By Rob Chakler
TRENTON, N.J. – As the clock read triple zeroes on the brand new, state-of-the-art scoreboard at Sovereign Bank Arena, the Trenton Devils’ improbable run from the bottom of the division to Game 7 of the North Division semifinal was suddenly over.
On one end of the ice there was a feeling of elation as the Elmira Jackals mobbed each other at the goal crease celebrating their 4-3 series win to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
In the T-Devils’ locker room, though, it was a much darker picture.
Each player sat at their stall in silence, reflecting on what just took place as the team battled from a 3-1 deficit with two overtime wins to get back in the series, only to lose the decisive Game 7 on home ice.
One stall, however, was empty.
While the rest of the team had that numb, empty feeling with a long summer ahead before taking the ice again next October, Jim Henkel performed a class act by taking one last lap around the rink waiving to fans thanking them for their support.
Nobody knows what the future holds for the players in that locker room Tuesday night, but Henkel, one of the true veterans, knows nothing is guaranteed and felt he needed to show his appreciation for the people who have supported him throughout his four years in Trenton.
“It was more of a thank you if anything else,” said Henkel, who had his second-best year as a professional with 42 points in 72 games. “I did it last year and it’s just one of those things where you never know what’s going to happen. You never know who is going to be back, you never know if they are going to want me back, you never know who is going to be coaching. I’m a year older and it’s a decision they are going to have to make.”
Henkel, 29, told reporters after the game he has every intention of playing next year, so it will be up to management if it wants to bring him back for a fifth season.
“If I’m not back, I wanted the fans to know I appreciate their support in the four years I’ve been here,” he said.
The team had its best finish since Henkel has been in the Capital City, and it was due largely in part to adding the right pieces to the puzzle after the franchise’s worst season in history in 2007-08.
The team started this season the same way it started that dreadful campaign two years ago, to the tune of a 3-11-0-1 record out of the gate.
But somewhere along the line, it learned how to win games and battled hard over the last two months just to make the playoffs in a division that was so tight, a loss could send you from first to fifth in one night.
A banged up T-Devils team was able to take five points in a five-game road trip down south in March, and then ended the season winning five of its final six games, having to play five of those games on the road.
“These guys have been on 10-hour bus trips with me, these guys have been through wars with me,” Henkel said. “I don’t mean that in a sense of a physical war, just a mental grind of going down south with nine forwards and four defensemen, and somehow or another found a way to get five points.
“We started off poorly and then we had a couple key acquisitions to kind of turn the ball around,” he added. “We made a serious climb and we were one point away from being division champs. We made a run in the playoffs. A lot of teams wrote us off and people are saying we were done after we were down 3-1. We have a lot of character in the locker room and we fought hard.”
It will be interesting to see how management handles the roster over the summer. There is certainly a young, talented core of players in place that can lead this team back to the playoffs next year, but finding that veteran leadership in the locker room is something that can’t be overlooked.
Henkel is the longest tenured player in Trenton (the only regular left from the Titans era) and adds guidance to a youthful group of up-and-coming players. Experience and leadership are not learned skills, you either have them, or you don’t, so management better think twice if they are contemplating letting him slip through their fingers.