He has been pro hockey’s torchbearer in the Connecticut capital since the Whalers left for North Carolina in 1997.
Gernander was Wolf Pack captain for eight seasons and then retired and became the only player to have his number (12) raised to the XL Center rafters alongside luminaries such as Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, Ulf Samuelsson and Rick Ley.
Then Gernander was an assistant coach for two seasons under general manager/coach Jim Schoenfeld and became the bench boss for the 2007-08 campaign.
Friday night, Gernander appropriately will be the head coach for the 1,177th and final Wolf Pack game at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport against the Sound Tigers. The Wolf Pack have a 571-346-66-49-29 regular season record and were 57-58 in 22 playoff series, winning their only Calder Cup title in 2000.
On Saturday night, Gernander will help usher in the Connecticut Whale era when the Sound Tigers visit the XL Center.
“I’m more focused and concerned with getting a win than anything from the nostalgia standpoint,” said Gernander, who missed only 43 games in the Wolf Pack’s lifetime. “I hope becoming the Connecticut Whale generates some enthusiasm and support for these players, and it’s all towards creating a better hockey atmosphere in Hartford. That’s what we want, and if we attain our goal and it becomes a thriving hockey region, that’s great.
“These are good, talented kids who are working hard, and we want to see some excitement and enthusiasm from a hockey perspective. From a Hartford perspective, let’s get the XL Center buzzing and the downtown active and vibrant and make some strides. You look at what the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins or Hershey Bears do for their downtowns and their regions around the arena, and there’s no reason it can’t happen in Hartford.
“One of the lessons for our guys is that if you aspire to be a Ranger or aspire to be a NHLer, the best thing that you can do is to give everything that you’ve got right here. And if Hartford sees something in New York or Boston, let’s make something of Hartford. Let’s not naysay or worry about what goes on on either side of our border. Let’s make something special here. … I’m just worried about our guys and our team, and I’d like to see the best product that we can have from an entertainment perspective, from a hockey-playing perspective, from a community relations and support perspective. I think it should all go hand-in-hand, and it should be some sort of synergy.”
Gernander likely will have some flashbacks during the game Friday night and especially when the final horn sounds. But being the pragmatist and straight shooter that he is, Gernander knows he has to go back to work Saturday as coach of the Connecticut Whale in a continued attempt to try to revitalize the hockey market and possibly bring an NHL team back to Hartford.
“I’ve known this has been coming for awhile, so it’s not a shock,” Gernander said. “Regardless of what happens Friday night, we’re still the Rangers’ top affiliate and I’m still with the Rangers. But I don’t have any negatives with my time with the Wolf Pack, so I’m not going to put a negative (on becoming the Whale) either.
“Everything that transpired as far as me and the Wolf Pack and the New York Rangers has been first class. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Improving the local hockey market with an eye toward the NHL is the long-range goal of Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin, the former owner and managing general partner of the New England and Hartford Whalers. Baldwin & Co. has been chasing that dream since January and hoped to have the Whale ready to go at the start of the season. But extended negotiations with Northland, AEG and the Rangers prevented WSAE from taking over the team’s business operations until 21/2 weeks before the Wolf Pack started their 14th season Oct. 8.
In a bit of irony, John Paddock, the man who coached the Wolf Pack to the only professional title in Hartford’s 35-year hockey history with Gernander as his captain in 2000, will be behind the Adirondack Phantoms’ bench Sunday at 5 p.m. for the second game in Whale history. Paddock, inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame in February, started the season as assistant general manager of the parent Philadelphia Flyers before taking over as Phantoms’ coach when Greg Gilbert was fired Nov. 8 when the team was 2-10-0-1.
Having already gone head-to-head with his former coach, Gernander didn’t want to put a lot of stock into their latest matchup. But he gushed about the influence of Paddock, the third winningest coach in AHL history who is 1-5-0-1 with the Phantoms.
“He gave me a few tips along the way,” Gernander said, “and I appreciate that he was a man of few words and that when he spoke it was obviously for a purpose.”
Gernander said his style has varied depending on his team.
“Sometimes you feel the situation requires a little more teaching, so there’s obviously more talking and involvement,” he said. “But I liked Pads’ approach. It was no-nonsense, pretty simple and obviously very straightforward. I really appreciated how he operated. He didn’t sugarcoat anything or expound with a lot of words.
“What he had on his mind he said and he meant, and you were to carry it out. I think he had a great deal of respect from the players. He had a good understanding of what they were doing, what they were going through, and he was demanding, which is great. Everybody is here to be the best that he can be, so if you’ve got someone who is going to raise the bar of expectations, that’s great.”
There have been continued high expectations for the AHL’s winningest team since the Wolf Pack replaced the Whalers as Hartford’s pro hockey team. After the worst start in franchise history (4-10-2-2), winning two of three road games with a 10th one-goal loss tossed in last weekend has Gernander feeling better about the prospects of not missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year after going 12-for-12.
The Wolf Pack/Whale played arguably their most complete game of the season in a 5-2 victory over Springfield last Friday night as newcomer Chad Kolarik had two goals and an assist against his former team. Then after beating Binghamton 3-2 on Jeremy Williams’ goal 1:03 into overtime Saturday night, a poor second period helped Hershey score four goals and then hold on for a 4-3 win Sunday.
“Obviously the first two games were real encouraging, and I think things are swinging in the right direction,” Gernander said. “We’re playing a little better as far as our structure goes, and in the two wins some of our bigger guys came through. Our power play has been very good, but we don’t want to rely on it, so we’ve still got work to do five-on-five.
“In the Hershey game it was a bit disappointing that we made some critical mistakes, and it wasn’t like they were plays that were beyond us. They were simple plays that we didn’t execute for whatever reason. To use a baseball analogy, we needed a couple of singles instead of a home run. And we had some undisciplined penalties.”
The Wolf Pack/Whale was helped by the return of right wing Dale Weise, who scored in the last two games after missing 15 games since Oct. 15 because of an ailing hand that required surgery. Weise replaced Brodie Dupont, who needed 16 stitches to close a gash above his left knee after being cut by the skate of a Manchester Monarchs player in a 4-3 loss in the start of the road trip Nov. 17. He hopes to return in the next week.
“(Weise’s) goals weren’t finesse, they were just going to the net and a tip,” Gernander said. “After having played three games and a good week of practice, he’ll be honed in and ready to go and maybe convert a few more chances.”
The only other hockey person with the Wolf Pack since Day One is play-by-play announcer Bob Crawford, who has missed only three games while doubling as the director of public relations the last few years.
“I’ve been around Kenny so long that I almost don’t know if I fully appreciate him like I should,” Crawford said. “He’s just the consummate professional. I had a chance to watch him go about his business as a player, an assistant coach and a coach, and in all those roles, he has always been so dedicated to doing things the right way. Leading by example is kind of a cliché in sports, but I think he’s really one guy who models the right kind of way of going about things and the right kind of way of behavior rather than talks about it.”
Crawford said Gernander has always expected more out of himself than he does of anybody else, which makes Crawford want to match the player/coach’s dedication and support him in that endeavor.
“I would think that if I’m a player that he’d be a guy who would be great to play for just because you know he’s always going to give his best and always going to be pointed in the right direction,” Crawford said. “All you’d have to do is do what he tells you to do and you’re pretty well assured of success. He takes (bad times) out on himself and isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to say it’s just the wrong combination of players or that the players aren’t pulling their end. He’s going to watch more tape, worry more and think more and put his nose further to the grindstone.
“When you’re a player, you only have to worry about getting one guy ready to play. When you’re a coach, you’ve got to worry about 20 guys, and that’s a heck of a responsibility if you’ve got a few guys who just aren’t ready to go or thinks of everything that you’re trying to do.”
Gernander was the franchise captain his last 10 years and is the Wolf Pack’s all-time leader in shorthanded goals (14), plus-minus (plus-93), games played (599) and playoff games played (78). He also ranks second all-time in goals (160), assists (187), points (347), power-play goals (50) and game-winning goals (30). But he was rarely called up by the Rangers, playing in only 27 NHL games, 15 in the playoffs, and finishing with two goals and three assists.
After retiring as a player after the 2004-05 season, Gernander was an assistant coach under Schoenfeld and is now in his fourth season as head coach. He retired as the AHL’s all-time leader in career playoff games played (123) and is the second all-time leading scorer among American-born players (624 points in 973 games). He twice won the AHL’s Fred T. Hunt Award for sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey and has the most coaching victories in franchise history (138), having passed Paddock’s 130 at the end of last season.
“Kenny was the type of player who was totally committed,” Schoenfeld said. “He was committed to his job, to his teammates, to the positive outcome of the season. And that makeup in the man hasn’t changed in the coach. Players are not easily fooled. They can see through the guy that is not legitimate. They know that Kenny’s the real guy.”
Gernander lives in New Britain with his wife, Kerby, and their three children – McKenna, 11, Micah, 9, and Miranda, 5. McKenna and Micah play hockey, and Miranda might soon be following them.
The three M’s couldn’t have a better role model than their dad.
KEN GERNANDER’S FIVE FAVORITE MOMENTS IN WOLF PACK HISTORY
1. The Calder Cup experience in winning the AHL championship in 1999-2000: “It’s the only championship I’ve had since peewee hockey. Just to be able to say you were a champion, that you were better than anyone else, is really special. There’s so much that goes with it. You have to have some lucky breaks, but where everybody has to be on the same page and part of an environment where there isn’t a weak link or a chink. To have everybody be that committed and to have everybody pull together like that becomes so special. It’s not just like a NCAA tournament where there’s one big game or one big upset. The Providence series (in the Eastern Conference finals) was like a lifetime. But that’s what so special about hockey playoffs. Every playoff holds a certain mystique where you can have huge upsets and Cinderella stories, but the essence of hockey is the grind. You can upset somebody in Game 1, and then you have to beat them three more times.”
2. Terry Virtue scores at 7:32 of overtime for a 4-3 victory in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals on May 21 in the Civic Center, the puck ricocheting off the skate of former Wolf Pack forward Peter Ferraro and past John Grahame to put the team in the Calder Cup finals for the first time and set off the biggest home celebration in franchise history: “That pretty much capped off a pretty big comeback on our part. I don’t think too many people had us penciled in to win that series after we got down 3-1. It sounds a little ludicrous, but the Rochester series (in the Calder Cup finals) was almost anti-climactic. It really didn’t have the same feeling and sensation of that Game 7: coming back, overtime, at home.”
3. A 3-2 victory in Game 5 of the conference finals against Providence: “We were down 3-1 in the series and trailed 2-0 with less than a minute to go in the second period when Derek (Armstrong) scored when he deflected in Drew Bannister’s shot after I won a faceoff. Then we tied it on my goal on a redirect from Jason Dawe at 6:47 of the third period and won on Dawe’s goal at 9:15. That, to me, was kind of the essence of everything.”
4. Raising the championship banner before the 2000-01 home opener on Oct. 7: “When you start a season, your goal is to win a championship, and I think some of those significant moments along the way supersede just a regular-season game or a milestone that’s just a date on the calendar as opposed to something that led to something special in terms of a championship. When they raised some (retired) numbers and I got to meet Gordie Howe was pretty special, but they’re not on the same level as key, pivotal moments in the process of winning a championship.”
5. Raising the Wolf Pack banner before the home opener with 12,943 people at the Civic Center for a 2-2 tie with the Portland Pirates on Oct. 4, 1997, less than six months after the Hartford Whalers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in their final game on April 13 and then headed to North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes: “We were the same franchise as a Rangers affiliate, but we had a new Wolf Pack logo in a new environment in a new city (from Binghamton, N.Y.). It was the novelty of it all, how we were received and all the new optimism and excitement about being in a new market. It was pretty nice building in a pretty nice market, so there were all kinds of positives in being part of a new franchise.”