Excitement for the American Hockey League’s arrival in Henderson has grown since the Vegas Golden Knights first took steps toward relocating their minor league affiliate to the Las Vegas valley.
Fans in the city have seen the boom of hockey with the arrival of the Golden Knights in 2017, but that love for the sport will continue to grow as the Henderson Silver Knights gear up for their first season of competition.
Vegas Golden Knights broadcaster Shane Hnidy played in the AHL as he worked his way toward a long NHL career. He shared some of his memories from his journey through the ranks to reach the NHL and provided insight into what it takes to achieve one’s hockey dreams.
GW: What were some of the first thoughts going through your mind when you took the step to the AHL early in your career? What are some of your early memories of playing in the AHL?
SH: I kind of took the long path. The AHL for me was a jump because when I finished my junior career, I went to the ECHL in Baton Rouge. I went there so that I could make the AHL. The NHL was still two steps away – one big step to the AHL and another huge one to the NHL. I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where I played for Pierre McGuire and I was only there for two months. Pierre really helped me and then I took the step to the American Hockey League in St. Johns. It was a different experience not being with the parent club. The AHL for me was a big step to get to. The ultimate goal is always the NHL, but I knew I had to go through the AHL. I went to the St. Johns Flames in the Calgary Flames’ farm system and I played there. The biggest thing is that you’re playing against guys who have played in the NHL. Some guys had been there briefly, some had some more experience. The level went up. The things you notice are the passing, thinking, timing, and that everything happens quicker. That’s something you notice to even more of an extreme in the NHL. It was great because I’m a big believer in creating team camaraderie. You really start to learn that because in the AHL, it’s a lot of younger guys and you’re living together. I lived with two guys in St. Johns, we rented a huge house on the Bay of Fundi. Not only are you learning the on-ice, but you’re learning the off-ice. You’re looking after yourself, making meals, doing laundry, you’re learning all those life skills as you’re coming up and they’re important as you grow. I believe that for a professional hockey player, you learn skills and habits in the American Hockey League, and you carry those and expand on them as you get to the NHL. The level of play was great. It was a different time. It was men. It was a rough league. Every team had four, five or six guys who could fight. You went there to prove yourself. You knew that someone was watching you every single night. Every night was an audition in my mind. Then I did go to the IHL which was the equivalent of the AHL. My second year with the Grand Rapids Griffins was a big year for me because I still had NHL clubs coming to watch after my stint in St. Johns. The IHL was older so I really learned a lot of good habits. A guy by the name of Kerry Huffman who had a long NHL career ended up there, so I learned from guys like him. Pokey Reddick was our goaltender, there were a few other guys who had been in the NHL. It was a great experience. The big thing about the AHL now is learning from guys who have been there. You see it on every team. It’s certainly a development program for young players, but you need those guys who have had experience and you need to learn from them. Kerry Huffman was very instrumental in me becoming a pro. The veterans would put you in your place, it’s a good place to get humbled if you get a little bit too ahead of yourself. It was a great league because there were so many great players in the IHL at that time. Finally, I had a good year there. That was the year I fought the most, I think I had about 20 majors that year. Some fights were against guys who had been in the NHL like Phil Crowe, he was big. Darren Banks who some people in Vegas might know was with the Detroit Vipers. There were a lot of scary men for a 22-year-old. I got my first contract with the Detroit Red Wings when they were coming off their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups with a hall-of-fame team. The likes of [Chris] Chelios, [Brendan] Shanahan, [Steve] Yzerman, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, it goes on and on. That was my first real experience being part of an organization. You couldn’t ask for a better one, being with guys like Steve Yzerman who was world-class, who is now an elite GM in the league, he was an elite player and an elite person. My first year in the organization, I played in the AHL in Adirondack in upstate New York. I played for the Adirondack Red Wings. I think that’s where my game really started because I had the confidence of having my first NHL contract. I knew the Red Wings scouts would be there. Having those eyes on you and getting the feedback to develop your game was huge. The previous year, I brought a real physical element, but I needed to learn how to defend the right way. You start to work on a lot more in that league. Another thing is the bus trips. Everyone also lives in the same apartment complex. There’s a real element of the team always being together. We didn’t have a lot of success there unfortunately, but that was the first year I had been named an assistant captain. That’s where you learn how to be a leader. I had been an assistant and a captain in my junior career. That’s where those qualities reach a different level. It helped me evolve because now you’re one of those guys that people look to. I’d had a couple of years of minor pro experience and now guys start to look at you and how you handle yourself. There came a little bit more responsibility with that. As a leader, you not only make sure everyone is on-task during the game, but you’re making sure everyone is staying on-task away from the rink. You keep the team close and you keep guys involved in activities. That’s where I became a big believer in that, and I saw in my NHL career how important that is.
GW: Every player wants to play junior or college hockey, get drafted first overall, and go right to the NHL. Not every player is Sidney Crosby or Nathan MacKinnon. How beneficial is it for an individual to go through the AHL to reach their goals like players will do in Henderson?
SH: It’s beneficial in the sense that it teaches you that the majority of the roads to the NHL aren’t getting drafted early and going right there. It builds a hardness and a resolve in you that’s very important. You have to have a never-quit mentality and an always-believe mentality. I think that believing in yourself and building up that confidence that you can actually get to that level help you put in the work. It’s all about work and there are constant hurdles and obstacles that you have to overcome. You have to stick with it. They’re all building blocks and I wouldn’t change the process. It’s what helped me get to the NHL having gone through the ECHL, IHL and AHL. I finally got my first NHL contract in my third year of pro and I still spent two years in Detroit’s system. I had one year in Adirondack and the next year was a split-team with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ farm team in Cincinnati. There’s a sacrifice you have to make. You’re always moving. At that time, Detroit was so good that in my two years in their system, they only called up two or three guys. It was a different time, but I remember the closeness of the guys working together for a common goal. You’re essentially competing against one another to make the NHL for your particular position, and that helps you develop an all-around game that can take you there. You can be an elite scorer at the AHL level, but you have to have other elements in your game to get called up because you might go right to that team’s third line. It’s important to learn as much as you can and understand that practices are just as important as games. You have to develop good practices habits because that goes to another level when you reach the NHL. Preparation for games, having a routine, making sure you’re prepared, those are all skills that people don’t talk about that are so important. It’s tough to learn them only at the NHL level. Some guys can, those are the elite players. The development process for every individual can be different.
GW: How important are coaches at the AHL level?
SH: Coaches are very important, and I think the coaching style has drastically changed from back then. Our coaches wanted first and foremost to win, but also to develop you as a player. It’s a development league. You’re developing with your parent club at the NHL level where the systems are similar and you’re learning that style. It’s about making you the best individual player within that team’s format. Coaching is always imperative. Back then, I don’t think the communication was quite the same. Coaching as evolved just as much as the players have.
GW: Obvious answer here, but is winning important in the AHL?
SH: Yes. I’m always a believer that winning breeds winners. If you can win at the AHL level, that’s something you can take with you. Any level you win at, the sacrifice, the grind, you’ve been through it. It’s a semblance of what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. That’s even harder. Winning is very important. Organizations look for winners because in order to win, you have to have those habits and you have that identity of having gone through it. You take it with you for your entire life no matter what level you play at especially at the pro level.
GW: Got any classic AHL stories from the road?
SH: I remember a lot of the road trips. Those were always interesting. There were a lot of long bus rides, a lot of games of cards at the back. I remember in Cincinnati, there was a great story. We were 0-3. I’ll leave the coach’s name out of this story, but he was so mad at us. We lost one night, and we got junked. I remember we had two stationary bikes and an old blender. That was about it for our workout and nutrition equipment, maybe some loose dumbbells. Some of the guys were on the bikes after the game and our coach came in. Coaches used to rant back then; it was one of those closed-door meetings that you hear about. He went up and down all of us and he said “look at these guys on the bikes. If you’ve got enough energy to ride a bike after the game, you didn’t do your job. And shakes? What’s a shake? If you want to reward yourself after a game, put some beer in the fridge.” That’s probably the tamest terms I can say it in. That’s just a glimpse into what it was like back then. Now, you’re encourage to work out after games and to replenish. Nutrition has changed a lot and so has the entire mentality. We had a lot more back then where a bad game would result in a no-puck practice. That’s non-existent now because it doesn’t really serve a purpose, but that was common thinking among all leagues. If you weren’t going to skate in practice, don’t worry about working out because the next day, you were going to sweat big time. No pucks. Line up, everyone’s seen the movie Miracle. Again! Again! Again! At the same time, that built a work ethic. You have to be mentally tough. As much as guys are in great shape and their training is elite which they learn at a real young age, if you didn’t do the work on your own, you were going to do it forcefully. It makes you mentally tough enough to go throw anything. You understand that you can push yourself and push your body because you’re going to have to if you want to get that level.