The Houston Aeros caught a wave late in the regular season last year, made it into the playoffs, and went on a run that nearly carried the team to the AHL Calder Cup. After the season, new management took over the Minnesota Wild, the parent club of the Aeros, and the new management made lots of changes, especially here in Houston where many of last year's key players were allowed to depart for various other clubs.
One of those players, a man who quickly became a fan favorite last season, was Mitch Love who, tomorrow night, returns to Houston with his new team, the Peoria Rivermen, to engage the Aeros in a rematch of teams from last year's first round playoff pairing.
"We had a great bunch of guys last year," Love told Hair Balls. "A real unique group. Probably the closest bunch I've played with since juniors, and I think that all became pretty evident when it mattered most in the playoffs. The coaches were the kind that players love playing for. Easy to communicate with and honest. That's all you want when you do anything."
The role that head coach Kevin Constantine asked Love to play last year was that of an energy guy who would pump up his teammates, not make mistakes, and protect his fellow players, especially the flashy goal scorers. That's a role that Love pulled off with perfection.
It's a role sometimes known as The Enforcer. And there was many a game that found Love duking it out and brawling with a player from the opposition who had gotten a bit rough with one of his teammates. It's partly because of this, says Aeros broadcaster Joe O'Donnell, that Love found himself the most well-regarded guy in the locker room last season.
"I think he was one of the most respected players I've ever been around -- meaning his teammates and coaches appreciated what he brought to the table everyday as a professional hockey player," O'Donnell says. "He was well liked by all of his teammates, had a great sense of humor and was always the type of guy that could light up the room. He did what was asked of him from the coaching staff, he stuck up for his teammates and he left his heart on the ice every night he wore an Aeros' sweater."
Love doesn't see himself as an enforcer. He sees himself as nothing more than a good teammate. "Someone that picks the right time to spark his club, stick up for a teammate and set the tone for a game," Love says of his role on ice. "I've always been a guy who enjoys playing the game honest and on edge which sometimes leads to a fight here and there. I think last year I just did what I thought was good for the team, we had other guys like [Matt] Kassian, [Clayton] Stoner, and [John] Scott that all did the same thing in regards to this role."
But none, last year, did it as memorably as Love who had his own theme song and who played for the crowd as well as his teammates, knowing that the team could also draw energy from a fired-up crowd.
And though Love is now playing with Peoria, he still thinks fondly of Houston.
"I had such a awesome time in Houston," he said. "A great city and the fans treated my teammates and myself with outstanding support. I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't disappointed I didn't get the chance to come back this winter. Especially after the lengthy playoff run last year, but that's part of the game I guess."
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And another part of the game is being the new guy having to fit into a strange locker room. Especially considering how Houston ended Peoria's season in a rough seven-game playoff.
"I've had to join a few new teams in my career so it's seems to get a little easier every time," he said. "We have a great bunch of guys in Peoria. It was a little weird joining a team that we had such a battle last year with in the regular season and playoffs."
The battle between these two clubs resumes tomorrow night. Only now one of the combatants has switched sides and is now playing for the enemy.
It's going to be interesting for Love and the fans tomorrow night. Especially if he gets into a fight. But it's nothing personal. It's just his job. Because just like everybody else playing in the AHL, Mitch Love just wants to make the NHL. Even if that means beating up one of his former teammates.