Checkers turn to Dalpe for leadership

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📝 by Patrick Williams

For Geordie Kinnear and Zac Dalpe, this season with the Charlotte Checkers represents a new start in a familiar home.

Kinnear called the Queen City his hockey home for six seasons between 2010 and 2016, serving as an assistant coach with head coaches Jeff Daniels and Mark Morris. Kinnear departed the Carolina Hurricanes organization in 2016 when the Florida Panthers hired him as head coach of the Springfield Thunderbirds.

When Dalpe last skated in Checkers colors, he did so as a Carolina 2008 second-draft pick who acclimated quickly to the pro game after two seasons at Ohio State. Dalpe picked up 62 goals in 171 regular-season games spanning three seasons with the Checkers between 2010 and 2013, also skating in 41 games with the Hurricanes.

Five years later, Kinnear is back with the Checkers and among the AHL’s senior head coaches in his sixth season. And eight years after departing, Dalpe returned to Charlotte this month now as a 31-year-old married father of three. That move back to Charlotte came with a new affiliation after Dalpe signed with Florida in the offseason.

“I wasn’t with [my wife] when I was [in Charlotte then],” Dalpe explained. “So bringing her back with three kids now, I didn’t know what the suburbs were, so now I’m getting to learn all that of Charlotte, the old-guy side. It has been very sentimental. It’s like walking down memory lane, and it’s been very good so far.”

Charlotte’s strong fan base and sturdy operation make the Checkers an attractive affiliation for NHL organizations and their players. So when an affiliation opportunity with Charlotte opened in 2020, the Panthers jumped at the possibility to have an AHL partner close to home and easily accessible by air to South Florida.

Those plans have taken on a few wrinkles since the Florida-Charlotte union became official in September 2020. Charlotte opted to sit out the 2020-21 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic, delaying Florida’s move and leading the Panthers to split the Syracuse Crunch last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then Florida gained some company with the Checkers this past summer when the Seattle Kraken came aboard to form a dual affiliation with the Checkers. Seattle prospects are expected to be with the team’s new AHL affiliate in Palm Desert, Calif., next season following the Coachella Valley Arena’s completion.

That set-up leaves Kinnear and new assistant coach Dan Bylsma with plenty of work to do in bringing the two NHL organizations together. After an opening-night road loss to the Hershey Bears on Saturday, the Checkers took a 4-1 win Sunday evening against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

“I think it’s important that everyone understands we’re the Charlotte Checkers, not two separate entities,” Kinnear said.

One of the Checkers’ first steps toward that goal was appointing Dalpe captain last week. Dalpe taking that role gives Charlotte a proven, charismatic figure in the dressing room and on the ice to bridge the two NHL organizations in Charlotte.

“If you look at Zac,” Kinnear said, “he was there from day one with the Charlotte Checkers as a young kid coming in, through the ups and downs in the American League, and earned the right to play in the National Hockey League through work ethic, compete. Obviously you have to have the talent, too, but if I’m a young player, and I want to look up to somebody, I’m probably looking up to that guy.

“So it’s just a natural progression for him, and I’m excited to be able to work with him to be able to again build a winner in Charlotte.”

Now Dalpe and the rest of the Checkers will start forging the internal ties needed with a dual affiliation.

“I think the way I look at it in a positive light is you get to cheer for two teams,” Dalpe began. “For me, I’m a hockey purist, so I like to see what situations guys are put in, and it’s just double that [with two NHL affiliates].

“I think the tighter you are as a group as far as bonding and friendships you form, I think the better off you’ll be. And ultimately that’s out of your control. You can’t control what happens up there, and now it’s on two teams, so I just think you have to take the good with the bad and go from there. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s something that I’ve never been in before, so I’m kind of navigating around it. This many years in my career, you learn something new, so it should be interesting.

“You can break down those barriers pretty quickly, and I think that I have had a knack for doing that. I’ve had a knack for not having cliques on a team. I think if you’ve looked in my journey, especially as a leader (Dalpe served as captain of the Cleveland Monsters from 2019-21), I think my niche is that. I know there are not going to be cliques. There will never be cliques on the team that I’m fortunate enough to lead.”

This Friday night the Checkers are back home at Bojangles’ Coliseum once again. Hershey will provide the opposition for the first Charlotte home date since March 11, 2020.

As Kinnear continues to figure out a winning formula, he will rely on a veteran like Dalpe on the ice as well. The center is a proven AHL sniper, having reached 20 or more goals three times, including 33-goal performance in only 55 games with Cleveland in 2018-19.

Kinnear started the season with Dalpe on a top line between Florida 2018 second-rounder Serron Noel and Seattle prospect Carsen Twarynski. While Noel and Twarynski have strong NHL possibilities, Dalpe has his own NHL plans with 153 regular-season NHL games to his name. That personal objective will something that he uses in his Charlotte leadership role.

“For me after all these years, I’m still looking to get to the NHL,” Dalpe said. “But when you’re here, you’d better play. Not everybody has that illustrious career where they got drafted, and they go straight to the NHL. For me, I’ve played NHL games for 10 years, and [if] I can show kids that, ‘Hey, it’s a very unorthodox way to piece together some games, but you can still do it,’ that’s what I want to do.

“I mean, I’m a competitive guy. I want to push myself and see what I have. I think if I can show these kids, ‘Hey, you could be nine years into a career and still be called up,’ it keeps the lights on, you know what I mean? You still have that NHL feel. You still have that NHL experience.

“I think that’s there’s value, for sure.”