‘We have a chance to do something special’

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Brandon Weiss | AHL On The Beat

The Office, as is frequently the case, laid it out best.

In the series finale, Andy Bernard’s parting shot can resonate with many but perhaps none more than Stockton Heat defenseman Kevin Gravel, who won a Calder Cup in his first AHL season and has been looking to lift the chalice awarded to the American Hockey League champion ever since.

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

Now wearing the “A” for the top team in the AHL, a club with seven wins in its past nine games and a record of 13-4-1-0 since the start of February, Gravel may have found his Cornell.

“I was kind of oblivious as to how it all works,” said Gravel about the 2014-15 Manchester Monarchs championship squad. “I was kind of naive. Things were really rolling for us that year, and I was just showing up and doing what was asked of me. We were a deep team in all aspects, really good goalies, our defense corps was deep and our forwards were deep.

“The big thing for us, guys were unselfish and just wanted to win. They didn’t care who was in the spotlight, who was scoring the goals. We all bought in and moved toward the collective goal of a championship.”

Over the weekend, the Heat clinched their second-ever berth into the Calder Cup Playoffs. Stockton has set team records for wins and points in a season. They’ve owned the top spot in the league for months, bolstered by puck-stopping prospect Dustin Wolf, a deep defense corps and a potent offensive attack, spearheaded by veteran scoring menace Matthew Phillips and one of the top rookies in the league in Jakob Pelletier.

With one box checked, the Heat shift their focus to winning the team’s first ever divisional crown. Up four points on second-place Ontario with a game in hand and 15 contests left to play, they’re in the driver’s seat.

For Gravel and the rest of the club, it’s a nice place to be while simultaneously remaining far too early to start looking beyond the business at hand in the short term.

Head coach Mitch Love is quick to remind the group they’re worthy of a pat on the back, but make no mistake, the job is just starting rather than finishing.

“The message was congratulations to the group, from the players to the staff. It’s hard to make the playoffs,” said Love. “I think what was special is it was our captain [Byron Froese]’s 500th pro game when we clinched, and to go the way it did for us was a special moment for him and our group.

“For us, it’s a box that we wanted to check at the start of the year, but there’s still lots of hockey to be played. The next thing on our list is to finish as high as we can in our division. That’s not going to be an easy task and there’s lots of work to be done yet.”

Indeed, the breathing room is there but scarce. For a team as good and at times dominant as the Heat have been for the majority of the year, the results come from looking in the mirror rather than looking externally.

Ontario is there. Colorado is playing well. It’s a tough division where a spot in the second season remains up for grabs for everyone.

The progress comes from simply competing not just with opponents, but with themselves to maximize the players in the room.

“It’s in the back of our guys’ mind I’m sure that we’re in a dog fight in the division,” said Love. “But our mindset as a group doesn’t change and hasn’t changed since October 1 when we got here and started training camp. It’s a day-to-day process, whether that’s your individual game and improving on what you need to work at, working on your body in the gym and getting better as a pro. That’s what we’re here for.

“As a team, it’s: Did we have a good practice that day? Did we have a good recovery day that day? Did we have a good video session that day? Did we have a good game that day? That’s our mindset. It’s not going to change based on where we’re at in the standings.”

It’s been seven years since Gravel lifted the Calder Cup ― the lone player on Stockton’s roster to have done so. He recalls, vividly, the work it took to reach that point both individually as a team, not just in games played but in individual improvement.

Photo: Sean Lavoine/AHL

He also recalls the intangibles that championship teams have. The selflessness, the compete, the to-a-man belief in working for the person next to you. He’s a veteran player who’s been in different rooms, who’s seen winning and losing, and he knows what this Stockton group has.

“In order to have a good run you need to be committed to the same goal, and that starts in net and you move out,” said Gravel. “Look at our ‘D’ corps, we haven’t missed a beat. Guys have stepped up and played different roles. Our forwards, I don’t have to say much about those guys. They’re some of the most talented guys I’ve ever played with.

“I go back to that unselfishness I saw in Manchester. Guys in this room don’t care who’s scoring, who’s getting the media clippings or what have you. The guy who’s scoring the goal is just as likely to step in front of a shot on the other end. Guys are just as excited for someone who scores a goal as who blocks a shot on the penalty kill. That’s something you need.”

There wasn’t an “a-ha” moment for the veteran blue-liner this year where he realized what this Stockton group is capable of. In the AHL there’s a good amount of roster turnover year over year, and you don’t necessarily know what you have until you see the wins and losses coming. Gravel, new to the organization himself, said the start of the season was about finding his bearings and taking stock of just what all this group had to it.

“There were some new guys in the room, myself being one of them,” he said. “The year kept going and we had a pretty good start. You kind of take notice that there’s something really special in that locker room, both in the ice and off it.”

With the ticket to the postseason punched, Gravel has a better appreciation of what lies ahead than he did in his first go-round. It’s his third appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs, first since 2016 (although he helped Bakersfield win the Pacific Division postseason tournament last year). There’s no need for nostalgia when your eyes are wide open.

This time, nothing’s getting past him.

“We have a chance to do something special,” he said. “You can play your whole career and not play with a group like this where you can do something that’s hard to do. It’s something we want to take advantage of, not let slip away, enjoy the ride and enjoy the process.

“I was naive because it was my first year, lifting the Calder Cup over my head in Utica. I have more of an appreciation for it. I’ve been around longer now and know I may never be in this position again. Just knowing what it takes, the grind of the playoffs, how close you become with your teammates and how bad you want to succeed for those guys, when you come out on top it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It’s one you continue to chase, keeps you going and is hard to replicate.

“It’s why we play the game.”