FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

EAST HARTFORD, CT. – All that was missing were the strains of “The Stripper” reverberating through empty Rentschler Field.

Connecticut Whale rookie defenseman Tomas Kundratek lost the team’s practice-ending shootout Tuesday, and on this day, that meant having to impersonate Michael Ontkean, aka Ned Braden, in the signature scene from the slapstick comedy “Slap Shot.”

With teammates chanting his name and urging him on, Kundratek reluctantly disrobed to his pants and skates, circled half the outdoor rink and capped his run with a head-first slide across about 30 feet of ice, earning more roars and plaudits from all in attendance. Not to mention a snow job to the face.

Kundratek then immediately adjourned to the Whale’s spacious locker room normally reserved for the University of Connecticut football team, where the players later passed and kicked footballs when not tackling each other or trying their hand at indoor baseball. Center Kris Newbury even teed up one ball and kicked a field goal between two makeshift “goal posts,” nearly taking out an Exit sign.

All part of one of the real fun days of the season, save for the few seconds of discomfort for Kundratek, who ironically had watched “Slap Shot” on the Whale’s trip to Toronto and Hamilton last week. But Kundratek took the momentary freeze-out in stride, and teammates continued to congratulate him and offer high-fives as he returned to the rink for post-practice skating drills with fellow defensemen Jyri Niemi, Stu Bickel and Pavel Valentenko under the tutelage and watchful eye of New York Rangers skating specialist Barb Underwood.

“It was fun,” Kundratek said with a wide smile as he warmed up in the locker room before donning a new set of undergarments and heading back on the rink. “I used to skate on ponds all the time growing up (in the Czech Republic). I played outdoors in one game, but the rest of the time it was just for fun.”

The Whale practiced at Rentschler Field in preparation for their game Saturday night at 7pm against the Providence Bruins, the nightcap of the Whale Bowl, the featured attraction of the historic 12-day “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011.” The Whale-Bruins game will follow an Army-American International College game at 1 p.m., and about a dozen celebrities mixing in with the Hartford Whalers legends and the Boston Bruins legends for a 4 p.m. game.

Kundratek and his teammates said the ice was in excellent condition, and right wing Dale Weise gave construction manager Jim Hartnett and his crew special accolades.

“I was impressed,” Weise said. “I’d say it’s better than half the AHL rinks we play in. There were some (shavings) in the one end, but other than that, it wasn’t too bad. Just stay off that side, and we’ll be all right.”

The hardness of the ice and winds gusting to 15 mph out of the north caused some ice chips to be blown and to gather in the south end of the rink. Some ice chip piles also slowed the puck at times, but the overall surroundings earned high marks and elicited memories of learning to skate on outdoor rinks worldwide.

Weise, Devin DiDiomete and Russian Evgeny Grachev were the only players not to wear toques (ski caps) to combat the wind chill, which dipped into the teens. But that seemed balmy to Weise compared to what he often encountered growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“I’ve skated in way colder than this, maybe minus-35 or minus-40 without the wind chill,” Weise said. “We had some players-only practices in juniors just to go out and have some fun.”

Goalie Chad Johnson said he didn’t anticipate any problems even at night. He grew up playing outdoors in Calgary, Alberta, and had a few outdoor practices five years ago while at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The lights were a lot closer and the rink in the center of the field, so the light angles will be a little different at the 38,000-seat Rentschler Field.

“There will probably be a little more of a shadow on one side, but I don’t foresee any problems,” Johnson said. “The ice was really good, and it’ll be interesting to see how many people we get.”

Veteran defenseman Wade Redden also skated outdoors with his brother Bart and sister Niki on a rink that their father made in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. Redden played with Bart at times, and Niki was a figure skater.

“We never had any games, but most little towns out there (in Western Canada) have rinks, and sometimes it’s colder in them than it is outside,” Redden said. “But my brother, sister and I would go out and skate, even on the odd times before it snowed that the ponds would freeze over so you could skate forever it seemed. You wouldn’t have to clear any snow, so that was a rare time.

“We learned to skate by taking lessons, and every night we’d want to get out on the ice. We skated all the time.”

Redden also played with such players as Scotty Hartnall who played in an outdoor NHL game.

“The ice was fast because it was so cold and the ice was so hard,” Redden said. “It didn’t take long for the water to freeze when the Zamboni was out there.”

Coach Ken Gernander wanted the players to enjoy themselves but also get acclimated to the surroundings and realize an important two points will be on the line as the Whale battles to get into the playoffs in the final 25 games.

“It’s obviously going to be a little bit different circumstances on Saturday,” said Gernander, who grew up on outdoor rinks in Coleraine, Minn. “The weather is going to be warmer, and we’ll be playing under the lights as opposed to the sunlight. But the guys got to see the lay of the land, and we had a good one-hour conditioning practice. So it was a little bit of change of scenery, and they got acclimated to where they’re going to be playing.

“Hopefully they had some fun, but there’s going to be a little bit different feeling or atmosphere on Saturday given the circumstances, so you have to realize at the end of the day, work comes first.”

Is that difficult to convey since the Whale Bowl is a bit of a spectacle?

“The Super Bowl is a spectacle, and they’re able to maintain their focus,” Gernander said. “It’s a concern and something to address, but I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. We’ve got a good group of guys, and I think everyone fully understands how important the two points are going to be.”

The Whale (26-22-2-5) has rebounded from a 9-2 loss in Toronto last Wednesday to beat Hamilton 3-2 and Providence 4-1. That gives them four wins in six starts, but they’ve lost ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The teams they are chasing for the Atlantic Division lead, Manchester and Portland, have won a combined five consecutive games and are 14-3-0-3 in their last 20 starts. And the Atlantic or East Division teams the Whale is trying to catch or hold off – Worcester, Charlotte, Norfolk and Binghamton – are on a combined 16-0-2-1 run.

Gernander said the latest turnaround is the result of getting players back from the Rangers and the uncertain nature of the AHL because of call-ups and injuries. Talbot has missed 11 games and is out indefinitely along with center Todd White (concussion) and forward Chris McKelvie (foot surgery).

“Even in the NHL, teams go through phases or streaks or cycles,” Gernander said. “You have to make hay when everyone is hitting on all cylinders, and when things aren’t going well, you have to nip it in the bud as soon as you can so you don’t lose any ground. We, of course, addressed some things after the Toronto game, but it wasn’t like a change of philosophy or system play or anything. It was just addressing some issues that transpired.”

THE THRILL OF A LIFETIME FOR WILLIAMS’ FUTURE BROTHER-IN-LAW

Whale All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams said Brett Leggat, the brother of his fiancée Ashley, got a memory for life in Hamilton on Friday.

With Johnson unable to play because of a sudden stomach virus, Leggat was summoned to be the backup to Dov Grumet-Morris for the game against the Bulldogs. The 30-year-old Leggat played for Branford in the Senior A League in Ontario, sometimes against Talbot and always dreaming about playing in a professional game.

“Brett messages me all the time joking around when we’ll in Hamilton and saying, ‘Get somebody hurt so I can come out and play as a back up,’ ” Williams recalled with a smile. “He messaged me (Friday) morning saying, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot high and hard so I can sign an (amateur) tryout contract and back up for you guys tonight and sit on the bench.’

“After practice I messaged him, ‘It’s funny our goalie is out and we have to find one.’ I told (assistant coach) Pat (Boller) that my fiancée’s brother is a pretty good goalie and played roller hockey for the Canadian national team. Pat said they were already trying to get someone, but around 12:30, he asked me if I thought I could get Brett ready to play. When I called Brett, he thought I was kidding around, but then I told him he had to call the assistant coach and I gave him the number.”

Leggat made the call, learned of his good fortune, arrived at the Copps Coliseum around 4:15 p.m., a little less than three hours before the opening face-off, and signed a one-game agreement.

“It was pretty neat to go through it with him,” Williams said. “He was pretty nervous, and then I told him, ‘Don’t worry about getting nervous until you see the goalie getting pulled.’ He really appreciated it and loved it. He’s 30 years old, but at the same time, for him to be able to play pro hockey, he really enjoyed the experience, even if he didn’t play.

“It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to do. A lot of us take it granted that, ‘Oh, we just play in the AHL.’ ”

About 20 friends and family watched Leggat take the pregame and between-periods skates and open and close the bench door. Leggat’s brother, Bram, had just bought a new camera, so he was constantly clicking off pictures.

Leggat’s 15 minutes of fame ended with the Whale giving him his jersey as a remembrance, not to mention his name on a winning box score. Weise and Brodie Dupont scored on the Whale’s first two shots, and after the Bulldogs tied it early in the third period, DiDiomete got his first pro winner with 1:13 left when Tim Kennedy’s shot deflected off his skate and past veteran goalie Curtis Sanford.

The Whale left Hamilton the next morning, practiced in suburban Syracuse and then continued on to Hartford, where they were met by Pier-Olivier Pelletier, who had signed a second professional tryout contract to back up on Grumet-Morris on Sunday in Providence. But with Johnson back from his illness, Pelletier was returned to Laredo of the Central Hockey League.

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