Baumgartner honored by AHL Hall of Fame call

📝 by Patrick Williams

Nolan Baumgartner reconnected with his playing roots when he signed on as an assistant coach with the Manitoba Moose last July.

Now the 46-year-old Baumgartner’s AHL accomplishments will be made permanent when he enters the league’s Hall of Fame. His enshrinement follows 16 seasons of pro hockey in which he put together one of the finest careers in AHL history. Skating in 878 AHL games as a dominant blueliner who could blend both offensive finesse with the rugged toughness required by the era in which played, Baumgartner finished with 390 points (83 goals, 307 assists).

Even so, receiving the news took him aback.

“It was quite shocking, actually,” Baumgartner said of being told the news of his induction.

Baumgartner was chosen by AHL Hall of Fame Selection Committee, joining fellow Class of 2022 enshrinees Keith Aucoin, Dave Creighton and Bill Torrey. Long-time AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews will represent the Class of 2021 and also be inducted Monday at Théâtre Marcellin-Champagnat in Laval.

“After it sunk in, I mean, it’s a huge honor,” Baumgartner continued. “For me it’s just such an honor just to be recognized with all these other great players.”

Baumgartner had two turns with the Moose (including two stints as captain), extended tenures with the Norfolk Admirals and Portland Pirates, and also represented the Philadelphia Phantoms, Iowa Stars and Chicago Wolves. While Baumgartner never got a chance to lift the Calder Cup as player, he was with Manitoba for a hard-fought six-game battle against the Hershey Bears in the 2009 Calder Cup Finals. And taken 10th overall in the 1994 NHL Draft, by the Washington Capitals, he also played 143 games in that league, including a full season for the Vancouver Canucks in 2005-06.

“Just being able to stick it out [is a source of pride],” Baumgartner said. “I mean, my dream was always playing the NHL. I learned many lessons there (in the AHL), not just only on the ice but off the ice.

“The later I got in my career, I took a different role where it was more being a mentor and knowing that I was young once like a lot of the players coming in. I wanted to pass on some of those lessons on how to play the game. And not even on the ice, but how to treat people and do the right things off the ice.”

Those lessons were also informed by Baumgartner experiencing the hockey business from several angles. He entered the pro game as a top-tier prospect coming out of a Western Hockey League dynasty with the Kamloops Blazers. But a serious shoulder injury during his rookie 1996-97 season in the Washington organization sidetracked his progress early. He ended up only playing 18 games with the Capitals and found himself traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in July 2000.

But Baumgartner also lived the hockey life of a player getting older and battling for a contract each year. He ended up on waivers at multiple points during his career and was claimed three times. He finally broke through as a full-time NHL regular in 2005-06 with the Canucks and then signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. Eventually he landed back in the Vancouver organization in 2008 in a move that brought him back to the Moose again.

“The whole thing,” Baumgartner said of his spectrum of experiences. “Being a high draft pick, the pressure going into training camps. Trying to make teams. Getting sent down. You learn a couple hard lessons real quick.

“But it was all about how you handled [those lessons]. I was brought up a certain way. There’s going to be adversity, and you just have to fight through those things. I had some really good coaches early on in my career that understood what a young draft pick goes through, especially a high one when they get sent down.”

During that first season in Portland, he dislocated his shoulder in practice just eight games into the season. That injury required surgery, and he ended up needing additional surgery on his other shoulder and missed the rest of the season.

“That’s a rough kind of introduction to the pro world,” Baumgartner remembered.

But Pirates head coach Barry Trotz had Baumgartner remain with the team rather than head back home for the season, something that allowed Baumgartner still to take in early pro experiences while rehabilitating after the surgeries.

“Just to be around that environment I thought was really good for me,” Baumgartner said of his AHL rookie season.

Mentors like Trotz shaped Baumgartner. Don Hay (“like a father”) was his head coach in Kamloops. Then Trotz guided him through that rookie season with Portland. When Baumgartner found himself battling for his career after going to the Chicago organization, Trent Yawney led him through that period with Norfolk. Long-time Moose and Winnipeg Jets executive Craig Heisinger “had a huge influence.”

Those influences set up Baumgartner for his next step in hockey — moving behind the bench. He retired after spending the 2011-12 season with the Wolves and immediately went into the coaching business with the Vancouver organization. He went on to spend five seasons teaching Vancouver’s AHL prospects with the Wolves and later the Utica Comets.

His coaching work with both Chicago and Utica eventually brought him to Vancouver, where he headed in 2017 and went on to spend five more seasons as a Canucks assistant coach. When he found himself on the hunt for a job last summer, going back to Winnipeg made sense. He holds strong ties to the city and True North Sports & Entertainment, the group that owns the Jets, Moose, and Canada Life Centre. His family likes Winnipeg, and the move felt right.

That 2009 Calder Cup run with the Moose late in his career ranks as a top career highlight for Baumgartner. Up against the powerhouse Bears, the Moose pushed Hershey hard, and both buildings were “electric” for players chasing a Calder Cup, Baumgartner remembers.

Working with the Moose has afforded Baumgartner a chance to expand his coaching repertoire. Head coach Mark Morrison has Baumgartner guiding the team’s forwards and working on the team’s power play.

“It really helps you grow as a coach,” Baumgartner said of taking on this new role.

For more than 25 years, Baumgartner has been trying to master the pro game as both a player and coach shaped by his time in the AHL.

Said Morrison of Baumgartner, “His experience in this particular league, I think it’s crucial, and it’s been a huge help not only for me but for all the players.”