Walking into the PPL Center in Allentown, PA, I was prepared to have a surreal experience.
If you have been following Good Night, Good Hockey lately, we announced that we have obtained press passes for both the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (AHL). That is something I could not have imagined happening with this site so soon.
We were finally moving up. And so was Chris McCarthy.
Walking down the tunnel, Chris McCarthy took the ice for warm-ups. McCarthy was just recently called up from the ECHL affiliate of the Phantoms, the Reading Royals. There is something that many hockey fans don’t necessarily think about when they see a player get called up to the NHL team: there is a domino effect. In this case, Philadelphia Flyers forward Travis Konecny went on the IR for 4-6 weeks. Jordan Weal, second in scoring in the AHL, came up from the Phantoms to take his spot. In turn, the Phantoms needed to call up a player. That was McCarthy.
McCarthy immediately had an impact in that game, scoring a goal that would later be overturned incorrectly. That domino that fell to him came greatly, and he started to make the most of it.
He wasn’t new to the 2nd division of professional hockey in North America, though. In fact, he played the majority of last season with the New York Ranger’s farm team, the Hartford Wolf Pack. But that transition that takes place when a player immediately moves up from a lower level of play has to be a source of difficulty, right? McCarthy thinks the pace is different, but not as much as you might think. “Down there, you only have 3 lines, so you’re obviously playing a little bit more,” McCarthy said. “I think the speed of the overall game is faster up here… I felt good out there.”
Besides the actually level of play, moving up or down the hockey ladder also comes with a different system in team strategy. It’s basically like being traded to another team. You move to a different city, you move to a different group of guys, you change the level of play. Adding on to that, you are made to fit into a completely different system of play in sometimes only a few hours.
One of Them
I obtained my press pass, and it seemed almost obvious that it was my first time in the press room. The desk member asked if it was, and I replied with a yes. I was a wide-eyed guy in a suit that was loose-fitting on me. Of course I was new!
I was shown the buffet room. You see, in the interview room at the PPL Center is a buffet of food for all members of the press and employees. This, I could get used to. I was already nervous, however, and I just recently ate some food from the greatest place on Earth, Wawa. If you are in Western PA, it is like a better Sheetz. If you are anywhere else in the world that does not know what a Wawa is, I am sorry for your loss.
I decided to go upstairs to the press room. I was supposed to meet up with Michael Zahn, a hardworking radio intern of the Phantoms who went to Temple University. I was talking to him throughout the week as the announcer of Temple University hockey, Patrick Johnstone, said I should reach out to him. Michael showed me around the press box where laid before me was a table of snacks and drinks, along with media packets at our assigned seats. It was amazing.
Michael recently graduated from Temple. I have to admire his work ethic; day-in, day-out, he was making the hour-long trek from his hometown in Philadelphia to the arena in Allentown working to achieve his dreams. I was honestly impressed by him; at such a young age, he has a drive that is hard to get.
“He played well,” Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said of Chris McCarthy. “In training camp, I was impressed with his performance… I knew him from Hartford, obviously, as far as his work ethic and what he brought to the table.” He added, “I thought that if we were going to call up someone, he would be the guy.”
McCarthy was obviously held in high regard by Gordon. The man had shown that he was working hard in the lower levels, so he should be brought up a division. That hard work paid off.
I think that is similar to life, truly. If you work hard and show off what you are capable of doing at the lower levels, you will be looked at with high regard from the top. That’s true with Chris McCarthy, that’s true from Good Night, Good Hockey, and that’s true from Michael Zahn. They are in two wildly different positions, yet the point still holds.
That’s also true with Parker Milner.
Hershey Kisses and Key Saves
The next night, we would be going to Hershey, specifically the Giant Center, for a Hershey Bears game. Our second game in the same amount of nights, we already knew what to expect walking into the press room. Some of the same amenities, same interview process, but I personally almost felt as if I was a veteran of the process.
Taking a look at the seating chart for the press, I saw that NHL Hall-of-Famer Mark Howe would be working next to us as well as Phantoms legend Neil Little. We could get used to this.
One thing that I knew coming in was that you must not act like a fan. No cheering, no seeing players then fainting because he was your hero. You were working. I did not talk to Mark Howe. As much as I wanted to, he was busy working and doing a job. After all, after his career, he knew what to look out for in players, as he was scouting for the Detroit Red Wings.
A Fantastic intern of the Bears named Matt Trust made sure that we were all good in the entire process. We were able to say who we wanted to talk to in the interview room, and I knew I wanted to interview the young goalie of the Bears, Parker Milner.
Parker Milner came into the game vs Hartford starting his 3rd game of this AHL season. Usually a goalie in the ECHL, he has had small stints in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Iowa Wild. He has played enough to notice the differences between the two leagues.
“The pace definitely ramps up a level,” Milner said about playing in the AHL as compared to the ECHL. “Guys can put the puck in places that they can’t in the ECHL. It’s just like the AHL to the NHL. It’s faster paced, and guys can kind of do more with the puck. It’s definitely an adjustment…”
Milner sees the game differently. As a goalie, he faces a different kind of competition than skaters do.
Goaltending is wildly different that any skating position. It’s strictly a mind game, with skill coming in as well. Both go hand-in-hand, and losing one means the death of the player.
The goalie does not exactly have to listen to the player strategies. However, they must be able to stop shots. After all, all a coach wants is the key saves. That’s exactly what Troy Mann, head coach of the Hershey Bears, wanted with his freshly called up goaltender, Parker Milner.
“I think that you initially always get a great push.” Mann said about the challenges of coaching a newly called up player. “Now a goaltender might be a little bit of a different story, but at the end of the day, as a head coach, I just want saves, key saves. The actual dissecting of his play is [Goaltending Coach] Scott Murray’s department… It’s once you get to that tenth or eleventh game that you’ll really know if you have a player that will stick with you. For goaltenders, that might be different.”
So far, Mann likes what he sees from Milner. Referring back to his quote about wanting key saves, he said, “Parker has been good. He’s made some key saves for us in all of his 3 starts. He’s 3-0.”
Bears postgame interviews with Chris Bourque and Parker Milner
When you are moving up the ladder, you are called up for a reason. You must have success at every previous level. To stay up in a league, you must show success at that level as well. While established players can have prolonged droughts, a recent call-up cannot afford that. That ten to eleven game leash is all they get to impress for the time being.
Coaching at different levels is different as well. Mann knows this; his recent job before Hershey was with the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. They must learn to adapt like any other player.
The Importance of Adapting
Adapting is difficult. It is a show of the ‘survival of the fittest’, and it extends to more than just playing sports. Good Night, Good Hockey is another example. We are learning to adapt with the scene. We are attempting to grow. We see the wonder of professional hockey reporting, and we can’t get enough. That same allure reigns true with Chris McCarthy and Parker Milner. It extends to Michael Zahn and Matt Trust.
The fight to be relevant in this world revolves around adapting, working hard, and branching out. And so far, those players are doing just that.
We at Good Night, Good Hockey wish all the aforementioned the best of luck in their career.
Dylan Coyle is a “The Wraparound” columnist and the founder of Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle.