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Norfolk alumni making their mark

by Nathan Skytta and Keith Phillips || AHL On The Beat Archive

Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Johan Harju notched seven goals and 16 points in his first 12 games of North American professional hockey. On Friday, the talented Swedish forward’s career went from Norfolk to the National Hockey League.

It’s a journey that 139 different players have made since Norfolk joined the American Hockey League in 2000-01. Although Norfolk has only had an AHL franchise for the last 11 of the AHL’s 75-season history, the Admirals have had a large impact on the league’s role as hockey’s premier development circuit.

One only has to look at the Stanley Cup to see Norfolk’s impact. In 2010, 14 former Admirals got their hands on the Stanley Cup as members of the Chicago Blackhawks. These names include the likes of Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer and former Admirals head coach Mike Haviland.

Keith won what could be called the triple crown of trophies in 2010 with the Stanley Cup, a gold medal with Team Canada at the Winter Olympics and the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. He spent his first 154 games of professional hockey with the Admirals from 2003-04 to 2004-05, helping lead the team into the playoffs both seasons.

"When times get tough, I look back to what I learned in Norfolk in my early days in pro hockey," said Keith. "I remember what I learned to become a better player."

Keith, now an alternate captain with the Blackhawks, gives a lot of credit to Admirals teammates such as Marty Wilford and Ajay Baines and then-Norfolk head coach Trent Yawney for helping him to develop.

In the Stanley Cup Final, Keith faced off against former Norfolk teammate Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers. Leighton, who has won more games as an Admiral than any other goaltender (75), led the Flyers on an incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring.

"Each year, I felt better and better in the AHL," said Leighton, who turned pro in 2001-02 with Norfolk and spent parts of four seasons with the Admirals. "You gain experience the more you play. The AHL is the second-best league in the world. It’s a great league for any player to gain experience and learn the ropes."

Leighton also shared the spotlight with a former Admirals teammate earlier in 2010, as he and Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton faced off at Fenway Park in the 2010 NHL Winter Classic. Thornton, who spent parts of five seasons in Norfolk, was a fan favorite from the moment he stepped on the ice at Scope. Thornton was not afraid to take on any member of the opposing team and became a leader both on and off the ice in Norfolk.

"Playing in Norfolk helped me become a better-rounded player," said Thornton. "When I first got to Norfolk, I just wanted to fight every person, every game. Trent Yawney talked me out of that and told me to concentrate on playing hockey first and let the fighting take care of itself. Then Mike Haviland showed a lot of confidence in me during my last year there, playing me on defense and forward, on the power play and penalty kill. That really helped me going forward."

While Admirals fans may remember him for his team-record 1,198 penalty minutes, Thornton also netted 40 goals and 98 points in Norfolk. He made the permanent move to the NHL in 2006-07 with the Anaheim Ducks, winning the Stanley Cup that season along with former Admirals teammate Travis Moen. Moen made his pro debut with the Admirals in 2002-03 and played parts of two seasons in Norfolk before making the NHL a permanent home.

"Playing in Norfolk taught me how to be a professional and how to compete at the pro level," said Moen. "The jump from (juniors) to the AHL was pretty drastic. Going through that better prepared me to play in the NHL."

Moen scored the Stanley Cup clinching goal in Game Five of the 2007 Final against the Ottawa Senators. The next fall, the Admirals became the top development team of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Earlier this week, Harju and Marc-Antoine Pouliot became the 40th and 41st different players recalled from Norfolk to Tampa Bay since that time. Admirals fans have seen the likes of Steve Downie, Mike Lundin and recently Dana Tyrell, among others, make the leap from the AHL to the NHL.

Lundin flourished in his time with the Admirals, logging copious amounts of ice time while recording a career high in points in 2008-09. When asked how playing in Norfolk helped him mature and improve, Lundin replied, "Things like the long trips that made it difficult to play hockey taught you how to refocus and concentrate on playing hockey. Norfolk is a great town to play in and the Admirals fans were great."

The Admirals are off to a great start in 2010-11 and continue to be the home for developing talent in the Lightning organization. First-year Admirals head coach Jon Cooper has helped lead the Admirals to a whirlwind of a start, as Norfolk has been near the top of the East Division standings all season.

"Winning is paramount to a player’s development," said Cooper. "I don’t think you can stress enough the importance of winning in a player’s development."

Perhaps as important as the good start to Cooper is the fact that four of his players have been called up by the Lightning this season.

"You almost become a cheerleading dad," said Cooper. "It means a lot as a coach to see a player get called up."

Although call-ups may present additional challenges to coaches who want to win, Cooper sees them as a vital part of organizational development. If a player is called up, another player will be relied upon to see more ice time in more diverse situations.

"By putting players in all situations, it’s going to boost their confidence and give them the experience they need to advance their careers."

So as players such as Harju get their chances in the NHL, his former teammates in Norfolk will continue to work toward a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs and their own opportunity in the NHL. And the Admirals will continue to be a vital part of the American Hockey League’s reputation as the top hockey development league in the world.