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Photo: Gregg Forwerck/AHL

‘Family’ culture set Checkers up for success

by Patrick Williams | for TheAHL.com

Charlotte Checkers captain Patrick Brown found himself caught in something of a hockey version of a long-distance relationship this spring.

After playing 70 regular-season games for the Checkers, Brown had been recalled to the parent Carolina Hurricanes on April 16. His stay would be an extended one as the Hurricanes proceeded through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Carolina pulled out a seven-game first-round series win against the defending Washington Capitals. From there the Hurricanes swept the New York Islanders in the second round to set a match-up with the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.

Meanwhile, the Checkers had their own fight to handle. They eliminated the Providence Bruins in a four-game first-round series before sweeping the Hershey Bears in the second round.

But Brown could remain confident that the Checkers had a sturdy leadership core back in Charlotte while he played eight of Carolina’s 15 playoff games. The Checkers had star forward Andrew Poturalski, who also won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. Hard-nosed veteran Trevor Carrick helped to anchor the blue line along with Dan Renouf, who had won the 2017 Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Experienced netminder Dustin Tokarski, a 2012 Calder Cup champion with the Norfolk Admirals, arrived late in the regular season from the Hartford Wolf Pack to offer standout prospect Alex Nedeljkovic some relief in net and additional mentorship. Another late addition, forward Tomas Jurco, helped to guide top rookie prospect Martin Necas. Forward Zack Stortini, a 2007 Calder Cup champion, has seen all of the ups and downs of a long pro hockey career and brought constant positivity.

“It was a well-oiled machine,” Brown said in the Charlotte dressing room after the Checkers’ Game 5 Calder Cup-clincher against the Chicago Wolves this past Saturday night.

“Playoffs are crazy,” Brown said of the emotional balancing act between competing for the Stanley Cup and being away from a group that he captained for the previous six-plus months.

“You’ve got to live in the moment. Day by day, live in the moment. When you’re in one place, your mind’s there, and when you’re another place, your mind’s there. I had a  great experience with Carolina, and it came to an early end. You’ve just got to put that in the past and get back to business.”

Carolina’s Stanley Cup Playoff run finally ended against the Bruins – just in time for the Checkers’ date with the defending Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Finals that began May 16.

Brown returned for Game 1 against the Marlies at Bojangles’ Coliseum. That haul from Carolina also yielded defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury, two more crucial pieces to take the Checkers through the final two rounds of the postseason against a pair of dangerous opponents.

Charlotte finally put away the stubborn Marlies in six games to win the Richard F. Canning Trophy as Eastern Conference champions.

But up next were the Wolves, the Checkers’ latest challenge after going through the difficult Eastern Conference gauntlet.

It became even more difficult when the Wolves rallied from a 3-1 hole in Game 1 on Charlotte ice and pulled off a 4-3 overtime win. That left the Checkers already behind in the series going into Game 2 a night later and then facing as many as three consecutive road games at Allstate Arena.

“That was an absolute wake-up call,” Brown acknowledged. “That is a good hockey team over there. You know, it was really special to play against them, and they’ve got a lot of really good players who are going to go far in the NHL.”

The series had the potential to go off-track further, especially when the Wolves again erased a 3-1 Charlotte lead in Game 2. That time, however, the Checkers managed to secure a 5-3 victory and prepare to hit the road.

“We just decided that when we got a lead in this series, we had to shut them down,” Brown explained.

Easier said than done. This Wolves club twice had refused to go away and was coming back home.

“Family,” Brown said of the Checkers’ team culture. “It’s family. You know, if you care about the guy next to you more than you care about yourself, you’re going to be set up for success for a long time.

“That’s third period of a game, 10 minutes to go, getting to the red line up a goal and saying, ‘Well, I’m going to make their D turn. I’m not going to try to make a play here,  because that’s not the play.’ You want to win a championship. You don’t care about your stats. “You know, you get that puck deep, you go and you forecheck, you hem them in their own end, and you get rewarded.”

Photo: Gregg Forwerck/AHL

 

The Checkers got their championship. They hammered out three consecutive road wins, including a come-from-behind win of their own in Game 4 after trailing 3-1 deep into the second period. Brown ended up playing 11 playoff games for Charlotte and offering five goals and five assists.

After AHL President and Chief Executive Officer Dave Andrews handed the Calder Cup to Brown, the captain quickly handled it to Stortini to boisterous cheers from their teammates. Stortini had not appeared in a playoff game, but his leadership and willingness to anything and everything needed from him – including a run doing color commentary on Charlotte broadcasts – have made him a revered figure among his teammates.

Stortini was part of that leadership core handling the Charlotte roster while Brown was away. But Stortini deflected away praise.

“Patrick Brown is incredible leader,” the veteran of 603 AHL regular-season games said. “It’s no secret that he’s one of the biggest driving forces this team, and I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of this group.

“There were so many guys who were so influential in this series. For a guy who hasn’t been on the ice a lot this year with the team, having a guy with so much character like Patrick Brown hand the Cup to me, it shows what kind of character Patrick Brown is, what a classy guy he is, what an incredible leader he is. And I am forever grateful to be on his team.”

Brown has put himself in line for more NHL work next season, but he will carry these memories.

“Man, we had a fun time, and I’m proud of these guys,” Brown said as the Checkers continued their celebration a few feet away.

Said Stortini, “I’m such a lucky individual. A lucky, lucky man to be a part of this group. And, you know, I’m speechless right now, the feeling of winning a championship.

“The Calder Cup, it’s, it’s one of those things that you remember forever. And to have everybody here, family here, celebrating it and being a part of it is an incredible feeling.”