During the season, Checkers broadcaster Jason Shaya checks in each week with his 10 Thoughts - a series of observations about the team and the hockey world in general.
1. Andrew Poturalski played with a broken foot that barely healed and a hand that he accidentally cut open resulting in nerve damage right before the playoffs. Yet I never heard him complain. Over two months later, he emerged as the leading goal scorer and point producer in the playoffs along with the award for the playoff MVP. He had every excuse to shut it down and say he couldn't play. Andrew has no contract for next season. A serious injury could jeopardize his career. Instead he helped lead his team to their first Calder Cup. He's one of the best to put on a Checkers sweater and he's also a terrific person. It also makes you wonder what he could've done if he was perfectly healthy the entire playoffs. I'm not sure Charlotte would've lost a single game.
2. Julien Gauthier used the playoffs to display the best hockey he's ever played. In the finals, he was too big and strong for the Chicago defense to handle. He and Nick Roy, the French Connection/Towers of Power, dominated parts of that series. Gauthier has a gift for scoring goals but during the playoffs he played a gritty game and finished every hit all while basically playing on one good knee. Now he knows how to take his game to a level necessary to play in the NHL. The meaner Julien plays, the more impossible the task of other players to stop him.
3. Now a winner of two Calder Cups in his career, Tomas Jurco – who was picked up by Mike Vellucci from Springfield – solidified the Checkers lineup. With him, Charlotte went from good to great. He was the glue of that incredible line which included Martin Necas and Patrick Brown. Jurco is an NHL player and he will be on an NHL roster next season. This kid knows how to win. He has all the skill you'd want in a top-six player and he's got the heart to go along with it. Once free agency opens up, there should be a line of teams calling to sign him. He was Charlotte's version of Marian Hossa. That should give you an idea of how enormous his contributions were in the postseason. He's a terrific kid as well.
4. I've known Checkers team owner Michael Kahn for twelve years. I've seen him happy before but after the game ended on Saturday in Chicago, I saw him on another level. It wasn't that long ago when certain people at a different arena made doing business impossible and they wanted absolutely nothing to do with hockey. This leadership group found a solution at the Coliseum and it breathed new life into the organization. Four years later, it was easily the loudest building in the entire league with support that was overwhelming at times. Now, Michael has the championship he deserves. To his kids, Max, Michael Jr. and Luke, along with his beautiful wife Wendy, thank you for everything you've done for the entire city and hockey community. What happened this past Saturday in Chicago is not possible without the sacrifice of the Kahn family. It was an emotional week to begin with but seeing him raise the cup over his head while the team celebrated felt like a scene from a movie.
5. Zach Nastasiuk was recalled from Florida at the end of December. For the rest of the season, he would be on the roster and in the lineup for Mike Vellucci and the team. All these months, Zach lived in a hotel room without the benefit of a stove, washing machine, or refrigerator. He wasn't playing for the money or the glory because those things don't really exist in the AHL. He did it because he loved being part of this team and he wanted a chance to show he could play in the league. It's a chance that really wasn't afforded to him in the Red Wings system. But Vellucci and the coaching staff believed in Zach's ability. In the closing seconds of Saturday's game, he scored the final goal into the empty net to ensure a Calder Cup for Charlotte. I’m sure the sacrifices, however difficult for Zach, are now well worth it.
6. There's a lot of pressure being a first-round draft pick who is supposed to one day be the first line center every NHL team dreams of having. Martin Necas, all of 19-years-old, needed a year in the AHL to acclimate his game to the North American style. Even when times were tough for Marty, you never noticed it when you spoke with him. He's a funny kid who loves playing the game. He's always smiling and for someone like me who is a semi-professional malcontent, it's very disarming. His best hockey was in the Finals when it mattered most. He's going to be an NHL player and I was lucky enough to call his goals while he was a part of our championship team.
7. Senior Vice President of Hockey Derek Wilkinson, who played a major role in so many hockey-related decisions this season, would tell stories about his early days in the IHL with Atlanta. He said back then the front office and hockey worked together very cohesively. There were no factions or rifts. It was one organization working towards the same goal. I understood what he meant this past week when both parts of the Checkers came together to celebrate the greatest moment in our organization’s history. It was a total outpouring of love. Tera Black, the team COO, quarterbacked the entire process flawlessly. People rarely see her work but watching her fight for Michael and his team makes you feel great that you have the support of someone like that. She guided the staff in the most important time in our organization’s history. It is no wonder she’s well respected around the league. Everyone on Saturday was so happy to hug someone else and tell them congratulations. It was the closest to a family environment you could get. I've never seen VP of Communications Paul Branecky so excited before. He hugged me when I saw him on the ice and I thought one of my ribs was going to break. It's something none of us will ever forget and it was even better than I'd imagined.
8. When I look at our roster and I see the names of the men who comprise our team, it's one good man after another. But, it's not a mystery why that's the case when you talk to their moms and dads. Without a family behind you, none of these guys could get to where they are now. I've said this many times in the past to parents, I don't judge a player I know based on their skill on the ice. It's far more important to raise a decent, respectful and happy kid than someone who is highly rated for playing a sport. I met Josiah Didier's dad and grandfather this weekend and it took me all of two seconds to realize this is why Josiah is one of the classiest players you'd ever hope to meet. He's a warrior and now, he's a champion. But, it's the fact that he's humble and personable that means something to those around him. The same can be said of Jake Bean, Trevor Carrick, Alex Nedeljkovic, etc. All great players and even better people.
9. When Game 4 ended and the Checkers had a 3-1 series lead, I told Zack Stortini – who was doing color commentary during the finals with me – that he was not welcome in the booth next game during the third period. He knew what I meant. Zack, while becoming the star of our broadcast in short order, is still a huge part of our hockey team. During Game 5, when the third period ended, he was in his gear celebrating his second championship and was the first person handed the cup after Patrick Brown received it from commissioner Dave Andrews. Stortini is a true gentleman and the perfect teammate. He is always positive and looks for the good in everyone. I'm not sure what the future holds for Zack but whatever he decides – and I really hope he comes back here – a man like that will never have an issue finding a place in this business. To Zack and his absolutely lovely wife Dez, congratulations.
10. In the show The Office, Ryan the temp asked Michael and Pam if they wanted to hear about his trip Thailand. When they said yes, he replied with, "It was indescribable." Sitting here trying to summarize our first ever Calder Cup, I could say the same thing. Watching Nedeljkovic leap into the air as the game ended should give you some idea of how it felt. From November until the end of the regular season, Charlotte had the best record in the league. Maybe from the outside it seemed inevitable that the best team in the regular season would win the cup, but ask Tampa Bay if they believe that. When you step into the postseason, nothing is guaranteed except that you have to earn your victories every night. When Charlotte lost Game 4 to Toronto in overtime, it felt like someone died. But Mike Vellucci never wavered in his belief or positivity. The team overcame the loss and won the series. Chicago won the first game in Charlotte and watching them celebrate on our ice was hard to stomach. So, the Checkers made sure Chicago never celebrated again. This team hated losing like I've never seen. It was an unacceptable outcome. They weren't used to it in the regular season and when it happened in the playoffs, it never happened the next game. In hindsight, it seemed like destiny. I guess now that it's over, that's true. But what makes the celebration so great is that you're never sure until it's actually over. For many of us, it was the most rewarding year of our professional lives. Equipment Manager Steve Latin says, "We will walk together forever." He's right. The players are linked irrevocably by the only thing that matters, a championship. Hard to imagine these players all being together on the ice ever again. People inevitably move on. It was a moment in time that can never be recreated. But that singular moment when they became champions will be enough of a memory to last a lifetime. To all of you who read this column, to the players who rarely say thank you for being your press agent every season, to the coaches who put up with my constant attempts at running the team from the booth, and to the hockey staff that are the first to get to the rink and the last to leave, I've never had more fun in my life. We are truly lucky to experience something so great that makes saying goodbye so difficult. Until next time, thank you and God Love you.