On March 12, the day the Houston Aeros announced their Clear Day Roster - that roster of players who are eligible to play for the Aeros in the playoffs - the Aeros also announced the signing of Tony Hrkac. And this signing was a bit of a shock those following the Aeros this season since Hrkac (pronounced like circus) is 42 years old and hasn't played hockey since the end of the 2004-2005 season.
Yet there he was on the Aeros roster.
Hrkac arrived in Houston last Sunday afternoon after having been recruited to the team by Aeros GM and assistant coach Troy G. Ward. "I missed it a lot," Hrkac said about hockey. "You miss the guys. You just miss going out there and competing. I was watching lots of hockey, and the opportunity came up, and I jumped at it."
Hrkac, who played 758 games in the NHL as well as numerous games at several AHL stops, hadn't entirely been away from the sport of hockey since retiring as a player. He's currently the head coach of the Concordia University men's hockey team - he's their first coach - and the team finished this past season with a record of 4-22-1 in only their second ever season.
But Hrkac wasn't brought to the Aeros because he can coach. The Aeros grabbed him with the hopes that he can aid the team on the power play and that he can replace various skill players like Krys Kolanos or Corey Locke should they be called up to the Minnesota Wild before the season ends.
Hrkac took the past week to skate with the team, learn his teammates, and to try and get used to going full speed and getting hit again. Because while Hrkac skated with his college team during practice, he hadn't been getting hit, and he hadn't been going full speed.
"It's going to be tough. At least I have a week of practice here that comes up. And I haven't been hit really in three years, four years, that's going to be a question. It'll take a little bit of time, but a week of practice will help a lot."
He got that week of practice, and this weekend, with the Aeros playing two games with their closest playoff competitor, the Peoria Rivermen, he played. And while he didn't get any goals, he didn't hurt the team, and Aeros coach Kevin Constantine was pleased with his play.
"He looked pretty good," Constantine said on Saturday after the Aeros' thrilling 2-1 victory. "It's going to be hard to play any sport at a professional level without having played for four or five years. The best part, when he had the puck, the puck went to the right spot on the ice, so I think he made some really good decisions with the puck."
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As for Hrkac, who will be returning to his coaching duties following the end of the Aeros season, he was pleased as well, though a bit tired. "I'm still breathing. It was tough," he said after Sunday's 4-3 Aeros shootout win. "Yesterday was tougher. Today felt a little better. It will take a little while to get adjusted to the speed again. I feel a lot better offensively - with the puck anyway - that seems to be coming around. I thought it was pretty good for having about four years off."
On Wednesday night, the Aeros will be playing the Milwaukee Admirals in Milwaukee. The Admirals retired Hrkac's jersey after his retirement, and he's looking forward to returning there for a game. "It will be fun," he said. "A lot of my players will be there, and a lot of friends and family. It will be a lot of fun playing there again."
And as to whether any of his former players have called to give him any tips, Hrkac just laughed. "None yet," he said. "But they're all watching on the internet."
If his players were watching this weekend, they got to see the Aeros win two key games to help solidify their second place spot in the AHL West standings. They saw two thrilling games with spectacular goals. And while their coach didn't score, he also didn't look like an old fool in way over his head.