Chat wrap: Manitoba’s Nolan Baumgartner

Manitoba Moose defenseman and 2010 Canadian AHL All-Star captain Nolan Baumgartner stepped into the AHL Chat Room to answer fans’ questions on Monday, Jan. 11.

Describe what it felt like when you were selected to be the Canadian captain at this year’s All-Star Classic, and what it meant that you’d be returning to Portland. – Jim from Portland, Maine
First of all, I was surprised and then very honored after the selection. To be returning to Portland after all these years… I started my career there, played my first four years of pro hockey there. Not only am I excited to get back into the city, but just to get back and see some of the great fans that were around when I played there that are obviously still there. It’s a place where I not only started my career, but actually turned into an adult, where I had to do things on my own – pay rent, find a place to live, all these other things that you had to do in everyday life besides just playing hockey. So it was an experience, and I’m looking forward to getting back.

What are some of your memories from your early playing days in Portland when you began your professional career? – Greg from Lewiston, Maine
I had a lot of good memories playing hockey, but I think I’ll just touch back on having to grow up and become an adult. (To go in there) and be in a city for four years, having to do all these things and learn how to be a professional not only on the ice but also off the ice. Those are some of the big memories that I have, being a young guy and breaking into the league. You take your lumps and go through these learning processes along the way, and I’m glad I did it in that city.

As someone who has been through the AHL All-Star Classic before, what are some of the things you’re looking forward to about the event? – George from Manchester, N.H.
Well, I think the biggest thing is just going in and playing with guys that you play against all year… and that you’ve played against in the past. You grow to respect a lot of the players around the league, some of the older guys obviously that have been there and that you’ve played against. (It’s nice) being able to kind of just have a night off where it’s all fun, where you go out there and enjoy yourself. It’s for the fans, and for us to go out there and have some fun, and I really look forward to that part of the game.

What was your draft day experience like back when you were selected 10th overall by the Washington Capitals in 1994? – Bryce from Kenora, Ont.
I’m sure any kid who’s been to experience the draft, it goes by in a blur. I remember it was in Hartford, getting into Hartford the day before and going into meetings with nine or 10 teams, getting grilled with questions about your family, your teams… It was a pretty neat experience going through that. Then the next day, just being at the draft (is exciting). You have a bit of an inkling that you’re going to go in the first round, and it was an exciting time.

I didn’t even know I went 10th overall, I thought I was 12th or 13th – I was so excited, that’s where I thought I was picked. It was quite a bit of a blur, but a great experience looking back on it just being there as a young guy and having to go through that with all these general managers and scouts that you’ve met along the way; being in a room with all of them and answering questions from them was one of the bigger experiences of my life.

Did the fan support and first-class facility in Winnipeg play a big role in your decision to return to the Moose organization in 2008? – Nick from Winnipeg, Manitoba
It was huge. I think the fans here in Winnipeg here are great… Ever since the Moose have been a part of Winnipeg, they’ve supported us, and it was a big factor in coming back. Not only that, but also the organization, and how my wife and I were treated when I played here before. That was a huge factor in our decision to return to the city.

We lived here before; we had a house, sold it, but when we came back we immediately bought another one and put our roots down again because of the people. They don’t have “Friendly Manitoba” on their license plates just for looks. The people here are great, and that’s a big factor in why we moved back.

What was the experience like going all the way to the Calder Cup Finals with Manitoba last year? – Tim from Worcester, Mass.
It was great, something that I’ve never experienced before, and to go through that grind… You hear about pro hockey players talking about that every year, about winning championships and having to go through the process to do it. It was fun to do that, just to see how guys reacted in certain situations, how much adversity we had to go through, guys playing hurt, giving it their all night in and night out to win a championship. It was a great experience to be a part of that. To come up on the short end of the stick was a little bit disheartening, and we still have a bad taste in all of our mouths about it, but overall it was just a great time. It was fun to play that fun into the summer, and to be part of it.

There have been years where I haven’t made the playoffs, and to be home and watching guys play, it (stinks). To be around this far into my career and at least get a chance to play for the Cup and to go that far, it was a great experience, and hopefully I get to do it again.

Can you talk a little bit about your new teammate Sergei Shirokov and what he has meant to the Moose so far this season? – Yura from Moscow, Russia
Sergei’s been great for us so far. Not having played over here, sometimes that’s a big change for those guys. (And) not speaking the language too well… I can’t imagine how the guys handle it going over there, when everybody speaks Russian and you don’t have a clue what anybody’s talking about.

(He’s a) great kid, great attitude coming in here, obviously after he got sent down by the Canucks. He came down here, and he works extremely hard every day and plays hard for us. He’s a very good player, and he’s going to be in the NHL someday. I don’t think he’ll be in this league for long.

He definitely deserves to be on the All-Star team. He’s shown great perseverance here in the first half of the year, having to come over and adapt to a different lifestyle. He’s done very well with that, not only off the ice but also to bring that on the ice shows a great deal of perseverance.

As a player who has played in both the AHL and NHL over the course of your career, what are some of the main differences between the two leagues? – Bryce from Kenora, Ont.
Well I think you’ve got the best of the best that are up in the NHL. Just being up there, that’s a very special league to be in, and you have to a special player to play there. Those guys show it night in and night out, the consistency that they bring to the table every day is something that makes you an NHL player.

It’s great to have a league like the American League for guys to develop that consistency, and I think that’s the biggest factor in guys getting to play in the NHL. When you have your rookies coming out of juniors, it’s a big step for them to come play against men. You can play up until you’re 20 (years old) in juniors, and then you step in and you’re playing against a lot of guys who are over 30 years old. So it’s a pretty big step for those guys, and to be able to come to the rink and bring your “A” game every night, it’s a tough thing to do at first, and (the AHL) is a good learning experience for those guys.

What were some of your favorite parts about growing up in the Calgary area? – Evan from Winnipeg, Manitoba
Calgary holds a close spot in my heart. I was born and raised there. I grew up in the Northwest playing hockey and then moving on from there. Great memories all around. I have a lot of friends who are still in the city there, my parents still live there, and I try to get back there when I can to see all those people. It was a great spot to grow up in, Calgary’s a great city… You’re an hour away from the Rocky Mountains, so if you want to get away from the city, you can go there.

As a defenseman, what are some of the most important things for you to work on to improve your game? – Bryce from Kenora, Ont.
Two major things for me that I try to work on… (One is) keeping my foot speed up. Guys seem to get bigger and faster, and you don’t want to keep those bone-crushing hits anymore, so I think that’s one of the main things. I also work a lot on shots from the point, getting them through. There are all the penalties now with interference and all that, so guys tend to block a lot more shots now. So trying to get shots through from the point is a big thing that I work on and all our defensemen work on here.

We work a lot on getting the puck from down in the corner, hard pass up, walk the (blue) line a little bit, and then get your shot through with traffic in front. We do a lot of that in practice, and try and work throughout the year to improve on that.

Have you taken on more of a veteran leadership role on the Moose over the past few years, and how well have you embraced that? – Jared from Oxford, Mass.
Now (that I’m) getting along in my career, 14th-year-pro, I’ve played about 130 or so games in the NHL. It’s still a dream of mine to play in the NHL, but now I’ve turned a little bit more of my focus on being a leader here. I’ve embraced it, I love doing it, I love coming to the rink and trying to show the younger guys how to be a professional on the ice.

Not only on the ice, but off the ice also. We do a lot of stuff here in Winnipeg in the community, and I think that’s an important thing to do when you’re a professional athlete, especially with the kids. They really look up to us as role models, being a hockey player. There are a lot of young hockey players in this city, and they all go to the games, they know who you are, and I think it’s really important as young guys to understand that when you come in here – it’s not only your job to play hockey, but to be a good citizen here in the city, and to show these young guys how they’re going to have to do it when they eventually become pro hockey players.

What has it been like playing with a guy like Mike Keane, someone who has obviously had tremendous success at the NHL level and who has returned to Winnipeg to play for the last several seasons? – Kevin from Boston, Mass.
It shows a lot. He doesn’t have to play hockey anymore, but he obviously plays for the love of the game. It’s been great playing with him. I’ve known Mike for a number of years going back to when he played for Vancouver. I never got the chance to play with him for a long time there, and then coming back to the Vancouver organization I’ve gotten a chance to play with Mike.

To see the professionalism that he comes to the rink with every day… Going back to the consistency factor – he brings it every night, and I think that’s a great thing for the young guys to see. He doesn’t even have to play hockey anymore, but he still comes to the rink because he loves the game. He plays hard, he’s a professional through and through, and that’s a great thing for these young players to see.

The Moose have kind of had an up and down season to this point… Talk a little about how the season has played out so far, and do you think the team has a chance to get it together and make another deep playoff run? – John from Winnipeg, Manitoba
Looking forward I do think we have something to get a good run going here in the second half. It’s what we’re going to have to do. We look at the standings every day, and every team is jumbled up there, and it’s going to be a dogfight to the end there.

First half, yeah we had our ups and downs. Not making any excuses, but the American Hockey League is built on developing players, and guys are getting called up and down all the time. We had a lot of that here the first half of this year – we had a rash of injuries that we had to deal with, and numerous call-ups. When you get that sort of thing going, it’s hard. You get brand new guys coming in and out of the line-up every night, it’s sometimes hard to get your core together and to gel as a team out on the ice. We didn’t have a problem doing that off the ice – we do a lot of team-building and that kind of stuff – but on the ice it’s pretty tough when there are brand new guys every night.

So hopefully we can get more of a consistent line-up here going into the second half, and yeah, I definitely think we can make another run in the playoffs.