NAHL rewind at the Stanley Cup
June 5, 2015
Guys just need a chance to show what they can do. Everyone finds a league to develop in and develop at their own pace. -Jon Cooper
The NAHL recently had a chance to catch up with the seven alumni that are taking part in the Stanley Cup Finals. Media Day was on Tuesday and Game 1 of the Finals was on Wednesday, with the Chicago Blackhawks edging out the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1 to take a 1-0 series lead.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have four members that were involved in the NAHL: Goaltender Ben Bishop (Texas Tornado, 2004-05, NAHL All-Rookie Team), Head Coach Jon Cooper (Texarkana/St. Louis Bandits, 2003-08, Two-time NAHL Coach of the Year), defenseman Andrej Sustr (Kenai River Brown Bears, 2008-09) and defenseman Matt Carle (USNDTP, 2000-02).
Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks have three players that played in the NAHL including, forward Brandon Saad (Mahoning Valley Phantoms, 2008-09, NAHL Rookie of the Year), forward Patrick Kane (USNTDP, 2004-06) and goaltender Scott Darling (North Iowa Outlaws, 2005-07).
Below are some of the remarks and comments made during interviews done during media day:
NAHL: Jon, it wasn’t to long ago you were coaching junior hockey. Knowing where you have come since that time, what advice do you have for those coaching in junior hockey now?
Cooper: There is a lot of sacrifice that has to be done. Some of the best times I have had in coaching was in the North American Hockey League. I am probably not standing here today without that experience because that’s really where it all started. I think coaches have to surround themselves with the right kind of people. After that, they have to learn to get the most from their players and learn to manage them correctly.
NAHL: What are your thoughts about the league and its place in the development spectrum?
Cooper: Players progress at different rates and not one league can house all the players that are NCAA prospects. You have to start somewhere. I started in the NAHL, Ben Bishop started there, Pat Maroon (Anaheim Ducks) started there and played on my club. Guys just need a chance to show what they can do. Everyone finds a league to develop in and develop at their own pace. With all the transitions in junior hockey, I think a lot of credit has to go to Mark Frankenfeld for being able to grow the league to where it is today.
NAHL: 10 years ago you backstopped a team to the Robertson Cup in NAHL. What about that experience, if any, will you take with you into playing for a Stanley Cup?
Bishop: Anytime you can win a championship at any level, that is valuable experience and something you can carry with you. We had a great group of guys on that team and I still keep in touch and see a lot of them to this day. This team in Tampa is very similar in the fact that we are all close and in this with a common goal. It wasn’t easy winning it back then because we weren’t the favorite and lost the first game, so we had to win several in a row. We also had the pressure of following a team that won it the year before and were trying for back-to-back championships, so at that time there was a lot of pressure.
NAHL: Ironically enough you had to beat Jon Cooper’s team in the division finals to get to the Robertson Cup.
Bishop: Absolutely. He doesn’t like talking about it that much and I have brought it up to him and given him a little flack about it a few times, but he put together some great teams while coaching in the league and you could tell back then he was a great coach.
NAHL: You were NAHL Rookie of the Year in 2008-09 and it was your first time away from home and playing juniors in the NAHL. Tell us about that experience.
Saad: It was key for my development. I was a little younger, so it was challenging to be playing with guys older than you. I had to challenge myself and elevate my game because everyone playing in the league was better than I was to start the season. On and off the ice you have to become and man and learn to take responsibility for yourself. You learn to rely and lean on your teammates during good times and bad times. Being named Rookie the Year was a true honor. At the time, it was just another award, but looking back on it now, it really something I am proud of because of the way I developed throughout that season.
NAHL: What advice do you have for young players who are considering playing junior hockey in a league like the NAHL?
Saad: Have fun, because you are only this age once in your life and only get one shot to play junior hockey. You have to push yourself and be disciplined. You have to allow yourself to dream and believe because things can work out.
NAHL: Being in the Stanley Cup Finals has to be a dream come true given the path you took to get here, which included the NHL.
Darling: It is incredible. It is what you dream about. To be able to do it with my hometown team is incredible. I am sure the gravity of the situation won’t hit me fully until later this summer.
NAHL: You took the path of junior hockey in the United States, which included a stint in the NAHL. What are some of the things you learned then you still take with you today?
Darling: I learned a lot those years. When I was in the NAHL, those were my later high school years, so there isn’t a lot of supervision and you have to grow up quickly and be responsible. I learned some things the hard way. I would tell guys playing in the league today to not and try and be a rock star. Focus on the things that need the most focusing on like getting better and doing good in school. Stay away from the extracurricular stuff because it can only slow you down. I think I would have been more serious about doing that when I was in juniors, it wouldn’t have taken me as long to get here.
NAHL: Your first experience playing junior hockey was with the USNTDP when you were playing a full NAHL schedule. Tell us about that experience.
Carle: Looking back in it, you are just trying to get to the next level. The NHL was a pipe dream. We were all in it to try and get an NCAA opportunity. I was trying to manage school and play against some really good competition, most of which was older, so I learned on the fly, but it was a valuable and necessary stage in my career. At the same time, you are still developing physically and mentally. Looking back it, I think it was one of the most important years of why I am able to play in the NHL today. Everybody develops at different ages. That route gives you some more time to develop and mature.
NAHL: What is it about your coach Jon Cooper that makes you want to play for him?
Carle: The guy has won everywhere he has been and I don’t think it is by accident. He has belief in his players and it rubs off on us. He is an honest coach and doesn’t sugar coat anything, especially at this time of the year when there is so much at stake. In the last series, we played terrible and he let us know about it. It is all done so that we can become better players and a better team. He has a purpose and a mission behind everything.
NAHL: Looking back on your time in Kenai River, what was it like playing so far from home (Czech Republic) and playing in Alaska in the NAHL?
Sustr: It was really the first time I thought that the journey had started on the path to the NCAA and the NHL. It was a great place to start. It was a culture change coming from Europe, but you learn to adapt. I found out quickly that there were some great coaches in the league, including the ones I played for. I also developed a tight bond with my teammates and billet family, whom I still stay in touch with to this day. Those relationships go a long way. You are put in a position to succeed as long as you work hard.
NAHL: At what point in your career did you realize that the NHL dream was going to be a reality?
Sustr: I don’t think there was a specific moment. There were a lot of small steps. Once you achieved a step and a goal, you focused on the next one. I think once I got to the NCAA after playing in the NAHL then interest started to arise and that’s when I knew it was a real possibility.
NAHL: You and Jon Cooper made your NHL debuts in the very same game back in the Spring of 2013. What is it about him that players like?
Sustr: Coach Cooper is a great coach and an even better person and human being. We have been in the same position since Day 1 in the NHL and his honesty stands out to me. You know that he is going to give it to your straight, good or bad, and that makes you want to play and succeed for him.