by Ryan Pennington | AHL On The Beat
Ahead of a midweek matchup with Iowa, most of the Texas Stars roster hit the showers after morning skate to get on with their routine, except four: three youngsters, looking for an edge to cement their place in the lineup, and veteran Erik Condra.
“He does this a lot,” divulged Texas play-by-play voice Brian Tosti as he pointed to the 10th-year pro on the ice running tip drills. “Erik brings something invaluable in addition to his play on the ice.”
Speaking of his play on the ice, Condra is in the midst of a torrid scoring pace, having recently matched the team-record point streak set by Matt Fraser in 2012-13 with points in 11 straight games. On December 2, Condra put together a five-point game against the Chicago Wolves, propelling him near the top of the rankings in AHL scoring.
When asked about that night in Chicago, Condra snickered as if he had an out-of-body experience. “Probably back in college was my last [five-point game],” he grinned. “That was probably my first pro one. It was one of those games where everything is going right for you, and the bounces were going well.”
In the wake of a Calder Cup run in which they fell one win short of the championship last season, the Stars experienced an expected exodus as productive players earned suitors in other cities during free agency. The impact was felt just as much in the dressing room as it was on the ice with veterans Curtis McKenzie, Brian Flynn and Mike McKenna all signing with different teams.
“[Texas] lost a few guys, and I was on a team in Syracuse with a couple of young guys,” Condra said. “I kind of accepted that role of leading them and helping them become pros.”
Heading into the summer, the Stars brass put veteran leadership at the AHL level near the top of the shopping list. Based on early returns, they couldn’t have done any better in adding Condra.
“I’ve been around awhile where I’ve seen a lot of things, and I enjoy helping out and teaching,” he said. “I’ve had that pedigree of trying to help teams, help younger guys and be a leader. I think that was one of the main reason they came after me. Dallas does a great job of getting good players here and good guys. No one is pulling in their own direction. We’re all pulling the same way.”
Having spent considerable time at the NHL level with the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning, Condra and players like him are sought-after commodities for any organization. He had options in free agency, but the Stars were an easy sell.
“Austin and Dallas, two great cities. It seemed like a really great organization where they really take care of their guys and take care of their older guys with some of the little things. I also wanted to give myself another chance at the NHL, and this is one of those places I thought I had an opportunity to do so.”
Texas Stars head coach Derek Laxdal loves talking about his players, and Condra is no exception.
“Erik’s a wily vet, a seasoned NHL veteran that’s been around the circuit a little bit,” he said. “With him coming into our group this year, he’s been a great leader off the ice. He’s really taken a lot of these young guys under his umbrella a little bit and worked with them, helping them understand what the pro game’s all about. Basically, he’s a coach in the dressing room for us. He’s our voice in the dressing room.”
Overcoming injuries is a rite of passage for any team to be successful in the AHL. At both levels, the Stars have been met with the most trying of circumstances with six of their top 12 in defensive depth having spent significant time on the shelf this season. After enduring a rocky start, the Texas Stars have been playing their best hockey as of late with points in eight of their last nine games entering Tuesday, and it has coincided with Condra’s strong play. His influence in the dressing room and on the ice is paying off.
“I think that a lot of guys are on a little bit of a streak right now with a bunch of points in a bunch of games,” said Condra. “I think we have some balance in our lines now; we’ve found some chemistry and it’s worked. It makes it easy for leaders because if you have character guys in your locker room it’s easy to pull them along. All of our young guys and old guys are good character guys.”
It’s easy to say that Condra brings a wealth of experience to the Texas lineup, having played more than 350 games in the NHL and approaching 650 on the pro circuit. That experience, coupled with his affinity for teaching, makes Condra a valuable asset in prospect development while he dons the “A” as an alternate captain.
As a real pro, Condra was hard-pressed to wax poetic about his game. Leave it to Laxdal to do it for him: “We asked him to be our third-line center at the start of the season and play out of his position, and he did a good job for us. Once we moved him up with the lineup to wing, I think his line has taken off in their game and been part of our recent surge as a team.”
Whether it’s eating minutes on the top power play unit, killing penalties, taking draws or encouraging teammates, Condra is willing to do it all. He’s become an extremely important cog in the Stars’ power play machine which ranks second in the AHL.
“Our power play has been clicking so we’ve created a lot on that, and I’ve been able to reap some of those rewards,” Condra said. “I’m more of a passer than a shooter, but when Travis Morin gives you a bunch of empty nets, it’s easy to bury those. This is an offensive team, and it’s a lot of fun playing for them.”
Part of the fun for him has been being a part of the greater Austin community.
“Quality of life, for me at 32 years old, is another big part of decisions on where you’re gonna go and where you’re gonna play. Everyone in Austin’s so nice, it’s unbelievable. Everyone’s accepting of us.”
As the season continues to take shape, the Stars will continue to rely heavily on everything that Condra brings to the organization. Players love playing with him, and the coaches loving having him in the dressing room.
“He’s got some good insight,” said Laxdal. “We’re always trying to get better as coaches and better as a team. He’s a veteran guy in the room you can always bounce things off of.”
If the Stars are going to continue to make a push in the Central Division standings, they’re going to need Condra to keep being himself, which includes being a formidable player on the ice. For him, it’s very simple.
“I’ve been around enough where I can read plays. I would just consider myself a smart player that goes to the right areas and hopefully gets rewarded for it.”
Ryan Pennington is a staff writer for 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.