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Ken Gernander plays right wing for the Hartford wolf pack of the American Hockey League (AHL), the New York Rangers' top minor-league affiliate. He's 5-11, 180 pounds, and, by his own admission, 'not going to get any bigger or faster.' He's also going to be 33 in June and has played in only 15 national hockey league games in 11 seasons as a pro. His chances of landing a full-time job in the big leagues get slimmer with each passing year.
So why do the Rangers, purportedly carrying out an organization-wide youth movement, keep a guy like Gernander around?
Manny Malhotra, one of the youngsters the Blueshirts hope to build around, has an answer. In an interview with the Voice, Malhotra, who spent parts of two seasons playing with Gernander in Hartford, compares the veteran minor leaguer's leadership qualities to those of Ranger teammates Brian Leetch and Mark Messier, two of the most respected players in the league.
"Kenny is great to have around the younger guys," says Malhotra, who has had an up-and-down career since being New York's first pick (seventh overall) in the 1998 NHL draft. "He really shows you the focus and work ethic you need to have as a professional."
Gernander and others like him in hockey and baseballthe two major pro sports with established minor league "feeder" systemsmay just be the most important players you've probably never heard of on your favorite teams. As veterans in the minors, they provide leadership and guidance to the most valuable commodities in professional sports young players with potential. In his book The Only Way I Know, future Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles describes minor-league mentors as "good [players] who provide an example."
As far as the Rangers are concerned, with highly touted prospects such as Jamie Lundmark, Mike Mottau, Peter Smrek, and Barrett Heisten on the roster in Hartford, Gernander's veteran leadership is vital. It's part of the reason he is in his seventh season as captain of the Wolf Pack, and part of the reason he continues to play the game he loves, despite his ever diminishing chances at cashing a big NHL paycheck.
"People, even at my age, still have aspirations to get to the next level," notes Gernander, clearly moved when told of Malhotra's comments. "I'm not making an NHL salary playing here, but I take a lot of pride if I've contributed to helping younger players adapt to the professional game. Having that kind of impact on young players is not something I'm conscious of, but I try to talk to the guys about the things I know. Maybe they take what I say with a grain of salt, or maybe they think, 'Yeah, he's right. I should do that.' I try to behave like a professional and put my best foot forward for the organization at all times and hope the younger guys see that and have it sink in."
Movie buffs might recognize Gernander's job description. In the baseball movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner's fictional Crash Davis character was called to the low minors to mentor a "hot prospect," pitcher Nuke Laloosh, played by Tim Robbins. At the end of the movie, Davis "hangs 'em up" and decides to go into coaching. In real-life baseball, players like Jeff Manto, who after a couple of decent seasons in the majors spent several years with Triple A Buffalo in the Cleveland farm system, have been tagged Crash Davises by some in the sports media. Since retiring in 2000, Manto has been an instructor with the Philadelphia Phillies' Class A team in Lakewood, New Jersey. Even stars can become Crash Davises. In hockey, Eddie Shore became a folk heroand a mentorto many when, after winning two Stanley Cups and four MVP awards in the NHL, he became player-owner of the old Springfield Indians of the AHL. His impact on the pro game was memorialized in the classic hockey film Slap Shot.
"We try to get as many quality guys as we can at the minor-league level that can help the younger players move along up to the majors," Jim Duquette, the Mets' assistant general manager for player personnel, tells the Voice. "We want to see veteran guys sitting with a prospectlike young shortstop Gil Velazquezand talking the game with them, teaching them little nuances of the game. Players trust guys like that because they speak to them on their terms. It's not a player-coach relationship."
The Mets, in fact, picked up a Crash Davis type when they signed then veteran utility infielder David Howard, a .229 career hitter in nine-plus big-league seasons, to a free-agent deal in December 2000. Originally, the Mets envisioned Howard as a backup infielder, but when injuries forced him to miss much of spring training and begin last season in the minors, they moved in a different direction. When Howard didn't recover quickly, they offered him a coaching position. After an early stint as the first-base coach in Norfolk, the Mets were impressed enough to make Howard a "roving instructor," enabling him to work with prospects in the lower minors, where more teaching occurs. He'll start the 2002 season as an infield coach at Double A Binghamton.