by Drew Carter | AHL On The Beat
When he hung up the phone after a life-changing conversation, Adam Erne had a plane to catch — but not before he made a quick pit-stop.
“I turned around, went back, and got my gear,” recounts the 21-year-old left winger. “Headed to the mall and got a suitcase. Then went to the airport.”
Erne’s conversation was with Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman, who told his 2013 second-round draft pick that he was being called up to the NHL. Erne toted a duffel bag during his road trips with the Syracuse Crunch, the Bolts’ AHL affiliate, over the previous few years, but the step up to the big leagues required a step up in travel gear — and something that could hold a couple of suits.
“Dress for the job you want,” Erne explains. “Not the job you have.”
Erne, who began 2017 with the Lightning and recorded seven shots in four games before returning to Syracuse, is one of three Crunch regulars who has recently debuted in the NHL. Tanner Richard and Matthew Peca, each 23-year-old forwards, also played their first big-league games over the past few weeks.
For Richard, the third time turned out to be the charm in late December. The Canadian-born Swiss center had been called up twice previously, but didn’t see the ice on either occasion. Last season, Richard dressed for Tampa Bay and took warm-ups, only to be ruled out as a healthy scratch in his only NHL game. The 2012 third-round pick finally got the call again this season, and was slated to make his long-awaited debut at Edmonton on December 17.
Richard boarded an 8 a.m. flight from New York and was scheduled to connect through Minneapolis on his way to Rogers Place. He fell asleep while the plane was still on the tarmac, and when he woke up, Richard thought he was in Minnesota — only to find that the aircraft hadn’t taken off. The flight was delayed for two hours while the plane was de-iced, and by the time Richard landed in Minneapolis, his connection to Edmonton had already left. Richard returned to Syracuse, but not in time to play in the Crunch’s game against Bridgeport. Travel issues had forced him to miss two games in one day.
“There was last year’s call-up, where I just had warm-ups,” Richard said after playing with the Crunch on January 14. “Thought I looked pretty good out there in warm-ups, but I didn’t play. Then there was my second call-up, where I just went to kind of check out the airport in Minnesota and turned around.”
But Richard finally suited up for the Bolts three days later, registering one shot in 12:23 of ice time against the Red Wings. Richard’s NHL stint lasted three games, during which he played more than 38 minutes across 49 shifts.
“I was a bit of a sponge while I was up there, just kind of enjoying every moment,” Richard reflected. “That was my main focus off the ice, as a person — just kind of enjoy it. It had been something I had worked for for as long as I can remember. In 30, 40 years, talk to my kids, grandkids about it; talk about the little experiences that I had. I mean, it wasn’t a long time, but it was a good time.
“I had a bit of a whirlwind of a story to start my NHL career. My first shift was an opening faceoff, so I kind of got to stand out on the blue line during the national anthem, and that was just kind of one of those moments — that was the one that hit me, and I realized, ‘I finally made it. I’m here.’”
Peca’s debut was sandwiched between those of Richard and Erne. The 5-foot-8 center skated in nine games with the Lightning, and bookended the turn of the calendar with points in back-to-back games: Peca picked up his first NHL assist against Carolina on New Year’s Eve, then scored his first goal in a January 3 matchup with Winnipeg.
Given his success at the sport’s top level, one wouldn’t expect Peca to have been surprised to get called up — but the 2011 seventh-round pick said he was caught slightly off guard when Yzerman rang.
“It’s tough to really get a feel for what they’re thinking up there,” said Peca. “Whether or not I thought, maybe I wasn’t playing my best hockey and other guys were. Anything can happen, and it happens when you’re not really expecting it. Obviously, I was excited and grateful to get the opportunity, and I think did pretty well with it.
“I figured if I convinced myself I was [ready], then that would be the case. At the end of the day, it’s hockey.”
But Peca could relate to Erne’s packing dilemma.
“Packing was probably the most difficult thing. I didn’t know how long I was going to be there; I didn’t really know what I needed.”
Each player admits that it took some time to get acclimated to the next level, but the new uniform began to feel comfortable once they broke it in.
“I was nervous probably the whole time I was there, from start to finish,” Erne said. “It kind of goes away, I guess, when you’re on the ice — it’s worse when you’re not on the ice. You’re just thinking about it and what-not, but once you get out there, your instincts start to kick in, the butterflies go away, and it all starts to just fall into place.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL. It’s always been my dream.”