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Gernander’s “C” is for captain, class

In his 10th season in the organization, ninth as team captain and seventh in Hartford, Ken Gernander is as familiar a face as there is in the AHL. Only Brian Leetch is a more senior member of the New York Rangers organization.

Gernander left the Winnipeg system and signed with the Rangers on July 4, 1994, about three weeks after the Stanley Cup came to Broadway for the first time since 1940. Now an organizational stalwart with the ever-changing Blueshirts, signed fresh off a late spring of his own, a Calder Cup finals run with the Moncton Hawks.

His Rangers’ stint means Gernander and his young family have been able to avoid the ups and downs of bouncing from team to team, from league to league. There has been no need to make the move to Europe, not with a National Hockey League organization that has seen fit to keep him around for 10 years.

“It’s been a really great for me,” said the three-time AHL All-Star. “The organization has really treated me well. If you’re an American League player, that’s really important and a great benefit.

“I don’t know what it is they see in me, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to come to the rink everyday. It’s been a great situation for me.”

All these years later, Gernander hit his latest milestone, recording his 600th AHL point on Feb. 7. Typical of Gernander, he was unaware of the impending mark until he closed to within a few points of it.

“I guess I wasn’t aware of it right up until they told me. I’d just as soon get a win. It just comes at a funny time in the schedule, when we’re not necessarily hitting on all cylinders. It hasn’t been a distraction at all, and only a few guys in the dressing room even know about it.”

The 600 points are the by-product of a consistent scoring touch over parts of 13 AHL seasons. He racked up 35 goals in 1997-98, his first Hartford season, and set a career high with 44 tallies with the Binghamton Rangers in 1995-96.

But need a defenseman in a pinch? Gernander has done that as well. He stepped into Hartford’s defensive rotation in January, when head coach Ryan McGill‘s club found itself mired in a stretch of 21 games in 37 days that began in late December. Injuries and recalls to New York left the Wolf Pack severely shorthanded.

“It was a good learning experience for me,” said Gernander, whose only previous experience on defense was a weekend stint last season. “I took a lot of pleasure in it.”

And of course, Gernander has been a solid captain over the years, guiding Hartford to the Calder Cup championship in 2000. The leadership burden has fallen on him all that much more, particularly given the Rangers’ struggles and turnover in recent seasons.

Gernander comes with the reputation of solid captain, a solid citizen, a solid player, one who places his own numbers off to the side. Among the AHL’s most gracious personalities, Gernander spoke for this piece minutes after a hard-fought 3-3 tie in Philadelphia with a five-hour bus ride south to Norfolk looming.

The Wolf Pack needed that presence after a difficult 2002-03 season. Constant turnover, an inordinate number of unhappy veterans and inconsistency left Hartford in shaky shape heading into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

The postseason proved to be a brief one, ending with the Wolf Pack being swept from the playoffs in the opening round.

Rangers management responded with a slew of changes in Hartford, a search that centered around the need for better chemistry in the Hartford dressing room.

Jim Schoenfeld came on board as general manager. Solid AHL veterans Paul Healey and John Jakopin joined a core of quality that included Gernander, Cory Larose and Lawrence Nycholat.

The summer’s work has paid off, the Wolf Pack having spent most of the season challenging Bridgeport and Philadelphia for top spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I think everything is different,” Gernander said. “The makeup is different. Our record is different. Obviously the changes we made were for the better. I think we all felt that last year was unacceptable. We set a higher standard for ourselves, and we’re going to hold everybody to it.”