There will be no more Hartford Wolf Pack hockey until October, but a Wolf Pack presence is still very much a factor in the hockey world. That is because a crew of ten Wolf Pack regulars from this season is still active, practicing as “black aces” for the parent New York Rangers. That list includes goaltender David LeNeveu, forwards Ryan Bourque, Marek Hrivik, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg and Darroll Powe, and defensemen Conor Allen, Tommy Hughes, Dylan McIlrath and Danny Syvret.
For those who might not know, the term “black ace” refers to a playoff extra, a “taxi squad” guy who is on hand for NHL playoff depth. An NHL team’s black aces will only get a chance to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game if the big club gets hit by a run of injuries, but they practice throughout the postseason run in case they are needed.
According to legend, calling these players black aces can be attributed, as can so many famous things in hockey, to Eddie Shore, who supposedly referred to players on his Springfield Indians clubs who had fallen out of favor, and needed to work their way back into his good graces, as the team’s “black aces”. That apparently comes from a poker term, the “Dead Man’s Hand”. That was the array of cards that famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok held at the point when he was shot and killed—a pair of eights, the jack of diamonds and the two black aces.
Despite that rather morbid name background, the experience of being a black ace is a positive one, according to Pack head coach Ken Gernander, who is running the black aces through their practice paces at the Rangers’ MSG Training Center in Tarrytown, NY, along with assistants Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller. With fewer players on the ice, the coaching experience is even more enjoyable than the routine of the season.
“It’s fun,” Gernander said after the first taxi squad workout, which was four days after the Wolf Pack’s season ended. “I like coming to the rink, I like working with players, and I think in this environment, because it’s a smaller number and there’s no game on the imminent horizon, meaning the next day or what have you, you get to take a different tack. You get to know the guys a little better, a little bit more intimately. Also, I think you can break things down or isolate certain things on an individual basis that gives them something to work for while they’re staying in top physical shape.
“It’s a fun experience for us (coaches) because you get to know them a little better in a small group, with no game to play later that night or three-in-three (three games in three days) on the weekend or anything like that. It’s nice for us to get to work with them and break it down even on a smaller scale, and to get to know them even better.”
The organization has the black aces set up as a totally separate entity from the roster that is playing, as the Ranger club is holding its practices at Madison Square Garden. From the perspective of the black aces, as articulated by McIlrath, that makes things easier.
“You can stay out of the way and just do your business,” he said. “We can put in a good day’s work here (at the Training Center) and not worry about having to get out of the way of the big guys. All the guys have the same mindset, we all want to still get better here and stay ready.”
Everyone throughout the Rangers’ chain is obviously hoping for a long playoff run by the Blueshirts, and that would involve the black aces spending an extended period of time in their practice mode.
“It’s going to be a challenge, just to stay ready, but we’ve got to have a little fun with it and keep it light,” McIlrath said. “I know the coaches will do a good job, just to throw in little mini-games to keep our spirits up and also put in all of the work that is needed.”
Gernander is quick to point out that if one or more of the black aces is needed for the NHL lineup, he will be given ample time to switch from practice-only mode and get his “game face” on.
“It happens fast, but it doesn’t happen in a New York minute,” the Wolf Pack head man said, making an apt pun. “As long as they stay in physical condition and things like that, and then maybe something transpires where, ‘listen, we’re going to need your services,’ they don’t get called at 5:00 to be there for a 7:00 game. They usually give them a day or two’s practice, or they would certainly know the night before they’ve got a game, and then they just prepare mentally like they would any other game during the season. So from our end of things right now, we’re just keeping them physically ready, and they’re disciplined guys, they’re professional guys, and really it’s not that big a task to keep them motivated.”
The physical-readiness standpoint involves full, crisply-paced workouts, with only about half of a normal roster on the ice. That means not much rest between drills, which prompted McIlrath to quip, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, after the first practice, “I felt bad for ‘Lenny’ (LeNeveu) there, he had a lot of shots. It’s a little different, I’ll have to let ‘G’ (Gernander) know there’s half as many guys, so take ‘er easy.”
Gernander took this in the spirit in which it was intended, and promised, “It’ll ebb and flow, and we have days off built in for recovery, both physical and mental. And a lot of these guys have been through the rigors of a pretty long, 76-game (AHL) season, and they’re probably a little big banged up and beat up, but you want them to stay ready if the call should occur or the need arises, and it’s a great experience for them.”
McIlrath, who was part of the Rangers’ playoff taxi squad last spring as well, has found the experience somewhat different this time around.
“Last year we were coming off of a little bit of a disappointing end to the (AHL) season,” the former Ranger first-round pick explained. “We had a tough way out because we had a chance right to the very end (to make playoffs), but this year we finished off really strong and it was really positive. It’s a little more fun coming this time and I’m looking to make the most of it.”
The Rangers’ first-round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers developed, not surprisingly, into a gritty, physical, hard-pounding affair. That fits right into McIlrath’s m.o., something that he admits is in the back of his mind.
“Obviously it’ll be a very physical series, so anything can happen and I’m just trying to stay ready,” McIlrath said of the Ranger-Flyer battle. “You try and stay out of the way of the big guys up here, but I’m looking forward to making the most out of this time.”