by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive
After the retirement of Ken Gernander, the Wolf Pack started last season without an official captain.
Craig Weller was named to wear the “C” at the halfway point of 2005-06, but even after that, with players of similar experience like Alex Giroux, Chad Wiseman, Martin Grenier and Martin Sonnenberg around, it was still very much “leadership by committee”.
This season, though, with the exception of Dale Purinton, none of those other experienced veteran players are still with the Wolf Pack, and Weller seems to be the undisputed leader of the team.
“It feels good to have the ‘C’ again, and to have it right starting out fresh with the young guys too, and have it from the start of the season,” Weller says. “It’s a big honor to be recognized with and it’s something that I’m going to try and work hard at this year and be a good role model for the younger guys and try and help provide good leadership for this team.”
Now in his fifth year of pro hockey, Weller says his captain’s experience last year was a feeling-out process.
“I wasn’t a captain before or anything like that,” he explains, “so I know that I have a lot to learn with that and I kind of tried to look at some of the older guys that had been (leaders). So last year I was looking at guys like Smitty (Brad Smyth) and ‘Diesel’ (Purinton), older guys that had been around the league and what they were expecting from me and tried to use that.”
Being such a young group, this year’s Wolf Pack team would seem to need a big dose of strong leadership. Weller feels that is a positive for him.
“I think maybe it’ll make it a little bit easier,” he says. “I think I’ll probably feel more comfortable trying to lead younger guys. If you are trying to lead guys who are older than you, maybe you feel like you’re not quite qualified. But definitely we had a departure of some key players and key role-model guys, older guys. So with this new age, the new younger team, I think it’s going to be more important that I do a good job and really try and help them out.”
In addition to dealing with their first year minus Gernander as the captain, last season’s Wolf Pack club was adjusting to a new coaching staff as well. Players like Weller knew Jim Schoenfeld well in his role as the team’s general manager, but did not know what to expect from his coaching approach. Weller says that having familiarity with Schoenfeld’s methods and expectations going into this year made things a lot easier on him and his fellow returnees.
“It was totally different for everybody last year, so the older guys, now we can help the young guys, give them a better idea of what to expect out of the coaching staff and what practices are going to be like and maybe how they are going to react to certain situations,” he elaborates. “And definitely it helps us too to be more ready so we can not have to worry about trying to figure out a drill or something or do what he’s looking for. We know what to do there and we can work on just getting it right.”
Though this season’s opening Wolf Pack roster was markedly short on experience, Weller reports that the atmosphere has been good in the locker room.
“We do have a lot of young guys that had pretty good camps, so they came in with a lot of confidence and I think that helped their transition to playing in this league,” the Calgary native says. “Confidence is a huge thing, the mental part, to play the game at this level. Sometimes it butts heads with the older guys a little bit if they’re (the younger players) too confident and cocky, but we’re a young team, we need those young guys to be good players for us. We had that line last year that was all young guys (Dwight Helminen, Nigel Dawes and Colby Genoway) that helped us out, so I think this year, with that confidence that those guys bring in, they are going to be able to step it up and contribute right away.”
Weller uses his excellent size (6-4, 220 pounds) to play a bruising, physical style, and finds himself in bouts of fisticuffs more than once in a while. A new wrinkle that players like him are dealing with in this 2006-07 season is the American Hockey League’s new rule requiring that all players wear eye shields on their helmets.
“Initially it’s just something that you kind of moan about a little bit, just because we haven’t worn them and it’s something that they kind of throw at you, but when it comes down to it I think it’s good,” says Weller of the mandate. “I hate to see a young guy end his career early because he gets hit in the eye or something like that, so I think it’s a good rule and it’s going to save some injuries that could be preventable.
“I think it might affect guys for the first little bit, but I can’t see it being too big of an issue. They wear it in junior and they wore it in the ECHL all the time, and there are still fights down there and there are still big hits and there’s still intense hockey. It’s probably just the macho attitude of hockey players throughout the years. We’re tough, we play in a tough sport, we play injured and we play with cuts and get stitched back up. We’re used to that kind of thing, so we like being kind of known as the rough sports guys.
“But it’s just not worth losing your eye when you’re that young. The game’s changed a lot from 10 or 15 years ago. It’s so much faster now, pucks are being shot so much faster, with the new sticks and everything, so it’s got to change a little bit. I think it’s a good rule.”
With the Wolf Pack having to break in as many young players as they have in the fold, Weller is shouldering a big responsibility off the ice and in the locker room. He certainly does not want to lose focus, however, on what he personally needs to do on the ice to help the Wolf Pack team and hopefully get himself to the next level.
“Last season I put up a few more points, this year my main goal is just to play more consistently,” he comments when asked what he is stressing to himself in this early season. “Last year I don’t think I played my game as well as I could have. I put up a few more numbers and kind of took on a more checking role against the other team’s top lines, and I thought that was good, I kind of developed another part of my game.
“But this year I really want to get back to just being a physical force out there. Like two years ago I think I was much more efficient at that and kind of stepped away from it last year. I feel like I’m in really great shape right now and that I’m going to be able to physically dominate a lot of situations out there, so I’m looking forward to that.”