Sunday, December 24, 2017

Living the Dream of a White NHL Christmas: Former Farmhands Thriving with the Flames

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From Etch A Sketch (1960) to Pong (1972), from Cabbage Patch Kids (1983) to Tickle Me Elmo (1996), from the Nintendo Wii (2008) to Fingerlings (2017), the must-have item topping childrens' Christmas wish lists changes annually.

There's no such variety for hockey players toiling in the minor leagues.

For them, it's the same thing every year and in 2017, Brett Kulak, Mark Jankowski, David Rittich and Garnet Hathaway all received that ultimate gift.

Unwrapped on Oct. 3, Oct. 23, Nov. 24 and Nov. 29 respectively, the four former members of the Stockton Heat received a one-way ticket -- at least for now -- to the NHL.

For everyone but Hathaway, it's the first time they've arrived at the annual holiday break on the NHL roster of the Calgary Flames.

Mark Jankowski
"It's definitely going to be a great Christmas, it feels good to be going home as an NHL player," said Jankowski, who flew back home to Ontario on Saturday morning to spend his time off with his sisters, brother and parents.

For Kulak, his trip home was shorter. He hopped in his vehicle after Friday night's game and headed up the QE2 to Stony Plain on the outskirts of Edmonton.

"It feels good for me," said the third pairing defenceman. "This is another step in the right direction that I want to take in my career."

A similar sentiment was echoed by Rittich.

"So happy that I can be here with these big boys and playing with and against the best players in the world," said Rittich. "It's so great for me."

Residing at the moment at a downtown hotel where he was recently joined by his fiance, Nikola, Rittich isn't travelling anywhere for the break other than to the Frolik home on the 25th. Fellow Czech Michael Frolik invited the two of them over to enjoy the big day.

"It's nice for them to ask us, because Christmas at a hotel is, umm, not the best," said Rittich with a chuckle.

Rittich is particularly excited about being in Canada after last year, his first season in North America, spending the holiday break in California.

"That was different because the weather is way different. There, I didn't see snow the whole time," Rittich told me. "In my hometown, it's pretty high for Czech Republic, we got awesome white Christmas, so I'm happy we'll have a white Christmas here."

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Confidence on the Rise

For Hathaway, this is the second year in a row he's flown back home out of Calgary at Christmas. But this time around, he says it has a different vibe.

Garnet Hathaway
"I feel like I've come a long way from where I was," said the native of Kennebunkport, Maine. "The physical aspect of my game hasn't really changed, but I'm in a different role on the team right now. I worked hard in the summer to try and grow my role and try to contribute to this team more, so I'm going to keep working towards that."

The numbers reflect how Hathaway's game and usage has evolved.

Last season in Calgary, he had five points in 26 games. This year in half the number of games, he already has six points. His ice time is up, his role on the depth chart is up -- playing third line alongside Jankowski and Sam Bennett. Also up and an attribute he sees in all four of them, is his confidence.

"You can't walk on eggshells and stay up here," Hathaway said. "You look at all the guys. How Ritter has played -- he plays every game, every play in practice, like it's do or die. You look at the work ethic of Janko and Kulie, I think Kulie is probably the first guy at the rink every day and has been since I've known him."

Also on the rise is the faith being shown in the four of them by coach Glen Gulutzan.

"In my talks with Janks and Hath, I've said, 'Hey, I don't want you to play nervous. Janks message was play good defensively so I can trust you, but play and don't be scared to try things, but you've got to be good defensively'. With Hath, it was the same thing."

Slowly but surely, their solid on-ice performance is earning them increased trust from the Flames skipper.

A press box regular to start the year, Kulak is now a fixture in the everyday line-up and is seeing his ice time increase. Hathaway has started to get shifts on the penalty kill. Jankowski has become a regular on the power play.

"Usually the stubborn coaches are the last guys that come into that development model as you get set in your ways, especially with your old guys," admits Gulutzan. "For us to move forward, you have to give those guys -- when they're proving it -- you have to give them a little more bite and then see if your team can get to a little bit of a higher level."

Flames Development Philosophy

While he is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is on the same trajectory, Gulutzan says he likes the '20-50' model as he describes it where if circumstances allow, you can start guys off with a string of games in the NHL. Then when that player goes back to the minors, that helps them be that much more ready for the next call-up.

Glen Gulutzan
Hathaway and Kulak have both experienced similar development paths where they got a taste, went back down, and now are thriving in what's becoming a longer -- and perhaps permanent -- stint with the NHL club.

"That's a really good development model for me when a guy is starting to get in the league because what 20-some games can do is confirm to a player that I can play here," Gulutzan explained to me. "Then the next time they come, whether it be a year later, I'm going to do a little bit more to be there because I think I can play there on a regular basis.

"In Janks' case, he earned it by his play here in training camp. He was very close. Then he went down there and kept it going so we brought him back. Rittich is on that same level. He proved it down there. Now let's give him a little taste, see if he can prove it up here and he's doing well."

Gulutzan credits the philosophy of general manager Brad Treliving and the instruction provided by Stockton coach Ryan Huska and his staff.

"We've done a great job of developing our players the right way," Gulutzan continued. "It's Tree's plan to have those guys cooked nicely before we bring them up here. Husk and his staff are doing a great job. They're developing them and now they can come here and they can contribute right away. That's when you know you have a strong organization, when you're not having to develop your players in the NHL."

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Standouts in the Minors

Asked if there's a feeling of pride when you have players graduate to the NHL, Huska says a little bit, but he also says that's just the Stockton staff doing its job.

Ryan Huska
"It's nice to see them have success because all four of those guys were really great team guys and true pros in regards to putting time into their games," said Huska, who is in his fourth season behind the Flames' AHL bench.

"As much as we're proud for what they've been able to do in the early phase of their call-ups, they deserve a lot of the credit. All four of them were very diligent in their work habits and working on their game in regards to being consistent with it and making improvements. All four are also competitors, which is something that you look for all the time."

Asked if the success of any of them thus far had surprised him, Huska said absolutely not. He then expanded upon each guy and why.
  • On Kulak: "His ability to stick with it and continue to belief in himself is what has separated him from some others. He probably had the bumpiest road of all those guys by spending a lot of time in the ECHL his first year and he maintained the belief in himself and his ability and through it all, he continued to put in the work to make sure he was getting better, no matter where he was, or what positions he was being put in."
  • On Jankowski: "He got himself to the point where he gained confidence last year here, but this year he came down and was dominant early on in the season for us. He had a stronger belief that he could be a guy that in the middle of the ice, controlled the ice. I don't think there was another centreman down in the American Hockey League that had his ability in regards to distributing pucks and being the big man that everybody's looking for."
  • On Hathaway: "Two words for him would be dependable and consistent, and he makes people better. So if you want to call him a multiplier or whatever that word might be, you know what we were getting from him each and every night and it never changed."
  • On Rittich: "Competitor is the one word you think of when you talk about David because he really competes hard. Whether it's practice or a game, he put everything into it all the time. He hated to get scored on. Part of his character is if we lost a game 1-0, David wouldn't have been happy. If we won a game 10-9 and he gave up nine goals, he'd be the happiest guy in the dressing room. He's a real team guy where he wants to do whatever he can to help his team have success and sometimes that's just coming to the rink with a great, upbeat attitude, which we saw every day here."

While Huska still has his team atop the AHL's Pacific Division at the break with a 16-8-3 record, he says they have certainly felt the loss of those players.

"It's hard to replace Garnet's energy and his dependability and compete that he would bring each and every shift. It's hard to replace a big man like Mark down the middle of the ice where we relied on him in all those situations and it's hard to replace David where basically he had one loss while he was here. When he was in the net, he was winning for us all the time.

"So you are losing some real, key people out of your line-up but at the same time, that door is open for some other guys and this is their great opportunity to try and take advantage of a little more ice time or being a guy more counted on in different areas."

Gives Others Hope
One of those guys still in Stockton, anxiously awaiting his first NHL call-up, and being counted on even more now is Andrew Mangiapane.

Mangiapane is a particularly interested observer considering he opened the season on the same line as Jankowski and Hathaway.

Andrew Mangiapane
"I usually watch the games on nights we don't play and to see Hath and Janko both playing well and producing, I'm happy for them," said Mangiapane. 

He says their success also gives him added confidence.

"When they do good up there, it gives me hope that I can do good as well if I get the chance," said the 21-year-old second-year pro, who now finds himself playing on a line with Brett Findlay and Ryan Lomberg

"Obviously, you want to be in the NHL right now, but you have to take your time. Play great down here and work on things you need to work on and when you get called up, make the most of your opportunity."

Huska agrees that for his players, seeing guys get promoted gives everyone a little extra boost of confidence.
"Last year, there weren't a lot of injuries and call-ups, so we had a lot of guys that were here for a large portion of the year. For our guys to see those faces going up early this year, having success and helping Calgary win some games, it's very fresh for them and I think they realize that I'm not that far off. If I can put in a little bit more work and I can be consistent with what I'm trying to do in the role I'm expected to play in, there's a chance."

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Band of Brothers

Roughly a year apart in age, for Jankowski, 23, Kulak -- turning 24 in two weeks -- Rittich, 25, and Hathaway, 26, a kinship between them has developed. They've all put in the time to reach the ultimate destination. While some have been at it longer than others, it wasn't a quick ascent for any of them.

Jankowski, who first reported to Stockton after his NCAA career at Providence College wrapped up, spent 78 games with the Heat.

Hathaway, who went a full four years at Brown University, has been in the AHL for parts of four seasons, accumulating 173 games worth of AHL experience.

Brett Kulak
Kulak has logged 156 games in the minors, most of those in the AHL but 39 coming in the ECHL in 2014-15.

Other than a 20-minute cameo appearance in game 82 for the Flames, Rittich spent all of last season in Stockton.

While sharing thes crease with Jon Gillies, that only resulted in 37 games, not to be forgotten is Rittich spent the previous two seasons with Mlada Boleslav in in the top Czech league so added up, that's over 100+ games of pro development on the resume.

"Sometimes we fall back on stories of being in the minors, so it's pretty cool," said Kulak, who just recently welcomed in Jankowski as his roommate after he got the nod to go ahead and find a place to live. "We definitely spend a  lot of time around each other so we all have that feeling that we're all helping each other through the whole thing,"

Hathaway agrees that a bond has developed between them.

"We have some history together. We all went through a lot together. It is the dream to be here. To share it with guys that you put a lot of work into it with, that means a lot."

For Rittich, as he overcomes the additional obstacle of learning a new language -- something that has come a remarkably long way in a short time -- that familiarity has helped him a bunch in Calgary.

"We're now together for two years, a couple of the guys for a longer time. For me, it's way better. They know me and who I am and I know who they are. It's better for everyone and it's good for all four of us," said Rittich.

Patience is a Virtue

The promoting of young, exciting players into the NHL will never happen fast enough to quench the thirst of rabid fans. That's just the way it is and it's not anything unique to this market.

In fact, to have four that finished last season in Stockton all contributing already this season in Calgary, that's a number that is higher than average.

Whether it's Mangiapane, 20-year-old defenceman Rasmus Andersson, or perhaps an older guy like Marek Hrivik, 26, who is next, expect the Flames to steadfastly stick to their development formula because they've seen it work and right now are reaping the benefits.

Jankowski and Hathaway make up two-thirds of what's been Calgary's most effective forward line in December. Kulak's ice time is increasing and Rittich has won his first three starts.

"I just want to give the biggest chance to win for the guys and show my best," said Rittich. "For me, it's most important if we win. If you look at the standings and you can see that we have lowest goals against and we have 10 points in 20 games. Or if you have higher goals-against and you be first in the league. So what is better? It's first place. For me, it's definitely more important than my numbers."

The model to develop prospects is one of patience, ongoing work with the development staff under the direction of Ray Edwards and for GM Brad Pascall, it's surrounding the young players with veterans to show them the way.

"All of our veteran players have been really good trying to create the right environment down here for us," said Huska. "A few years back, that was Aaron Johnson for Kulak. Last year, Mike Angelidis, he played the game really hard, all the time, and I think that rubbed off on Mark and Garnet. This year, we have just an outstanding group of older guys -- Luke Gazdic, our captain Rod Pelley, Cody Goloubef, Colby Robak has been excellent, Hrivik has been excellent and of course, Tanner Glass has joined us now too.

"Glass is an absolute true pro in regards to how you take care of yourself and prepare and consistency in regards to playing a role. He's another guy that I think is someone who likely would have rubbed off on Hath. He's really good to have around young players. Just the way he approaches the day to day, he's really a student of the game. He wants to understand it and asks questions and he really, really takes cares of himself and makes sure he's ready to be at his best."

Hathaway sees the importance of those types of players and the positive influence seasoned veterans can have in young minor league dressing rooms.

"(Angelidis) last year, such a good guy and a great pro. He came to work every day. He has his sternness about him, but he's easy to talk to. It was a great environment to play in and to learn," said Hathaway. "And Glasser, he's played a long time. He knows what it's like to make it and he knows what it takes and that's a big thing for the guys to learn."

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Final Word

On Thursday in the Flames first game back out of the break, they're at the SAP Center in San Jose where in the afternoon, Stockton will play the San Jose Barracuda.

"Just to say hi, they'll probably come to the game. Hopefully we get to see them, talk to them, catch up. I think it will be pretty cool," said Mangiapane.

With 11 goals and 29 points in 27 games to lead the team, it seems more a matter of when and not if that Mangiapane will get to see his ex-linemates on a more regular basis and by that, I'm not referring to them getting demoted.

With it likely that at least a few forwards will exit the organization in the off-season -- Matt Stajan, Freddie Hamilton and Jaromir Jagr all come to mind -- there will be openings.

Perhaps by this time next year, Mangiapane will have already received what's on his Christmas wish list.

"I've just got to wait, and hopefully that day will come."

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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