AHL road trip: Manchester birthplace of Kings
ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
|Manchester Monarchs head coach Mark Morris gives directions to his team during practice on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/Union Leader)
MANCHESTER, N.H. - If there was ever any doubt they were part of a pro hockey monarchy, it was swept away during the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup run this past spring.
This mid-sized city in the heart of New Hampshire may as well be a world away from L.A. in just about every comparable. But if it weren’t for the Manchester Monarchs work the past several seasons, there might not have been a Hollywood ending for the Kings in June.
No less than 14 players on the Cup champions did at least some time with the team’s AHL affiliate. From captain Dustin Brown to Conn Smythe winning goaltender Jonathan Quick to many more among the reigning champions, Manchester was the place they first learned to be a pro.
With that in mind, the Monarchs were willing and deserving participants in the championship celebrations.
“One of the kindest things somebody said to me was, ‘You won’t get a day with the Cup, but your fingerprints are all over it,’” Monarchs coach Mark Morris said following a training camp session at St. Anselm College on the outskirts of New Hampshire’s biggest city. “I take a lot of pride in that.
“It was a surreal experience being in L.A. to watch the final. Your work is done, but you know where these guys started and to see them excel and living out their dream ... our jobs as coaches, teachers and developers was rewarded.”
Depending on local ownership and the nature of affiliation with the parent club, an AHL team can have restrictions in the way they operate. Every team and every player wants to win at each level of the sport, but in the minors it rarely is job No. 1.
Since the Monarchs became their AHL affiliate in 2001, the Kings have had the ideal big team-minor team relationship. And the evidence speaks for itself.
“Manchester is a great city with a real focus on hockey and we have full control of the team,” Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall said. “We don’t bring in a lot of older veterans. Probably from our second or third year (being hooked up with the Monarchs), our team has been the youngest in the league.
“That’s what we believe in — young players playing on your first power play and first penalty kill. Because we have full control of the organization, we can do that.”
To say the game plan has worked well is an understatement. Every year, Hextall says, the Kings have been able to add two players from the Monarchs. In a salary cap world, that flow is invaluable as roster turnover becomes inevitable.
‘The way we are set up, it’s for the long term,” said Hextall, who has been here since training camp on the picturesque campus opened last week. “Again, the influx from here is critical and will continue to be.”
The next step in crafting the blueprint is teaching the Monarchs the ways of Kings coach, Darryl Sutter. With the lockout in full paralysis, Kings brass has made its presence felt, with Sutter’s assistant John Stevens working closely with Morris.
“Having those guys here has given us the opportunity to get the inside view and have the mind-set of the way Darryl wants things done,” Morris said. “It helps our guys get on the same page so they’re ready for the next step. It’s up tempo and it’s fun.
“There’s no better validation (for the players) than winning a Stanley Cup a certain way and I think that goes a long way with them. Sometimes you might not have all of the pieces of the puzzle you need to win at this level, but your job is mainly as a developer.”
Though none of the Monarchs staff or players were given the traditional day with the Cup, the treasured chalice made a five-hour pit stop in the city when Kings’ president of business operations, Luc Robitaille, was on his way to Quebec. The team made the most of it with staff getting pictures snapped and sponsors and fans doing the same.
“Sometimes in the American league you may not feel as though you are fully appreciated,” Morris said. “But I think what happened and the compliments we got from management certainly is an endorsement for what our staff was able to do. Having the opportunity to see almost half that team come through this organization really gives you a sense of pride and ownership of what unfolded.”
AHL WILL BE UNDER MICROSCOPE’
All bets are off now that the NHL lockout has messed up the landscape, but Ron Hextall says the Los Angeles Kings might have had the least competitive camp in history if the season started on time.
The Kings assistant general manager believes that winning the Stanley Cup earned those on the current roster a brief free pass given the short summer and all they accomplished.
“Most of them, I’d say they have earned the benefit of the doubt for doing what they did,” Hextall said.
“They’re the Stanley Cup champions.”
For now, all but three of those champs are far away from North American hockey, which is why the AHL will get more attention than it ever has in the coming months.
On the Manchester Monarchs, three players from the Cup run — Slava Voynov, Jordan Nolan and Andrei Loktionov — will start the season in the minors.
While some of the Cup experience may rub off on their teammates, others on the Monarchs may have the best chance of their careers to get noticed.
“There’s going to be a lot of eyes on the American league this year and it’s an opportunity for these guys,” Hextall said. “A lot of management, a lot of scouts, a lot of NHL coaches will be watching. These guys are probably going to be under the microscope like they’ve never been before and that’s a good thing.”