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 baseball—the two major pro sports with established minor league “feeder” systems—may 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 hero—and a mentor—to 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 prospect—like young shortstop Gil Velazquez—and 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.
While Howard enjoys the work, he disagrees with the Crash Davis analogy, saying, “You know how movies are.” But he admits how teams could envision a player like him in that role. “I’ve been in four organizations and I’ve earned a reputation as a quality person who knows the game,” he says.
Duquette says Met manager Bobby Valentine “talked to him a lot in the dugout during spring training and liked what he heard. He sees the game differently than most. As long as he wants to stay in coaching with us, we want to keep him. You always talk about players as coaches, but the key is the player has to be ready to shut off playing.”
One “Crash Davis” eager to get into coaching is former Yankee farmhand Carlos Garcia. A veteran utility infielder who spent 10 years in the majors, mostly with Pittsburgh, Garcia, 34, became an important part of the Yankee system at Triple A Columbus over the past two seasons, thanks to his work with the Bombers’ young prospects, particularly those of Latin descent. Second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who just came off a successful rookie season in the Bronx, had played with Garcia briefly in the minors in 2000 and tells the Voice the older player’s support and tutelage “meant a lot” to him.
According to sources in the Yankee administration, there has been discussion of hiring Garcia as an instructor within the system as soon as next season, something he would love to do once his playing days are over. “When you get to be my age and you’re in the minors, you’re swimming against the tide,” says Garcia. “I enjoy teaching the game and working with younger players. If an organization wants me around to do that, I’d love the opportunity.”
“When Carlos decides he doesn’t want to play anymore,” says Mark Newman, the Yankees’ senior vice president of baseball operations, “he’ll be able to do a lot in baseball, because he has the respect of the people he works with—the front office, the coaches, and the players.”
Back on the ice, the Devils, noted for developing young talent, give a lot of credit to Sylvain Cloutier, currently in his second year as captain of their AHL affiliate in Albany. According to Devil president and GM Lou Lamoriello, Cloutier was signed as a minor-league free agent two years ago “for his character, and with the idea of putting him with our younger players.” So far, he has played with, and influenced, many of Jersey’s current stars, including Colin White and Mike Commodore, as well as possible future ones such as Brian Gionta, Scott Clemmensen, and Max Birbraer.
That said, Cloutier, older brother of former Ranger and current Vancouver netminder Danny Cloutier, still aspires to be a regular player in the NHL, though at 27, he has skated in only seven NHL games in nine years as a pro (with no goals). “If it stops being my goal, I should stop playing, because that means my heart isn’t in it anymore,” he says.
Lamoriello couldn’t agree more, which is why the Devils gave Cloutier a chance to make the big club during training camp in September. “It wouldn’t be fair to him otherwise,” explains the GM, illustrating the conundrum these older players create. “We want him to still have that fire. You want to show these players how much you appreciate what they bring to your organization, so you give them a fair shot to make the big club like everyone else. But it’s a delicate balance, because you want solid veterans like them in the minors, around your developing players.”