by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat Archive
As junior and collegiate seasons wind down across the United States and Canada, the American Hockey League is reinvigorated with new blood late in the long, seventy-six game season: Amateur tryout players.
The Texas Stars have been no exception to the model over the past six years. Dallas draft picks and free agent finds alike have traveled to Central Texas for a taste of professional hockey before their rookie season has technically even started.
“It’s an eye opener for the player,” said Texas Stars general manager Scott White. “You see the rigors of the pro schedule and how they prepare, the daily grind of it. It gives the player a little insight into the following September when his first official pro camp begins and what the expectations will be.”
Often with their season-long goals of competing in college or junior playoffs just days behind them, ATOs are dropped into teams in the middle of playoff pushes in the top development league in the world.
Forward Derek Hulak, who joined the Texas Stars on an ATO toward the end of the regular season last year, had just finished playing in the CIS championship tournament with the University of Saskatchewan when he found out he’d be heading to Cedar Park.
“At the start of the national championship tournament, we started putting my name out there,” said Hulak. “Luckily Texas was a team that stepped up and decided to bring me down. When I looked at the schedule, there were only nine regular season games left. I didn’t know it would become a reality until I got that phone call.”
Hulak joined a club in the middle of a winning streak and a playoff push that would result in a Calder Cup.
“You want to work hard and earn your keep, do whatever you can to help the team keep rolling. You could tell the team was a tight knit group," he said. "They’ve been successful, but you have to stop to think: I’m getting called up here for a reason, put in the lineup for a reason. You just have to try and do whatever made you successful in the past.”
Hulak made it into five regular season games and three playoff games as the Stars wound their way toward the franchise’s first Calder Cup.
“That leaves 25 or 30 games I didn’t get into,” noted Hulak. “But just being around the guys on a day-to-day basis, practicing at a high level, watching the games and learning about the league was a huge experience for me.”
It’s been a similar experience so far for center Devin Shore. The 2012 Dallas draft pick has all of eight professional games under his belt now after finishing his final season with the University of Maine earlier this month. Before the season, Shore and the Dallas Stars had talked about the possibility of joining Texas after the collegiate season wrapped up, but that was just a possibility.
“It wasn’t until after the season that anything became official,” said Shore. “It’s important that I put my best foot forward in Maine and if you’re thinking too much about the next thing, you won’t be playing your best or giving your teammates your best effort.”
Once the final whistle blew on Maine’s season, it was a mix of emotions for their captain.
“It’s tough when you build a bond for three years with teammates you’ve played college hockey with and all the sudden it comes to an end.
“There’s the heartbreak of the season being over but then you go to bed and wake up to find you’ll be on a plane the next day to play professionally. There’s a lot of emotions going through it, but it’s an awesome feeling to get a second chance to make a playoff push.”
Shore, being a Dallas draft pick, has the advantage of some familiarity with the players he’s joining. He’s been able to attend Dallas Stars development camp each of the last three summers in Frisco, Texas. His roommate for the past three years at camp, forward Branden Troock, is now one of his linemates in Texas and has had a part in three of the four professional points he’s scored so far. Gemel Smith, Jack Campbell and Julius Honka are all familiar faces for Shore as well. Even with that familiarity, it’s a strange place for a new ATO.
“Getting down here, living in the hotel, and the first couple of meetings with the coaches going over the systems, it’s a lot to take in. They’ve helped me a lot with it, and they understand that it’s a lot to grasp.”
Playing out the end of the season can mean different things depending on the team you join. If you’re poised for the postseason, playing time might be at a premium. If the playoffs are not in the picture, there’s a possibility to push for more playing time. That was the case for goalie and former first round pick Jack Campbell in 2011-12. With Texas in last place in the Western Conference, the coaches put a heavy load on his shoulders. Then-ATO Campbell started the last twelve games of the season.
“I was lucky to play twelve straight games,” said Campbell. “I got to play every game because they didn’t have much to lose. It gave me a little mini-season at the end of that year to give me a fresh start and a lot of confidence going into my rookie season.”
One thing that all ATO players share without fail is their awe of the professional game in the American Hockey League. To a man, they’ll all agree that players in the AHL are bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter than anyone they’ve played with or against before.
Campbell expanded, “It’s eye opening because you see that every goalie is a good goalie and every player can play. You start to have that feeling where it’s your job to train hard, take care of your body, stay focused, and not miss any workouts.”
There are many different ways that ATOs can provide value to AHL teams. The biggest is jumping into the lineup right away. ATO forward and Dallas first round pick Radek Faksa got into 21 games for Texas during their Calder Cup run, making a huge impact on his development.
“I think it’s worth half a season of development for a guy like Radek Faksa,” said GM Scott White. “For a long run like we had, that accelerates his development.”
For players who don’t jump right into the lineup, helping the team comes in the form of being a ‘black ace.’ The term, which originated in the AHL back in the 1940s, refers today to players who are on the active roster but are unlikely to play in the postseason. Instead, these players lace up the skates for practice every day to keep other players fresh for important playoff games.
Derek Hulak described his time as a black ace as invaluable to his growth as a hockey player.
“You’re still practicing every day. You’re ready to join the lineup as guys go down or if they want to mix up the lineup. You’re in a supporting role, and you’re there to do whatever the coaches ask of you," he said. "If someone that’s playing wants to work on something, you’re there to help them out. If the goalie wants to do a drill, you’re the first guy in there to help out your teammates. All the while, you’re learning about the game to be prepared when you do get your shot.”
Of course, the ultimate reward for any player, black ace or otherwise, is the championship. While not every black ace was lucky enough to get their name on the Calder Cup, Hulak’s three games earned him that right.
“I feel like I had an unbelievable experience to win the Calder Cup even as a black ace. Just being around the experience, I’ll never forget it.”
And regardless of the outcome of their team’s season, every player who joins the league on an amateur tryout brings that knowledge with them as they hit their summer training routine to prepare for a professional career.
“Dipping my toes in the water last year helped me immensely,” said Hulak, who earned a standard AHL contract after his ATO last season.
“It was an introductory course on the AHL. I knew more of what to expect for my first full season. I took what I learned and worked it into my summer training. I knew what I needed to work on and how hard I needed to work to be ready for the season.”
If they’re lucky, a free agent ATO can turn their performance in the late season into a full season contract like Hulak and many before him in Texas.
Scott White doesn’t see that model changing any time soon, “We brought [Hulak] in, and it was up to him to perform. His success led to an AHL opportunity.”
For the Dallas organization, they hope that habits and traits picked up during an ATO stint can help fuel a career’s worth of success inside the organization.
“I still use some of those routines from that call up now,” added Campbell of his 2012 ATO. “Winning in this league is difficult. You have to have good habits. It’s definitely something that helped me tremendously. It gave me the confidence to kick start a good pro career.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.