📝 by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
“Honestly, when I was in San Antonio, I hated coming to Austin.”
Texas Stars defenseman Alex Petrovic says it with a laugh now, but he had no love for the team in green 10 years ago.
“The fans are always crazy, always loud. Whenever the Stars got a little offense going or a big hit, the crowd goes nuts, and there’s definitely a lot of energy.”
Last Saturday, those same fans stood and cheered in acknowledgement of Petrovic’s 600th professional game as he continues his 11th pro season and second campaign with the Texas squad. Even as a veteran player on the club with those 600 games in tow, he is still learning every day, and that’s part of why he is having a career year for the Central Division-leading Stars.
“I’ve seen some guys that took a different approach in their final years and didn’t really give it their all,” Petrovic said. “I think it’s really important. If I’m putting my best foot forward, showing them that I care, showing up every day, pushing them and pushing myself, I think that definitely rubs off on other guys.”
Petrovic has already surpassed his professional single-season goal high of eight, and he is two points shy of breaking his previous high-water mark of 20.
“I think it’s his contagious habits,” opined Stars head coach Neil Graham. “The best thing about him is he’s never complacent. He’s never comfortable with his prior season or his prior week. The work he puts in on and off the ice is incredible for our prospects to see.
“They look at this guy who’s played almost half of his pro games in the NHL, and the work he puts in and the preparation he puts in… How do you not look up to that?”
One of the big benefactors of Petrovic’s contagious habits is Ryan Shea, who has paired with the veteran consistently throughout the season. The two share the league lead for plus/minus rating at plus-27, also a career high for Petrovic.
“We’re always messing around after practice,” said Petrovic. “Passing, stick-handling, just the simple stuff that you don’t think really amounts to anything. But it slowly adds up over the season. We definitely put that work in and take pride in playing really, really good defense and giving our forwards a chance to go and score.”
Petrovic sees a lot of potential in Shea and the rest of the Stars’ blueline and wants to ensure they have the quality veteran leadership that will propel them to the NHL.
Graham contends that as much as Shea is learning from Petrovic the same is true in reverse. Petrovic has passed on his ability to be quietly confident in defense and on the penalty kill. Meanwhile, Shea’s ability to break pucks out and make the big offensive plays under pressure with good vision of the ice has been a strong positive in Petrovic’s game.
“I still feel you should always be improving and just being a student of the game,” noted Petrovic, also adding that the hardest working players he ever played with, such as Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Connor McDavid, were also the top talents. “The younger you figure that out, the better off your career’s gonna be.”
Petrovic’s practice habits are contagious, but his veteran voice is strong to go with it, according to Graham. He also effectively uses humor to get his point across with players and the coaches alike, giving just as good as he gets and creating a sense of team camaraderie with his wit.
“He’s pretty sharp-witted. He’s very soft-spoken, and he likes to throw out a few quick-witted comments and jabs,” Graham said. “He does it with the players, he does it with the coaches, and it’s all done appropriately and in the right moments. It’s hard not to like. I enjoy it.”
Petrovic is having a blast this season amid the career year. Texas is the right team at the right time for where he is in his life both on and off the ice. The Stars roster is dotted with dads this season, which gives a different feel to the locker room and the team overall.
As Petrovic spoke, one of his two sons was practicing piano in the background.
“I’ve been on other American League teams mostly flooded with young players and guys that aren’t married or even thought of having kids. The majority were in completely different stages in their lives, but I think here the guys get it. They appreciate it. It’s been a good, good culture here.”
Now that he’s hit the 600-game milestone, he can reflect a bit on what got him here.
“You look back now. It was a lot of time wasted back then just trying to figure things out. I feel like I’ve got a good handle on things now with preparation and training. I’m definitely taking full advantage of it now. And hopefully, you know, maybe play another 600? You never know.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.