FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

Talk about a worthwhile confab.

The Houston Aeros were floundering in January when coach Mike Yeo, elevated to coach of the parent Minnesota Wild on June 17, called a team meeting.

“It was a decision that we decided to make and kind of a story that we wanted to tell,” South Windsor native and Aeros captain/right wing Jon DiSalvatore said during the sixth annual Pete Asadourian Pro Hockey Camp that ended with a public scrimmage Friday night at Champions Skating Center. “We were kind of struggling, had a little team meeting and were probably the hottest team in the league in the second half.

“It was exciting with great coaching, and everything kind of came together and guys just jumped on board. It’s all belief. If you don’t commit to something, then it’s not going to happen. And we made some nice personnel changes adding (former New York Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack wing) Jed Ortmeyer, who was great for us, and Patrick O’Sullivan, a very skilled guy.”

DiSalvatore said the players also had their own meetings, and they heeded Yeo’s words, going 23-10-0-2 down the stretch to finish 46-28-1-5 and four points behind West Division champion Milwaukee. The Aeros then beat Peoria, Milwaukee and Hamilton in the playoffs before losing to Binghamton in six games in the Calder Cup finals.

“The decision had been how we wanted the story to be told,” DiSalvatore said. “We had probably the hardest travel and had played the most games in the league at that point and had to decide which way we wanted to go.”

The Aeros headed north and came within two wins of their second AHL title, losing in Game 6 of the finals at home to the Senators, who seemed destined to win after assistant coach Steve Stirling sustained a heart attack two days before their clinching victory.

“They had a different team after getting a lot of good players who were sent (by the Ottawa Senators),” DiSalvatore said. “But it was nice for them with what happened with their coach.”

It was also a nice season for 6-foot-1, 200-pound DiSalvatore, who had a career-high 28 goals and 33 assists while playing all 80 games in the regular season and then added seven goals and five assists in 24 playoff games. It was his eighth year in the pros after being a fourth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2000 during a solid career at Providence College, which never qualified for the postseason.

After spending the 2003-04 season with Cleveland Barons, the Sharks’ AHL affiliate, DiSalvatore was signed by the St. Louis Blues as a free agent on June 30, 2004. He was a key member of the Blues’ AHL affiliate in Peoria, Ill., getting a career-high 67 points in the 2005-06 season, when he also played in his only five NHL games. On July 9, 2007, DiSalvatore was signed as a free agent by the Phoenix Coyotes and had 22 goals and 24 assists in 66 games with the San Antonio Rampage. He then signed with the New Jersey Devils and played one season in Lowell, getting 20 goals and 33 assists in 76 games. He joined the Wild as a free agent on July 16, 2009 and has extended his consecutive 20-goal seasons to eight with the Aeros.

“I’d never made it out of the first round of playoffs, so it was a nice change playing into June,” a smiling DiSalvatore said of last season. “It was very satisfying because I’d always been home by the middle of April.”

DiSalvatore, who has one year left on his contract, spent the summer in Monroe with his wife, whose family lives there, and two children. He had had plenty of time previously with his family, which still lives in South Windsor, and has bought a house in Houston.

DiSalvatore played only one year at South Windsor High School before former Bobcats coach Dave Fisher realized his standout right wing was too good for the competition. His teammates included close friend Dennis Coughlin, who works game nights for the Connecticut Whale.

“Jon was awesome,” said Fisher, who is also part of the Whale’s game-night staff. “He didn’t belong in high school hockey. He was above and beyond that level. He was faster and a lot more skilled. At the time he didn’t have the size, but he was really talented.”

So Fisher recommended DiSalvatore join the late Gary Dineen’s Springfield Junior Pics, where his teammates included future first-round draft picks Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey, who also participated in this week’s Asadourian camp.

“I hated to lose Jon, but leaving was the best thing for his development,” Fisher said. “And there were never any hard feelings because he was a great, down-to-earth kid.”

After three seasons with the Pics, capped by being named Eastern Junior Hockey League MVP after having 44 goals and 76 assists in 48 games in 1998-99, DiSalvatore went to Providence College. He was named the Friars’ top freshman after getting 15 goals and 12 assists in 36 games. During the next season, he led Team USA in goals (six) and points (nine) as it finished fifth in the World Junior Championships.

DiSalvatore led Providence in scoring as a senior (19 goals, 29 assists in 36 games) and again was a finalist for the Walter Brown Award, given to the best American-born college player in New England in the final two years. He had a slow start in his first pro season with the Barons, then got more playing time and finished with a franchise rookie record 22 goals and tied Worcester IceCats right wing Mike Glumac for most shots among first-year players (205).

Despite the strong finish, DiSalvatore wasn’t long for Cleveland. He had a clause in his contract that said the Sharks had to pick up his option by Dec. 1 or he would be a free agent at the end of the season. The Sharks didn’t make a move by the deadline, so he moved on and finally nearly won a championship this spring.

Now DiSalvatore is hopefully of getting a better shot at more permanent time in the NHL with Wild.

“Mike Yeo will be my ninth coach in nine pro seasons, and he likes what I can do,” DiSalvatore said. “And I think a lot of the young guys who were part of the playoff run (with the Aeros) are going to get a good look.”

Here’s hoping DiSalvatore gets a REALLY good look that he deserves after eight consecutive 20-goal seasons, a good trick at any level. If he doesn’t make the Wild, he’ll be wearing new uniforms unveiled on Thursday by Aeros general manager Jim Mill, new head coach John Torchetti and assistants Sebastien Laplante and Mike Van Ryn, both of whom played for Torchetti. Mill, a Hartford native, previously worked 11 years for the AHL, including as executive vice president of hockey operations while overseeing the disciplinary process for fines and suspensions, developing and executing the 1,160-game league schedule and coordinating the playoff schedule for all participating teams.

BONINO LOOKING TO STICK IN ANAHEIM

While DiSalvatore is looking for a legitimate shot at the NHL for the first time, Nick Bonino had as good a start as anyone could imagine after leaving Boston University following his junior season and less than a year after the highlight of his career, a miraculous last-minute comeback that led to an overtime victory over Miami of Ohio in the national championship game.

A major reason for the early departure from BU and legendary coach Jack Parker is Bonino had been told that he would go straight to the Anaheim Ducks, who had acquired the center from San Jose after he was the Sharks’ sixth-round pick in 2007. When Bonino arrived on the West Coast, he replaced injured Ryan Getzlaf on the Ducks’ No. 1 line between Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry, the reigning MVP of the NHL.

“It was a good time to leave because I was able to go right into Anaheim and play nine games,” Bonino said. “It was really fun playing with Ryan and Perry and helped me a lot going into my first full (pro) year. A lot of guys sign out of college and go to the AHL for a few games and then go back to college to finish school. But the fact that the Ducks were going to let me come and play on sort of a tryout was pretty awesome, and I appreciated the opportunity. I burned a whole year (of entry-level eligibility), but it was worth it.”

Bonino started skating in Farmington at 3 under the tutelage of his father and played several years with the Northern Connecticut Wings, a summer junior team in West Hartford. He then played two years at Farmington High School, where he had an astonishing 91 points in 24 games as a junior and led the team to its first state championship. He then began training with Asadourian, transferred to Avon Old Farms, played two years for legendary coach John Gardner and captained the Winged Beavers to a New England title in 2007, when he was selected by the Sharks.

“I did really well at Farmington High, so it was time to move on,” Bonino said.

Bonino chose BU over fellow Hockey East schools Providence College and the University of New Hampshire. While a sophomore at BU, Bonino led the team to the national title against Miami of Ohio as he assisted on Zach Cohen’s goal that got the Terriers to 3-2 with 59 seconds left in regulation and then scored the tying goal off assists from former Rangers Matt Gilroy and Chris Higgins with 17.4 seconds to go. When defenseman Colby Cohen scored on a slapshot at 11:47 of overtime, one of the great comebacks in hockey history was complete.

“Scoring that goal to send it to overtime was one of the best moments and biggest plays of my life,” said Bonino, who was named to the Frozen Four All-Tournament team. “Just being able to share it with all the guys who had got so close … Playing at BU was amazing. Hockey-wise, it was one of the best programs in the country and learning from Jack Parker and all the other coaches there. And Boston is my favorite city, an unbelievable city to live in. It’s a big city, but it has got a town feel to it. It’s not too crazy. It’s not too hectic.”

But Bonino does have some mixed allegiances. His favorite teams are the Boston Red Sox and New York Giants.

“We’re right on the (Boston-New York) line, so I cover both ends of the spectrum,” Bonino said with a smile. “Those were the favorite teams of my dad and his parents when he was growing up, so I kind of followed their footsteps.”

During the championship season, the Sharks traded Bonino, goalie Timo Pielmeier and a conditional draft pick in 2009 to Anaheim for left wing Travis Moen and defenseman Kent Huskins. After getting a team-leading 38 points in 33 games his junior year, Bonino decided to turn pro and signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Anaheim on March 21, 2010. He immediately joined the Ducks and made his NHL debut on March 26 against the Edmonton Oilers. In the Ducks’ next game three nights later, he scored his only NHL goal against the Dallas Stars on an assist from future Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne. Bonino finished that season with one goal and one assist in the nine games.

Last season, Bonino started with the Syracuse Crunch but was called up after only six games, the last a thrilling 2-1 overtime victory over the Hartford Wolf Pack at the XL Center on Oct. 23. Bonino set up Kyle Palmieri’s sixth-attacker goal with 24 seconds left in regulation and then former Rangers wing Josh Green scored 45 seconds into overtime to give the Crunch the stunning win.

“I had a lot of people from around here there to watch me, so it was awesome,” Bonino recalled.

Bonino was scoreless in 26 games with the Ducks and then returned to the Crunch for 44 games, finishing the season with 12 goals and 33 assists as Syracuse missed the playoffs.

“I think I progressed as a player, but it was a learning experience for sure,” Bonino said. “It was frustrating at times because I had always been a top-six guy, and last season was I filling in on the third and fourth lines in Anaheim. So it was definitely learning a different role, just being able to do what the team wants you to do, whether it’s bringing energy or making hits and playing good defense and hopefully pitching in offensively.

“So that was definitely a learning experience, but I didn’t look at going down to Syracuse as a bad thing. I’m young (23) and knew I was eventually going to spend some time there. And Syracuse was good because I got a lot of ice time and we have a really young team so I had a bigger role than I might have at another time.”

When the Crunch didn’t qualify for the postseason, Bonino was called up by the Ducks and was scoreless in four games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Ducks qualified Bonino on June 27, and the restricted free agent signed a one-year contract on July 14.

Like any player, Bonino’s goal is to make the Anaheim roster, but he understands the high quality of the Ducks, especially if the 40-year-old Selanne, a future Hockey Hall of Famer, decides to re-sign with the team after getting 31 goals and 49 assists last season. Bonino was helped by the retirement of veteran center Todd Marchant.

“I’d love to have a good training camp and show them how hard I’ve been working out this summer and win a spot,” Bonino said. “But if that doesn’t happen, I’ll work as hard as I can in Syracuse for however long I’m there and hopefully get called up. … Hopefully everyone wants Teemu to come back. He’s amazing, and I still think he has some left in the tank.”

Bonino considers his biggest attribute is “thinking the game and trying to be in the right spot to anticipate plays” so he has continued to work on his speed.

“(Lack of speed) has been my knock for a long time, so I’ve been focusing on getting faster and moving my feet quicker every summer,” Bonino said. “But it’s almost easier to play in the NHL because everyone is where they’re suppose to be, so you know where your buddies are going to be and that when you’re open you’re going to get the puck. If you mess up, the puck is in your net pretty quickly.”

While with the Ducks, Bonino skated mostly with fellow youngsters Matt Beleskey and Brandon MacMillan. Bonino also helped kill penalties during the playoffs.

“The lines switched a lot because you never knew who you were playing with when you were on the third or fourth line,” Bonino said.

But for now, Bonino would be happy to play anywhere in Anaheim. He’ll start trying to earn a permanent spot in three weeks.

RANGERS POSTPONE FAN FEST

Hurricane Irene has claimed another victim.

The approaching storm caused the Rangers Season Subscriber Fan Fest scheduled for Saturday to be postponed to Sept. 10 at the team’s training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.

Anyone who had a ticket to the ticketed event should refer to it for schedule information. All tickets remain valid and will be honored. For complete information, season ticket holders can call 212-465-6073 or visit www.nyrsubcenter.com. … The Sharks signed standout young wing Logan Couture to a two-year, $5.75 million contract. Couture, 22, who could have become a restricted free agent after this season, was a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season after getting 32 goals and 24 assists in the regular season and seven goals and seven assists in 18 playoff games. “Logan is an excellent teammate and he proved it by committing to the team-first philosophy that we have instilled here,” San Jose general manager Doug Wilson said on the team’s website. “Last season, as a rookie, he was a catalyst for our hockey club as one of our most consistent players. Over the last two postseasons, he has been one of our most reliable players. We’re excited to see him build upon his early success and continue his growth over the next three seasons.” The native of London, Ontario, was the Sharks’ first-round pick (ninth overall) in 2007 and excelled for the Worcester Sharks in 2009-10, when he had 20 goals and 33 assists in 42 games before joining San Jose and getting five goals and four assists in 25 games.

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