by Paul Ryan | AHL On The Beat Archive
November 3, 2015. Another day of practice ends for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but this is not a normal day of practice. All 25-some-odd skaters on the ice – coaches and all – form a funnel near center ice for one player to skate through while they whack away at his shin pads. On this day, that player is Matt Carkner.
What did Carkner do to deserve this treatment? It’s his 35th birthday, and it’s tradition among the players and coaches to swing away at the birthday boy.
Just a short while ago, Carkner was unsure if he’d still be playing at this age. The veteran defenseman sat out most of last year after back surgery before being sent to Bridgeport by the New York Islanders. He’s also had four knee surgeries that have tried to slow him down, but haven’t kept him from playing the game he loves.
“Obviously it has its challenges, being 35 in a young man’s league, but I feel pretty good,” Carkner says. “With any player, you have ups and downs, but I’m happy with the way I feel. [Sound Tigers head coach] Brent Thompson runs tough practices and he’s demanding. For me to be able to keep up with the volume, I’m happy with that. I’m just here to help the team win in any way, so when I’m in the lineup I’m good to go.”
This past summer, Carkner signed a two-year American Hockey League deal with the Sound Tigers after playing 19 games with the team in 2014-15. It was a little different than the three-year deal he inked with the Islanders in July of 2012, but he wanted to come back and play hockey. With Islanders general manager Garth Snow, the two devised a plan on how to get Carkner back on the ice.
“I didn’t want to end my career with an injury,” Carkner said. “I talked with [Snow] in the summer and came up with this idea of player-coach. I want to stay in the game after hockey but I also want to continue my playing career, so player-coach was a cool way to ease into life after hockey.”
For Thompson, it was an easy decision to bring Carkner back.
“The biggest thing is his leadership,” Thompson says. “Leadership and character are so valuable, especially to a group of guys that are this young. We have a young defense for the most part, so to have that leadership on the back end and a guy that’s not going to hang his head whether he’s in or out of the lineup, he approaches every day like a true pro.”
The oldest defenseman on the Sound Tigers roster outside of Carkner is Kevin Czuczman at age 25. Besides Czuczman, Carkner and Scott Mayfield, the four remaining Bridgeport defensemen were all born in 1994. One of those young blueliners is Ryan Pulock, a youngster still looking to make his NHL debut and learning plenty from the wily vet.
“Whether it be on the bench during the game with a little play or out there during practice, he’s just there to help with pointers,” Pulock says. “He’s been around – he’s seen it all. It’s been big to have him around. Plus he’s a genuinely nice guy and easy to get along with.”
Carkner has been around the AHL basically since the turn of the century, making his professional debut during the 2001-02 season with the Cleveland Barons. The game has changed quite a bit since his rookie season, when he “used to be able to grab a guy and hold him in the corner for like a minute.” The rule changes have affected his game in more ways than one.
“For me, I was there when the changes were implemented and it was tough on a lot of big d-men,” Carkner says. “It’s changed in every kind of aspect. How it’s young as well. I’m one of the oldest guys in the league. My first year I think we had at least three 30-plus year olds, but now it’s a young league and more of a developmental league so it’s a lot different.”
Not only has Carkner made his presence felt on the ice, but off it as well. Few players have done more in the community than Carkner, best showcased when he won the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award in 2006-07 for service to the local community while with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Still, Carkner remains modest about his community efforts, claiming “hockey players have a lot of time on their hands” and that “it’s nothing special I’m doing.” But whether it’s at the holidays with Big Brothers Big Sisters or with his new friends with Southern CT Storm Special Hockey, Carkner is always the first to volunteer.
“It always puts a smile on my face to give back and help out,” Carkner says. “It’s always something simple. We’re not doing anything crazy, it’s just little things we can help out with. For my family and my kids especially, I like to show them it’s an easy thing to do to be involved in the community and give back to the community in any way you want. You get more out of it than what you’re giving.”
Those kids of his, Chase (9) and Corbin (8), are also helping out in the Sound Tigers locker room. It’s one of the perks of still playing at age 35, that his boys can be a part of a professional hockey locker room.
“It’s really cool. Over the past few years, my kids were young but they got to see me play in the NHL. They remember it and they were always part of the locker room. They’re always happy to be here and be with the guys.
“Now it’s great because they have jobs. They’re working on the glove dryer taking gloves from guys in between periods, they’re doing water bottles, they’re cleaning the benches after the game and it’s instilling a bit of a work ethic in them and they get to enjoy being part of the team.”
Matt also coaches the boys teams, too. Even though he’s a professional, Matt is still just treated like a normal dad when his kids reject his advice because “they already know everything” he says with a smile. Still, Carkner just likes to sit back and appreciate getting the time to watch his kids play.
“I enjoy just being out there with them,” Carkner says. “It’s fun to watch them grow and develop.”
Matt Carkner didn’t want to go out with an injury. At 35 years old, he’s showing his sons what hard work and perseverance is all about. Whether it’s on the ice or off the ice, Carkner wants to make sure his last few seasons are memorable ones.