by John Royal || AHL On The Beat Archive
It ended so suddenly.
The Houston Aeros had been so close to sending Game Six of the Calder Cup Finals to overtime: Patrick O’Sullivan’s sure game-winning shot being stopped by a Binghamton Senators player throwing himself on the ice in front of the puck and deflecting it away from the goal.
So close. So close yet so far.
And as the Senators celebrated the 3-2 win on the Aeros’ home ice, all Houston captain Jon DiSalvatore could do was watch. His face one of shock, disappointment, pain. Nine months after it all started, it was over.
But now it’s a new season, and DiSalvatore has to adjust to a few changes. Gone is last year’s head coach, Mike Yeo, who got the head coaching gig with the Minnesota Wild. Gone is his linemate O’Sullivan, who is now with the Phoenix Coyotes. Robbie Earl and all-star defenseman Maxim Noreau are now playing in Europe.
But veterans Jed Ortmeyer, Drew Bagnall and Warren Peters are back (Peters is currently up with the Wild), as are the youngsters who formed the core of last season’s team: Cody Almond, Casey Wellman, Carson McMillan, Chad Rau and Jarod Palmer.
The new head coach is John Torchetti, a veteran AHL and IHL head coach who has also worked as an assistant coach and interim head coach in the NHL. The new skaters to the team include Jeff Taffe and David McIntyre.
But the heart of the team, the leader, stays the same. Jon DiSalvatore’s still in the house.
“He’s a great veteran player,” Torchetti says of DiSalvatore. “He’s a calming influence on the young guys. He’s got a lot of poise on the ice. He’s what you want your pro to be. He comes to work hard every day in practice. He’s prepared. He’s in great shape. He’s a good voice in the locker room that you want when you close the door. It’s great to see players like that who take pride in that role. That’s why he’s the captain.”
It’s a slow process, but DiSalvatore is beginning to recover from that shock to his system that was Binghamton’s Calder Cup win.
“Once you kind of decompress after the season’s over, you realize that it was a tremendous feat to get to where we got to,” he says. “And you take a lot of pride as a group as to what kind of accomplishment that was. It was a great feeling. We had some great times. The whole playoff run was a tremendous experience, and it just really brings you close to a group of guys. It becomes a very special group in everyone’s hearts. A group of guys that no one’s ever going to forget about.”
A ninth-year AHL vet, the Bangor, Maine, native realizes that teams like last year’s Aeros squad don’t just happen every year. Those teams take more than talent. They need chemistry and hard work. Players just can’t go out on the ice and expect the magic to happen. They have to make that magic happen through solid effort, on and off the ice.
If players want to make the NHL, or want long careers, they have to realize it’s all about one thing. It’s not about the individual numbers. It’s finding that ability to win. And it’s this message that DiSalvatore discusses with his younger teammates.
“You’ve got to stress the fact that success and longevity of your career is going to come as a being a winning teammate,” he says. “There’s been a lot of successful individuals that have never been able to get as far we got last year. You see guys that win every year, that go on to have nice long NHL careers.
“Colton Gillies, Marco Scandella, Justin Falk, Jared Spurgeon, all of those guys, they’re all taking advantage of a good playoff run, and they’ve all been rewarded with a really good shot at the NHL this year. And they’re going to continue to take advantage of that.”
Right now, it’s all about winning this season, and so far, the new Aeros are mixing with DiSalvatore and the group. The squad is two points out of first place in the West Division with a record of 10-3-1-4 (25 points). And DiSalvatore, the captain, is once again racking up goals and assists. He’s leads the Aeros with 18 points (7g, 11a) and he’s among the top 20 scorers in the AHL.
But that’s not enough. Not for Jon DiSalvatore. He remembers what it was like that hot June night five months ago, and this time, he wants it ending all differently. He wants to be one of those guys celebrating on the ice after the last game of the season.
John Royal covers the Aeros for the Houston Press.