If you happen to be on the roster for the Charlotte Checkers but find yourself outside the gameday lineup, you still have a game to play. It's a game so intense that it burns with a fire more powerful than the sun itself. Comparing it to an actual AHL game is like comparing an Oldsmobile to a Ferrari.
The game is three-on-three, half-ice against the coaching staff.
This event takes place every morning skate before a game. It deserves a crowd and player introductions. It needs pyrotechnics and all the pomp and circumstance of a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Do you want to know what the rules are? So do I. They're made up on the spot. There is only one constant rule: the coaching staff plays to win. If you go for a change after a stoppage, the coaching staff takes the opportunity for a breakaway. If you think they'll go easy on you in a fight for the puck, think again. It's anarchy on skates. It’s basically Thunderdome. You better be prepared.
You might be wondering how professional hockey players could have a hard time battling it out against a bunch of old, slow, aging coaches. Well, let's run down the coaching staff roster to explain why this is no easy challenge:
Patrick Dwyer. A quiet, cerebral assassin who logged over 400 NHL games with the Carolina Hurricanes. Patrick is a hard-working right-shot winger who only skates at full speed. If you're going to beat him, you're going to have to earn it. Once the puck drops, he goes from amicable hockey coach to skilled puck-distributing winger in an instant. He's a guy any centerman would want on his line.
Next up, Tim Gleason. A former first-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators with a face only a mother could love. But I must say, even though he has the death stare of a serial madman, he's actually one of the nicest and friendliest people you'll ever meet. Tim is a good, Michigan-born kid who has an incredible base of knowledge to help young defensemen develop into NHL-ready players. He's universally respected… and feared. He didn't make his living on skill but if you ever have to go into the corner against him to get the puck, you should say a prayer first. His aim isn't exactly stellar and his passing skills have diminished, but I'd take six Tim Gleasons on my blueline any day (although, you would probably have to run five forwards on the power-play).
Now let's add one of the most skilled players to ever put on a pair of skates – Sergei Samsonov. Another former-first round draft pick, this Moscow native played over 1,000 NHL games – including going all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. At 17 years old, he won the Turner Cup in the IHL with the Detroit Vipers. He was born to be a hockey player and his career numbers speak for themselves. I've said this before but if Sergei decided to un-retire tomorrow, he'd need about two weeks of training and he'd put up 80 points in the AHL without breaking a sweat.
It only makes sense to follow up the high skill and NHL experience of Sergei with Noah Segall, the video coach. Noah's job is rather simple – skate as quickly as you can and get the puck to anyone else. Noah never runs out of energy and never takes a shift off. Nice kid, loves the game.
Finally, let's move onto Charlotte Checkers head coach Ryan Warsofsky. It needs to be said that compared to the NHL players listed above, Warsofsky's playing resume is basically non-existent. We're not counting games played in the Federal League but if we did, the total is one – and let's leave out that he was minus 3 in that game. But that's not important. What makes Ryan the de-facto captain is his sheer determination to win at all costs. He will win (or he will change the rules on the fly). As far as his playing ability, he plays like he coaches – with face-melting intensity. Slapshots at head level to win the game? Yes. Skating around someone who just collapsed because a puck hit their ankle? Yes. Getting mad at his teammates even though they were some of the best players of their generation? Yes. Warsofsky plays to win the game. He doesn't have time for your feelings. The often-heard phrase about him is that he hates to lose. It's true and to be honest, I am actually not sure he enjoys winning! He just expects it to happen. That's what makes him such a great coach and such a dangerous player in the world's most intense hockey game you've never heard of before.
Some great Charlotte Checkers players have scars to prove the importance of the morning tradition including Colin Markison, Brian Gibbons, Alex Nedeljkovic, Anton Forsberg, Gustav Forsling, Derek Sheppard and the best three-on-three player in league history, Cavan Fitzgerald. Those are just a sample of the players who came out of the cauldron and went back into the Checkers lineup in a regular, boring, slow AHL hockey game. After three on three against some legendary NHL players, the AHL is like a walk in the park.
Ultimately, this game is always played by kids who want to have fun and win. The game is what you make out of it. Whether it’s the Calder Cup Finals or three-on-three skate in the morning, we are all blessed to be part of it. Except when someone hits you with a slapshot. Then it's more a bruise than a blessing. You need thick skin and a good medical trainer if you're going to survive the toughest game on ice.