what’s going on.  I’m glad for him that he got called up, that’s really cool, and I wish him the best of luck.”