The subject matter was standard.
The sign-offs seemed a little strange.
Once the American Hockey League officially scrapped the remainder of its season due to the global health crisis, the coaching staff for the Stockton Heat — top affiliate for the NHL’s Calgary Flames — conducted individual exit interviews last week with the players over Skype.
“The virtual side of it was … different,” said Heat bench boss Cail MacLean, accustomed to the usual face-to-face farewells on locker clean-out day. “I wouldn’t say that hampered the process that much. I thought the process was good. It was just the nature of being removed from guys. A lot of times, you’ve lived through things with these players, so it’s nice to just be able to shake hands at the end of the season or to be able to give a guy a hug and send him on his way.”
The minor-leaguers split their separate ways more than two months ago.
They won’t be heading back to Stockton anytime soon, although some will be on standby as potential taxi-squaders for a Flames’ playoff push.
Prior to the pause, the Heat had established themselves as a could-be contender with a 30-17-8 record, good for the eighth-best points percentage in the AHL. Although they were sitting seven points out of the top spot in the Pacific Division, they could have closed that gap with three games in hand.
After missing the playoffs in the past two seasons, spring hockey seemed like a certainty for Calgary’s farm club.
The up-and-comers hoped to still be growing playoff beards in mid-May, not shaving their scruff so they’d look presentable for their video conferences with MacLean and his assistants and then a separate chit-chat with Flames assistant general manager Brad Pascall.
“It’s really difficult, and that was evident in the voices of the guys as we talked to them — players and coaches and support staff all felt like we really had a strong group, and that we were headed in a strong direction,” MacLean said. “It wasn’t without some sputtering at times. Even in our last month before we ended, we were playing .500 hockey, but the guys all really felt like that was an inevitable phase in our year and we were really primed to roll out of that and push forward and have a really successful playoff run.
“Certainly, we would have liked to see how that ended.”
Of course, the end-game for every AHLer is to eventually climb to the top rung.
Coaches are always reluctant to single out individual players but MacLean, asked about the development highlights from the shortened season, pinpointed the progress of a hat-trick of young forward prospects — Glenn Gawdin, 23, Matthew Phillips, 22, and first-year pro Adam Ruzicka, a broad-shouldered centre who just turned 21 and notched points in 11 of his last 14 games before the stoppage.
Gawdin and Phillips were both selected to the AHL All-Star Classic as sophomores, although the latter had to skip the showcase due to a fractured knee-cap. Ruzicka was one of three rookie forwards to carve out an every-night role in Stockton, a list that also included Luke Philp and Eetu Tuulola. (The 24-year-old Philp, signed out of the U Sports ranks, tied for the team lead with 19 goals.)
“What really jumps to the forefront is the continued progression of Gawdin and Phillips, and I group those guys together because they started together last year and they took another step,” MacLean said. “At the time of Phillips’ injury, both of them were right near the top in scoring in the AHL. I thought that was really positive, to see those guys continue to take another step. They’re both really dedicated to what they’re doing and very invested in becoming the best that they can, so I thought that was a good highlight.
“And I was especially pleased with the way Adam Ruzicka was able to grow throughout the year. Adam had a great finish to his junior career, and I think that he just continued to build off that — despite having to earn it at the beginning of the year and sort of get to know the league and understand how much he’s going to have to give in terms of being able to apply what a great skill-set and offensive gifts he brings to the game. He started to understand that.
“One of the disappointing parts of ending our season is for guys like Adam. It’s for all of them, but seeing those young guys really starting to come along, you wonder, ‘Jeez, where could they be in April or May if we were still playing?’ ”
Unfortunately, they can only wonder.
“I do think the younger prospects understood we were getting into a time of year where, for the lack of a better term, the heat was going to be turned way up,” said MacLean, whose squad had 13 regular-season games left as they tried to peak for a Calder Cup push. “So them understanding that, they’re eager to prove themselves. Now if they have to wait until further into the future to do it, that’s fine. But they definitely want to prove it.”