by Zach Dooley | AHL On The Beat Archive
“Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”
That may just be a quote of what Julius Campbell said to Gerry Bertier in Remember the Titans, but it’s something that applies to a professional sports team as well. The attitude that players bring to the rink is reflected by the leadership abilities that the team possesses, and that starts with the captain.
In regards to the Adirondack Flames, leadership qualities are certainly not in short supply.
Adirondack is led this season by Nolan Yonkman, a defenseman who is no stranger to wearing the “C”. Yonkman, 33, is a veteran of over 700 American Hockey League games and, barring an injury, is approaching 800 games as a professional this season. Yonkman was previously a captain for two other AHL teams: Three seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals and two with the San Antonio Rampage.
“It’s a privilege, an honor, and a responsibility that you enjoy,” Yonkman said. “It’s a lot of fun for me to lead a team. We’ve had a lot of success here and I enjoy leading the team.”
The Punnichy, Saskatchewan native has seemingly been a leader at every stop he’s been at, with the Flames now being the third AHL team that Yonkman has captained. While the letter itself is typically a sign of leadership, Yonkman’s locker room presence is what stands out and made him worthy of the prestigious letter.
“The players respect him, they understand where he’s come from and they believe in what he’s telling them, and I think that’s important,” Adirondack head coach Ryan Huska said. “He’s brought the message from our coaches room into the dressing room and he’s done a remarkable job with our younger group of guys to make sure they all believe that we can win. He does a great job of holding the dressing room accountable.”
The Flames this season, overall, are a very young team. The current roster features nine rookies and six players in just their second professional season. The Flames roster brings a lot of talent, something that is evidenced by 22-14-1-1 record, but historically a young team with a lack of a leadership presence can often end up as a chicken with its head cut off.
“What players were in juniors or college, they might find themselves in a different role in the pros,” Yonkman said. “I think frustration can set in and guys try to do too much or not enough and it’s all about finding that line where players need to be, both physically and mentally.”
Yonkman is one of a few players who brings experience, something that keeps a young group focused. On a blue line where only teammate Mark Cundari has more than three full seasons under his belt, Yonkman’s presence has been crucial in the development of his defensive compatriots.
“When I can hand [the younger defensemen] little pointers along the way, it’s great,” Yonkman added. “I show them little things when I can.”
The style of any leader is a question that is always among the first to be asked.
People tend to group leaders into two different categories, being a guy who leads vocally or who leads by example, but Yonkman isn’t a guy to be strictly dropped into either of those two pools. It is, perhaps, finding his own common medium that makes him so successful at what he does.
“I’d like to think I’m a guy who has a good feel for the room,” Yonkman said. “Knowing what needs to be said or if nothing needs to be said at all. Sometimes you can over lead and that’s not a great situation. I think I can be hard when I need to be and I allow players, or the team, to adjust through a hard time when they need to. Adversity isn’t a bad thing either.”
While Yonkman’s leadership is what many people tend to focus on first, because let’s face it; when you wear a captain’s “C” for three different teams, there is something there. However, it’s not just leadership ability that has kept the defenseman in this league.
Yonkman’s ability as a defenseman has put him in the lineup for 36 of 38 games this season, something that is not guaranteed to any player regardless of status. Calgary’s AHL affiliate last season, the Abbotsford Heat, was captained by another veteran defenseman in Dean Arsene, who only saw himself in the lineup for 42 of 78 games.
This has not frequently been the case for Yonkman, who has proven to be a steady, stay-at-home defenseman with a mean streak. Yonkman’s physical presence is one of the finest on the Flames and standing at 6-foot-6, his defensive reach with a stick that towers over many players on the roster is second to none, a skill that proves to be an asset on the penalty kill. Regardless of how good of a leader Yonkman is, he would not find himself in the lineup night in and night out without having defensive abilities as well.
“The way Nolan plays is hard all the time, which is the identity we want our team to have,” Huska said. “Looking at his game now, he’s one of our better penalty killers and he does a great job making sure he’s prepared to play in those situations in particular. He takes a lot of pride in his defending game in particular and he’s been reliable for us.”
Yonkman’s combination of leadership and defensive abilities have made him an integral part of the Adirondack Flames’ inaugural season. The leadership qualities he possesses both on and off the ice are the reason he was brought into Glens Falls, and are one of the reasons players such as Ryan Culkin and John Ramage have shined as of late.
The continuing presence of Yonkman in the Adirondack lineup is one that the Flames hope continues to help drive the team towards the first playoff berth for a Glens Falls AHL team since 1999. And with how the team has performed thus far under his guidance, not many will be betting against him.