Chat wrap: Rochester forward Graham Mink

Rochester Americans right wing and 2010 PlanetUSA AHL All-Star captain Graham Mink stepped into the AHL Chat Room to answer fans’ questions on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

You obviously began your professional career in Portland. What are some of your memories from your four years with the Pirates? – Jane from Lewiston, Maine
I had a lot of good times in Portland. Played with a lot of good players, loved the city, and the fans are very passionate about hockey up there. Some of my good memories up there are just with the team, the guys that were there, and the support that we got from our fans.

Describe what it felt like when you were selected to be PlanetUSA’s captain at this year’s All-Star Classic, and what it meant that you’d be returning to Portland. – Rosalba from Portland, Maine
I was very surprised. The call kind of came out of the blue, you know. (AHL President & CEO) Dave Andrews called my phone, and I wasn’t really expecting it, and he asked me if I’d like to do it. I said, “Yeah, that would be an honor,” so I was pretty surprised.

And I didn’t even realize it was in Portland until I told my wife. I mean, I knew it was, but I didn’t remember probably because I was so surprised. I told my wife, and she said, “Oh, this means we get to go to Portland.” That’s actually where we met, so we were both pretty excited. It’s obviously a tremendous honor no matter where the game would be, but it’s a little extra special that it’s in Portland.

You’ve had several successful seasons in the AHL but this will be your first All-Star appearance. What are you looking forward to most about the All-Star Classic this year in Portland? – Joe from Portland, Maine
Yeah, I’m looking forward to the whole thing. I’ve talked to people who have been part of the All-Star Classic before, and they all have great things to say. They say it’s a lot of fun. I’m personally looking forward to seeing other players from other teams, guys that I’ve played with and against. I’ve got some friends who are going to be there, so I look forward to seeing them and hanging out with them, and beating a couple of them who are playing for the Canadian team.

Guys like Andrew Gordon, Alex Giroux (from last year’s Hershey team) are the guys who I’m looking forward to beating. We were a pretty competitive group, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the game.

Moving from Hershey to Rochester, you’ve now played for both of the league’s oldest and most storied franchises. What is that like, and how do the two compare in terms of their tradition? Are there any differences between the two? – Michael from Annville, Penn.
Like you said, both teams have a tremendous amount of tradition. It’s an honor to have been a part of playing in Hershey and now to be here in Rochester. Fans here, they’ve grown up with it. You’ve got people that are older now that have been coming to games their whole lives, and they expect a certain level of play both in Hershey and in Rochester. There’s that type of tradition and feel when you step onto the ice that you’re representing something a little older and more special than maybe a team that’s only been around for a few years. It’s a tremendous honor to do that, and you feel that pride when you pull the sweater on every night.

(A difference would be) just currently, where each franchise sits. You know, obviously Hershey’s had some success the last few years. Prior to that, they didn’t have a lot of success for a bit. In Rochester, the new ownership is trying to make those steps to get to where a team like Hershey is. So far, the start of the season was pretty good… we’ve had a little stretch here where things haven’t been as strong, but we’re figuring stuff out, and hopefully we’ll get stronger and the team will have success.

You obviously came from a successful Hershey team to a Rochester club which has struggled in recent years but is now back in the playoff race. What have been some of the keys to the team’s relative success so far? – Rick from Rochester, N.Y.
I think the veteran players coming to the team helped take a lot of the pressure off the younger guys. The teams they’ve had here the last couple seasons were pretty young squads in general, and that’s tough to take a 20-year-old kid and put a lot of pressure on him to be the go-to guy on a certain team. So I think when you have a team, and you sign the veteran players – guys like Chris Taylor, Mike York, Rory Fitzpatrick, Jeff Taffe – when you bring guys like that in, the younger guys can learn from them and see what it’s like. It takes a lot of the pressure off them, and allows them to play their game and to progress more as a player. When we have success, our entire team is contributing, from the older guys right down to the younger guys.

It made it a lot easier (to have a group of veterans coming at once). It’s hard for one or two players to change the tone of a team. But when you have five or six like we do here, it makes it a lot easier. I think that’s one of the reasons why the turnaround was so quick from last season to this season. When you have that veteran leadership on your team, it takes a lot of pressure of the younger guys like I said, and things can turn around quickly.

Did the appeal of coming to another of the AHL’s storied franchises play any significant role in your decision to join the Americans? – George from Syracuse, N.Y.
Absolutely. They want to win here, they’ve won championships in the past, and they want to get back to that. For me, it was important to look at a team where there might be some opportunity in the NHL, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that the team I’d be with in the (AHL) was going to have success. I didn’t want to be the only guy over 25 on the team, which is one of the reasons why I came here. Rochester, the front-office has made the commitment that they want to win, they want to bring a championship here, and that’s one of the reasons why I came.

What did it feel like when you returned to Giant Center for the first time as a member of the Americans? – Robert from Hershey, Penn.
It was tough. You know, I did it before when I was with Worcester, but it’s hard. You’ve got a lot of memories there and a lot of friends on the team. Obviously, Hershey’s a very good team. I wanted to win really, really bad. It’s funny, you play your enemies hard but I think you play your friends harder. It was nice to go back, there’s a lot of history there, the fans are passionate, and I appreciate that. At the same time, I wish we could’ve had a little better outcome.

How frustrating was it to have to battle through an injury at the same time as the team was continuing its fast start to the season? – Jared from Oxford, Mass.
Anytime you have to play with an injury it’s not fun. There are some injuries that you can play through and some that you can’t. It’s tough finding that balance. I think it’s one of the hardest things about being a professional athlete – knowing when you can go and knowing when you can’t go. And when you can’t, you have to suck it up. It’s hard to watch your teammates play, especially when things aren’t going as well. Injuries are probably one of the hardest things to deal with mentally as a player, and they’re just one of those things that you have to try and be smart about.

What was it like to win a second Calder Cup ring in Hershey last year, and how important were the Hershey fans to the team? – Salli from Harrisburg, Penn.
It was unbelievable to win it a second time. It really validated a lot of things in my mind. The first one was kind of unexpected – our 2006 team was a good team but certainly not the favorite going into the playoffs, but we got hot at the right time and everything came together. You kind of think years after, were we just lucky or part of something special?

So to go back to Hershey and play with the level of players that were there, there was the expectation to have success. It was kind of a different feeling, you know, we were the favorites going in, and there was a lot of pressure from that standpoint. I think some of that came from the fans, but also from the media. It definitely felt good, and it was nice to see the guys that hadn’t won before to have that experience and see the emotion in their eyes. It was validating to me personally, but I did hear that the third time you win it is even better, so that’s what I’m going for now.

I know each team had its own identity, but did you enjoy playing for one of your two Calder Cup-winning teams in Hershey over the other? Was either win more satisfying than the other? – Matt from Hershey, Penn.
There’s a lot of pressure when you’re kind of expected to win. In Hershey, there’s a lot of pressure to win and to succeed. It was a very satisfying feeling. I don’t know if it’s because I already won one, but it was more of a “Yeah, we did it” kind of feeling instead of a “Holy cow, I can’t believe that just happened” kind of feeling. But that could just have been because it was the second time, I don’t know.

Having been around the league for several years now, which cities have been your favorite to play in, regardless of whether or not you’ve actually been a member of that team? – Megan from Palymra, Penn.
Obviously I like playing in Portland. When we get to go back there, it’s a great city to go to. Anytime I’ve played in Hershey – I even liked playing in Hershey before, back when I was in Portland. Playing in the old Hersheypark Arena, my first year I got to play there in a game. We got killed, but it was a good thing to be a part of that. It kind of felt like old-school hockey. I also liked going out to Newfoundland to play St. John’s when they were in the league; that was a good trip to go on. Anytime you play in a Canadian city, the fans are so passionate about the game, it’s a lot of fun to play.

How excited are you about becoming a father for the first time, and do you see this changing the way you look at your hockey career? – Ronald from Dillsburg, Maine
I’m very excited. My wife’s seven months pregnant now, due on March 1st. We’re just through the roof excited. I’m nervous, too, at the same, not sure what to expect but I’m sure we’ll get through it.

I’d like to play as long as I can obviously. Having played with a guy like Bryan Helmer, and guys like Chris Taylor, and Rory Fitzpatrick, who all have kids, it’s really cool when their kids get to come and see them play. I want to play as long as I can, so maybe when my son gets old enough he can see me and watch me play. So that’s maybe how it changed me a little bit, but otherwise it’s obviously exciting. But I’m nervous.

The Americans have hit a bit of a rough patch lately after the fast start. What do you think has caused that, and what does the team need to do to regain its stride in the second half of the season? – Charlie from Rochester, N.Y.
You kind of get on a roll sometimes, and you’re winning some games that you don’t deserve to win. I think that happened a little bit toward the beginning of the year. We were playing very good hockey, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time you can kind of getting away with things. And then conversely, when things start not going so well, I think you lose some games that you don’t really deserve to lose.

When I was coached by Bruce Boudreau, he used to say, “There’s a fine line between a rut and a groove.” And it’s very true, especially in the sport of hockey. We just need to keep working on things that are causing us problems right now. We have to win more battles and get more physical. We’ve got some time here where we can practice a little bit more. I think we haven’t had a lot of time on the ice as a team practice-wise in the last month, and bad habits tend to creep in when you don’t get to practice. So hopefully, that will allow us to get back on track. Also, getting a couple players back from injury won’t hurt.