by Ethan Ross || AHL On The Beat Archive
Rochester Americans assistant captain Drew Bagnall and former Amerks defenseman Mike Hurlbut have a lot more in common than just being fellow alumni of St. Lawrence University.
The commonalities, it turns out, only begin there as the two embarked on professional careers with very similar paths that ultimately landed them both in Rochester.
Bagnall comes to the Flower City after spending the past three seasons with the AHL’s Houston Aeros. Widely regarded as one of the toughest blueliners in the AHL, Bagnall anchored a Houston defense last season that finished among the top seven in fewest goals against, while serving as team captain. Just two years prior, he guided the Aeros to their third-best finish in franchise history, culminating in a Western Conference championship and a trip to the 2011 Calder Cup Finals.
A three-time AHL All-Star, Hurlbut also had a stint in Houston, spending two years (1995-97) with the Aeros in the International Hockey League as a springboard to his arrival in Rochester, where he would soon make his home for five seasons and become the longest-serving captain in franchise history.
Before his professional career, Bagnall spent four years at St. Lawrence University, where the rugged defenseman earned a hard-nosed reputation and was coached by none other than Hurlbut, who returned to his alma mater following his retirement at the end of the 2001-02 campaign.
“Other teams hated playing against him,” said Hurlbut, who is currently in his 12th season as an associate head coach for the Saints. “He could change the momentum in a game single-handedly.”
This reputation was backstopped after the 2006-07 season when Bagnall was named the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and Best Defensive Defenseman. The same season, Bagnall also earned All-America honors, and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist. More impressively, Bagnall is just one of nine defensemen in the history of the ECAC to earn Player of the Year honors.
As a coach, Hurlbut focuses on hard work, discipline, character and being a good teammate. Bagnall’s accomplishments and reputation did not come without the discipline and hard work Hurlbut attributes to both of their success.
“I was known as a hard-working and disciplined player,” said Hurlbut, who ranks tied for fifth in scoring among all-time Amerks defensemen with 167 points in 288 career games in the red, white and blue. “Drew came to St. Lawrence with those qualities and they multiplied. And it was because of these traits that turned him into a leader for the Saints. He turned into probably the best leader I have ever seen, as a player or coach.”
These qualities continue to serve Bagnall as a pro. Now in his seventh year in the American Hockey League, the veteran blueliner attributes Hurlbut’s knowledge of the professional game in helping him become a better player, but it is his relentless focus on improvement that will always push Bagnall to work harder and get better.
“Hurls’ demeanor and how he thinks about the game is what really helped me develop,” said Bagnall, who played all four years under Hurlbut at St. Lawrence. “He was always telling us that you are never done growing, you are never good enough and you can always be better.”
Bagnall has carried this mindset to the ice, locker room and, most importantly, his leadership roles. When he arrived in Houston prior to the 2010-11 season, the captaincy had already been awarded and Bagnall was forced to become a follower, which had its own learning curve.
“In order to be a better leader, I had to learn how to be a better follower,” Bagnall said.
The decisions were no longer up to Bagnall, but they also weren’t completely out of his control.
“I wasn’t the guy making the decisions, but I was somebody trying to help reinforce the decisions made by our captain,” said Bagnall reflecting on his first year in Houston. “I took a step back and saw it through someone else’s eyes. It makes you a good person.”
Whether it’s being vocal in the locker room, or leading by example on the ice, Bagnall believes that a good leader needs his teammates to stand beside him.
“Good leaders need good followers,” said Bagnall.
Off the ice, Bagnall tries to follow Hurlbut’s ways as well.
“He (Hurlbut) knew everyone’s name who worked at the rink and he was just so happy to be there,” Bagnall said. “I’ve realized how good I have it to play hockey for a living. There’s more to it than just playing the game.”
Bagnall knows hockey is just one part of his life, but his view on the sport makes him both the player and person he is today. And, it of course always ties back to what he learned from his former coach in St. Lawrence.
“You are never good enough, you can always be better.”