by Peter Shannon || AHL On The Beat Archive
The primary leadership role of the Milwaukee Admirals for the 2008-09 season has been filled by a man who talks softly and carries a big stick.
Known by his teammates as Yonkers, The Big Rig, or The Unit, Nolan Yonkman wears the captain’s "C" proudly and brings years of professional hockey experience both on and off the ice.
The Saskatchewan native grew up in the country and started skating at the age of 2, but it didn’t look as though hockey was his lot, as his father played semi-pro baseball for a team based out of West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I enjoyed baseball, but in western Canada in the 80’s when I was growing up it was hockey,” Yonkman said. “I just became a better hockey player in my early years than a ball player, and I just excelled and took off with hockey more.”
It’s a good thing that he picked hockey over baseball, because in the long run it would turn out to be his career, passion and life.
Drafted 37th overall in the 1999 draft by the Washington Capitals, Yonkman describes the day as “a major thrill, and any kid will tell you what an exciting day it is.”
Having played for seven years between the Capitals and their AHL teams, the Portland Pirates and Hershey Bears, he was able to develop his leadership skills that he has today. The quiet, respected role that he plays comes from a combination of many things including his 6-foot-7-inch frame, his humble attitude, his past leaders, and his commitment and dedication to his team.
“My size is something that you can’t just build on,” Yonkman said. “My family’s very big. As far as helping with my leadership role, maybe it does. But I’ve come now to an age where I’ve played a bit in the NHL and know how things should maybe be run. I want to carry that off and be a good leader just like other players were good leaders to me when I was younger.”
And Yonkman is certainly no stranger to great leadership. He’s been to the NHL and played with some of the best and smartest players, as well as profound leaders.
“When I first came to Washington I played with Adam Oates, Brendan Witt and Olie Kolzig,” Yonkman said. “Those guys were all leaders and I’ve learned from them and they definitely helped me along my way. I think just being around those older guys and seeing how they do things and handle each situation really helped. When the team was winning and when the team was losing, I look back and remember how they ran things.”
Every captain knows his role in the locker room and what his specific duties are. What makes them successful and great is how they go about acting out those qualities that they know the leader of a professional hockey team should have.
“I try to be a good mediator,” Yonkman explained. “I want to be the captain that was a guy you could talk to, a guy that took the bull by the horns when he needed to, never getting too high or too low; a guy that shows them that he can handle things under pressure, because that’s what a captain has to do. When the team is down you need to find a way to pick it up.”
Yonkman is a great leader, but even the best captains had a little help along the way. That is where other veterans on the team come into play, specifically center Cal O’Reilly and defenseman Alexander Sulzer, who serve as the team’s assistant captains.
“I’ve got great supporting assistant captains, and that helps too,” Yonkman said. “We’re all together and we kind of all want to make sure everyone’s pulling together. They’re awesome and just as important and vocal in the room. Everybody wants to be on the same page and they help to make sure that we’re thinking together and headed in the right direction.”
In Yonkman’s three years in Milwaukee, the players, coaches and fans have seen him mature into the outstanding leader that he is today. Over the course of his career he has gained the leadership skills necessary to guide a team through a successful season while showing the younger guys what it takes to be a pro.