October 30, 2011

From NEHJ: Black (and Gold) Aces enjoyed the ride

Jordan Caron got to join the Boston Bruins’ championship celebration after Game 7 in Vancouver and even hoist the Stanley Cup. (photo: Getty)

Trent Whitfield said that it was the highlight of the 13 long years he had spent wearing a professional hockey uniform.

The greatest “Kodak Moment” of his life.

And he never touched a puck, never even skated a shift.

Didn’t matter.

Just being able to get into his full gear — with his name and number (that would be No. 42) on the back of the white sweater and the “Spoked B” on the front — for the jubilant mayhem that accompanied Boston’s Stanley Cup win on Vancouver ice.

That was plenty good for him.

“What they (the Bruins) gave us was enough,” said Whitfield, who likely will spend most of the 2011-12 season in Providence as the P-Bruins’ captain and top-line center. “To let us come onto the ice at the end of Game 7. They didn’t have to do that.

“That’s something you dream about your whole life. The only thing better would have been if you’re playing. Just being there, and knowing that you went through it with those guys, then to be able to get out there and share a little bit of it with those guys, it was fun.”

It more than made up for the two, seemingly eternal, sometimes mind-numbing months, that Whitfield and Bruins’ other so-called “Black Aces” spent skating and shooting, just to keep ready.

Just in case.

Kind of like living Joe Biden’s life without the pomp. Stand by equipment, like a Buick waiting in the garage just in case a Ferrari blows a rod.

Think anyone was complaining? Not a chance.

Even if none of the Aces got to have their own day with the Stanley Cup, as the regulars did.

“It was unbelievable,” Whitfield said. “You say it’s a great growing experience for those young kids, but it was even more of one for me. Me being around so long and not having gotten a taste of that (a long Cup run). It was truly a dream come true.”

Defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk, who opted to have shoulder surgery midway through the Cup run in order to get a healthy head start on the new season, agreed.

“I was their biggest fan when I was up in the press box,” he said. “It was amazing to be around the team for the past couple of years as a ‘Black Ace.’ So I was glad I got that opportunity. To get more practice time and cheer on my buddies.”

The idea of having a squad of players around who could step in if needed is not a new one.

For years, pro football teams have kept so-called taxi squads as practice fodder since the 1940s, while playoff-bound Major League Baseball teams take advantage of the expanded fall rosters to bring their top prospects up from the minors for insurance.

Hockey’s Black Aces are thought to date back to the pre-WWII era of Eddie Shore, who as owner of the AHL’s Springfield Indians, used extra practice sessions as punishment for players, who in his eyes, had run out of luck.

The term was revived during the heyday of the Big Bad Bruins, when the late Garnet “Ace” Bailey and the other Bruins scrubs sported black practice jerseys.

Modern-day Aces do most of their work in private, removed from the regulars, with only themselves and the odd rink attendant or two, for company.

They started out a dozen strong working under Bruce Cassidy, but as the Bruins continued to advance through the playoffs, the squadron of Worker B’s was cut in half.

At the end, the number included a half-dozen Providence Bruins — Whitfield, goalie Anton Khudobin, defensemen Matt Bartkowski and Colby Cohen, and wingers Jamie Arniel and Jordan Caron.

Caron graduated to the varsity during the Stanley Cup Finals when right winger Nathan Horton was knocked out by Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome. He got to take the pregame warmup for the last four games but was a healthy scratch each time.

By that time, Black Ace sessions consisted of plenty of skating, lots of shooting and tons of monotony.

“There were days when you know you were only going to go out there and skate,” Whitfield said. “Just us six guys. You knew it was going to be a grind every single day. We knew that if the opportunity came, we had to be ready. Those opportunities don’t come by very often, but you never know what’s going to happen.

“It’s harder for the kids. They’re not used to that. They’re seeing their summer go by and thinking, ‘Aw, I’m not going to play anyway’. But you’ve got to keep telling them, ‘You don’t know. Tomorrow might be your day.’”

Whitfield was living proof of that the year before, when he was called on to step in when David Krejci suffered a broken wrist during the ill-fated series with the Flyers.
Slotted behind Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask on the goalie depth chart, Khudobin said he knew the chances of his seeing any game action were minute, at best. He said that by keeping his eye on the bigger picture, he was able to stay in the moment.

“It was an experience for my future, for when I’m going to play in playoffs like that,” he said. “I will know what I need to do to go that far. To maybe win the Stanley Cup again, when I’m going to play. It was a really good experience. To see what the guys who were playing would do before the games. How they were getting ready for the games and for the practices. What they’re doing to do their best.”

Whitfield, whose life had been devoid of Cup Frenzy during his earlier NHL stops with Washington, St. Louis and the New York Rangers, said he savored every moment of the Bruins’ run. Right down to the cruise down Causeway on the duckboat flotilla.

“To be a small, tiny part of it,” he said, “and to be there, just to watch these guys — how they carried themselves, on and off the ice during that whole ordeal — it was just a fun time. Just to see the whole circus and how the team comes together as one for such a long time.

“It’s a grind, but it was truly a great experience.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.