SPOTLIGHT: “PAPA” REDDEN, THE CAPTAIN

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

When the Connecticut Whale gathered for a team meal Saturday night in Manchester, N.H., coach Ken Gernander had a surprise, especially for veteran defenseman Wade Redden.

After the Whale had been without a captain for nearly 16 months, Gernander announced he and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller had decided the man affectionately known as “Papa” would be wearing the “C” for the first time in his illustrious career. Redden had been an assistant captain several times, including since he arrived in Hartford last season, but never was the official leader of the pack.

“He kind of announced it unexpectedly, but it was all good,” Redden said Tuesday. “It’s a nice honor, for sure, but it was a bit surprising. It’s been awhile since Dane has been traded, and no one had been named captain, though that’s not a huge deal for the team not to have one. There’s obviously a good group of guys here who are great leaders, but it’s an honor for me to get it, and we’ll try to do our best to do as good as we can down the stretch.”

Gernander said there were a few candidates for the captaincy, which has been vacant since Dane Byers were traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for right wing Chad Kolarik on Nov. 10, 2010. But while fellow assistant captain Kris Newbury was another high on the list, Redden seemed a natural after he returned Feb. 18 after missing two months because of an injury sustained in a 2-1 shootout loss to Providence on Dec. 17.

“He has a lot of real good qualities from the way he handles himself both on and off the ice and the way he interacts with his teammates and what he shows as far as leadership on the ice and the way the other guys look to him at times,” Gernander said. “We haven’t had a captain for a while, but there had been a lot of movement and transactions early on in the season, and he missed a lot of time because of injury, so now that he’s back and healthy, we thought it was time to name him.

“Even while he was out injured, I think you could see he was a guy who knew how to handle himself, carry himself, and was a very good professional. I think guys responded to that, so when we were comfortable that he was back and healthy and playing, it’s going to be important that we have some leadership going down the stretch and into the playoffs.”

Appropriately, Redden’s first home game as captain will be Friday night against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who reclaimed the Northeast Division lead Tuesday night with a 3-2 victory at Worcester thanks to two power-play goals by Rhett Rakhshani and one by Tomas Marcinko to back the 32-save effort of Kevin Poulin. The Sound Tigers (32-19-3-3) are on a 9-1-0-1 run and have a staggering 20-2-0-2 record in 2012 after a 2-10-1-1 slide from Thanksgiving to the end of the year dropped them into the division cellar. Meanwhile, the Whale (29-19-5-5) is on a 10-3-1-0 run and have won six in a row at the XL Center and have the AHL’s best home winning percentage of .731 (16-4-2-4). But the Sound Tigers, coached by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, have won five of the first seven meetings with the Whale.

Despite his first go-round as a captain and the importance of this time of the season, Redden said he isn’t about to alter his personality or what he has done for 15 pro seasons after being the second overall pick of the New York Islanders in 1995.

“I don’t think anything changes,” said Redden, who has one goal and 11 assists in 32 games. “I think I’ve always been looked to to be a leader on the team, and that’s not going to change anything. I’m not going to try to be overly vocal or anything. I’m not going to try to do too much that way just because they appointed me the captain. I’ve always tried to lead and help out where I could, and that’s going to say the same.”

Redden has exuded nothing but class since being sent to the Wolf Pack in September 2010, helping youngsters such as Ryan McDonagh, Tomas Kundratek, Pavel Valentenko, Michael Del Zotto, Stu Bickel and Jyri Niemi, who idolized Redden growing up in Finland, improve.

“We, as a staff, are proud of Reds and everything he has done,” Gernander said.

As fate would have it, Redden, who is three months shy of his 35th birthday, feels he was helped by a knee injury that sidelined him from Dec. 17 to Feb. 18.

“I obviously didn’t play there for a while, and the rest of the body also had time off, not just the knee was healing,” said Redden, who helped the Whale rally for a 3-2 victory over Manchester on Sunday in his debut as captain. “It’s a long grind, and I used that time to keep myself ready and did everything I could to heal up and stay ready to go, so I’m feeling good right now.

“And when you get to March, everyone gets that excitement back when you see the playoffs are near. Every game means so much now, so it’s a fun time of year to be playing. We’ve got a lot to play for, and for me, it’s always exciting coming to the rink at this time of year. Playoffs are around, and I think everyone likes playing in that atmosphere.”

Redden hopes his refreshed state will allow him to help the Whale even more than usual in the most important part of the season.

“We’ve worked hard to get where we are, and there’s a lot of big games left so we want to do the things that make us successful and do them real hard,” Redden said. “We don’t want to change much at this time because we’ve worked hard to build ourselves into the team we want to be. Now we just have to trust in each other and have some fun out there.”

Fun is something a few of Redden’s teammates have already had at the expense of their captain. After Gernander made the announcement, Kelsey Tessier and Scott Tanski twittered the news to the world, congratulating “Papa” on his new position. It was a friendly reference to Redden nearly being old enough to be the father of teammates such as Tessier, Tanski, Tim Erixon, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Ryan Bourque. But it also was a serious sign of respect for someone following in the footsteps of Gernander, who captained the team for its first eight seasons, Craig Weller, Andrew Hutchinson, Greg Moore and Byers.

“I actually got that nickname from (defenseman) Paul Mara when I was in New York,” Redden said with a chuckle. “He’s a good guy, and I don’t know how it kind of stuck. He was ‘Uncle Paulie’ and I was ‘Papa Reds.’ The (Whale) guys picked up on it, and I just think it comes with the territory being an older guy. But it’s all in fun, and I still have lots to play for and hopefully still get another run at (the NHL), so I’ve always tried to continue as I have been.”

CLEAR-DAY ROSTERS ANNOUNCED

The Whale’s 22-man “Clear Day” roster announced Tuesday is goalies Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot, defensemen Redden, Erixon, Brendan Bell, Sam Klassen, Jared Nightingale, Blake Parlett, Pavel Valentenko and Mike Vernace and forwards Tessier, Audy-Marchessault, Bourque, Tanski, Andre Deveaux, Tommy Grant, Kris Newbury, Jordan Owens, Jeff Prough, Andreas Thuresson, Casey Wellman and Mats Zuccarello. Kolarik would have been on the list, but can’t play this season because he wasn’t on an AHL roster on Feb. 27.

“My next goal is to be ready for training camp,” Kolarik wrote in his Twitter account.

“It’s unfortunate because Chad has worked so hard to recover from the injury,” Gernander said, alluding to Kolarik’s extensive rehab with athletic trainer Damien Hess and strength and conditioning coach/trainer Mark Cesari. “He would have been a big boost in our lineup offensively and a little bit more experienced and skilled guy. But unfortunately the rules prohibit him from being allowed to participate for us.”

Another player not on the Whale list is veteran left wing Sean Avery. In two stints with the Whale after being waived by the Rangers, Avery had two goals, one assist and 39 penalty minutes in seven games but has been a healthy scratch for the last 15 games since Jan. 27.

According to AHL-by-laws, only these players are eligible to compete in the remainder of the regular season and playoff games unless emergency conditions arise as a result of recall, injury or suspension. Teams also can add signed junior players or players on amateur tryout contracts after their respective junior or college seasons are complete.

GERNANDER, LEETCH AMONG 7 NEW HALL OF FAME MEMBERS

Gernander and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who was raised in Cheshire and spent most of his 16-year NHL career with the New York Rangers, will be among the seven new inductees into the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame during the first intermission of the Whale-Norfolk Admirals game on “Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame Night” at the XL Center on Saturday night. The Whale is 0-2-0-1 against the East Division-leading Admirals (39-18-1-2), who have won 12 in a row that given them the best record in the league. That’s largely thanks to All-Star left wing Corey Conacher, who is third overall in the AHL in scoring and first among rookies in goals (31), assists (35) and points (66), veteran center Trevor Smith (21, 36, plus-26) and All-Star goalie Dustin Tokarski (27-11-0, 2.34 goals-against average, .907 save percentage, four shutouts).

The other Hall of Fame inductees will be former Whalers goalie Mike Liut and right wings Blaine Stoughton and Pat Verbeek, three-time Olympian and all-time NCAA women’s leading scorer Julie Chu, a native of Fairfield, and the late William E. Barnes, one of the founders of the New England Whalers.

“Obviously it’s nice to be recognized, and it’s a little different that some of those players are NHL guys,” said Gernander, whose No. 12 is the only number in Wolf Pack/Whale history to be retired to the XL Center rafters. “I’ve spent more time in Connecticut than anywhere else, so I’m pretty fortunate in that regard. Any time that you get recognized I don’t think it’s so much the individual as it’s the people he has been fortunate enough to be associated with. It’s been a first-class organization for a parent club as far as the New York Rangers go. We’re always given every opportunity to succeed and excel here, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with so many good players and to coach so many good players that I just feel very fortunate. I think it’s just more or less a byproduct of all the great people that I’ve been able to work with.”

Gernander has been with the Wolf Pack/Whale franchise since 1997, when the Rangers moved their top affiliate to Hartford from Binghamton, N.Y., where he played for three seasons. After retiring in 2005 as the AHL’s all-time leader with 123 playoff games and the league’s career scoring leader among American-born players with 624 points in 973 games, Gernander had his number retired on Oct. 8, 2005 as he began two seasons as an assistant coach under Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld. Gernander took over as head coach on July 23, 2007 and is trying to lead the Whale to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

On her Twitter account, Chu, an assistant coach for the Union College women’s hockey team who also plays for the Montreal Stars in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, said, “Greatly honored to be a part of the 2012 CT Hockey Hall of Fame class. What a privilege.” Next Saturday, Chu will be the keynote speaker at the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award ceremony in Duluth, Minn., where the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four will be played Friday and Sunday. Chu won the award in 2007 as a senior at Harvard University, where she played with fellow Olympians Angela Ruggerio, a standout at Choate School in Wallingford, and Branford native Caitlin Cahow, who is playing for the CWHL’s Boston Blades. The Kazmaier Award is annually given by the USA Hockey Foundation to the top player in NCAA Division I women’s hockey.

The Class of 2012, the first inductees since 1990, will join the eight members of the storied Hartford Whalers Hall of Fame that have been adopted by the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. Fans will receive a special souvenir of the night as 5,000 Hall of Fame posters will be given away, courtesy of SuperCuts. Whale players will wear commemorative uniforms celebrating the career of one of the inductees in warm-ups that will be auctioned at the XL Center and on-line, and there will be a special meet-and-greet event during the second intermission with Leetch, Liut, Verbeek, Stoughton and Chu for 250 people who purchased autograph passes for $20 ($15 for season ticket holders). For more information, visit CTHockeyHOF.org.

Fans also can sponsor a local youth to attend the game on Faith and Family Night by making a $12 donation to Hockey Ministries International Northeast that support chapel programs through the AHL, including with the Whale, and Christian hockey camps for boys and girls. Music will be provided by Scarlet Fade. For more information, contact Rick Mitera, AHL chapel coordinator of Hockey Ministries Northeast at 860-817-6440 or rmitera@hockeyministries.org.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

Erixon, Chris Kreider and center J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2011 who has 23 goals and 37 assists in 56 games with Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League, are on The Hockey News’ upcoming Top 75 Future Watch list.

Forward Jared Staal, the youngest of the four professional Staal brothers, has been loaned to the Providence Bruins by the Carolina Hurricanes and is on the Bruins’ Clear Day list. Staal, whose brothers include Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, had three goals and three assists in 37 games with the Charlotte Checkers.

Jason Missiaen of the Greenville Road Warriors, who was with the Whale at the end of last season and in training camp last fall, was named Reebok/ECHL Goaltender of the Week on Tuesday for the second time this season after going 3-0-0 with a 1.62 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. He had 29 saves Tuesday night, but the Road Warriors lost 3-1 to Gwinnett, which scored three goals in the third period to increase their South Division to three points. Parlett scored Greenville’s lone goal on a first-period power play. Missiaen is 18-13-2 with a 2.91 GAA, .910 save percentage and three shutouts in 34 games this season

College students can get discounted Whale tickets to weekday games with a “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.

Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at TheAHL.com. The Whale’s Zuccarello and Audy-Marchessault and the Falcons’ Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native, were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears. Atkinson was recalled by the Columbus Blue Jackets last Friday.

FALCONS FANS GO FOR THE SWEEP

Falcons fans will go for a series sweep in their seventh and final meeting with their Whale counterparts on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, at 4 p.m. at the XL Center. Tickets ($16) and more information are available at facebook.com/whalefalconsfangame.

The series was originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first five games raised $850 for DBL.

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