The most shocking moment of the 2008-09 Houston Aeros season involved none of the team's playoff wins, or its battle to stave off elimination in the AHL Western Conference Finals after falling behind three games to none to the Manitoba Moose in the best-of-seven series. Anyone who watched the team throughout the season knew it was streaky, but could defeat anyone when the players were clicking. No, the most shocking moment came when the Clear Day Roster -- a roster naming the players who are eligible for the playoffs -- was released, and the name Tony Hrkac (rhymes with circus) was included on the Aeros roster.
Here's the thing. Hrkac wasn't on the team when that roster was announced. He hadn't even played any hockey in four years and was instead the head coach of the Concordia University men's hockey team. Yet there was his name, and when asked, Aeros coach Kevin Constantine just said that he and the staff thought Hrkac would be a good addition to the club, but they weren't really sure of what he would contribute.
Hrkac didn't really contribute that much for the remainder of the regular season. He skated his way back into playing condition while scoring two goals and getting two assists in 12 games. But the young guys on the team liked him, so it appeared he was just brought in to be that steadying veteran influence that helps the youngsters through the peaks and valleys of the playoffs.
Then came the playoffs, where it became clear that Hrkac was more than just the steadying veteran influence. He wound up with four goals and ten assists in 19 games, including a game-winning overtime goal in game five of the Western Conference Finals that sent the series back to Manitoba. Then the playoffs were over and Hrkac returned to the Milwaukee area and his coaching duties for Concordia.
But like Brett Favre, or Roger Clemens, Hrkac just won't stay away, and last week, he returned to action, signing a standard player contract and joining the Houston Aeros.
Unlike last season's squad, the Aeros of this season have floundered, never able to put together the big winning streaks so necessary for making it into the playoffs. But Hrkac is back, ready to do whatever he can to elevate the Aeros, even if it just providing that veteran influence on the youngsters.
"A guy like Tony calms everything down," center Nathan Smith says. "He knows the game so well. He's a very calming presence on the bench for younger guys and the veterans alike."
The 43-year-old Hrkac claims that he himself learned from last year's experience, and that he's in better game-playing condition to start his time out this year.
"The training part is...this year is a lot better," Hrkac said last week. "I'm [playing games] in four days [this season as opposed to taking over a week to get into game action last year]. I'm way ahead of where I was last year."
Through three games, Constantine is more than happy with Hrkac's contributions on the ice, and he sees only better times ahead for the team's remaining 15 games.
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"At his age, when you haven't played at this level in nine months, he hasn't played at this kind of pace, you would think that he would get old the first four or five games and each game he would just get five percent better," Constantine said last Friday night. "So the first two games, he certainly hasn't looked out of place. If he follows the pattern of last year, he should get a little more comfortable each game, game conditioning, viewing the game, hands, so that means that he has [the possibility] to be a very good addition to our club."
Hrkac himself sees his playing and coaching experiences as being the key to his contributions on the ice, whether that's steadying the younger players he's teamed with or finding ways to give pointers to those same players. His playing experience, after all, includes key roles on teams that won the NHL's Stanley Cup as well as on teams that won the AHL's Calder Cup. He feels he can help the team through any situation because of everything that's he been through as a player and a coach.
"It's not just the coaching, it's the experience that I've been through...." he says. "I've been through everything. I can give pointers on what to do at certain times."
The 29-28-6-2 Aeros return to action tomorrow night when they host the Peoria Rivermen. There's probably not much Hrkac can do to get this team into the playoffs. But for now at least, the Hrkac Circus is back in action.