By Rob Chakler
TRENTON, N.J. – As the Trenton Devils make their way through the ECHL playoffs in hopes of hoisting the Kelly Cup later this spring, they are doing so with a bunch of 20-somethings who were welcomed to the playoffs for the first time with the longest game in league history.
It was the first professional playoff game for over half the team and now the players know what the intensity of the playoffs brings going forward in the series against Elmira.
One player on the roster who fully knows what to expect is defenseman Mike Wilson.
The 34-year-old was a first-round draft pick (No. 20 overall) of the Vancouver Canucks in 1993 and spent eight years in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Rangers.
The Brampton, Ontario, native owns a hockey training facility in Cleveland called Puck Masters where he teaches kids the game of hockey.
But one of his teammates in a mid-league game, Mike Hall, who was a regular for the Titans from 1999-2001 and filled in for two games during the 2006-07 season, informed the former NHLer that Trenton needed a defenseman.
“I wasn’t planning on doing anything,” Wilson said. “They needed a defenseman in Wheeling for the weekend so was like, ‘Sure, I haven’t played in three years but I’ll give it a try.’ I went out and played well and then they wanted me to keep playing.”
Wilson appeared in five regular season games in the last month of the season, the league minimum to qualify for a spot on a playoff roster.
This is Trenton’s second stab at bringing in a veteran who hadn’t played hockey in a couple of years. Joe Gerbe got his chance at the start of the season having not played a professional game in four years, but only lasted 13 games before the team let him go.
Wilson, however, brings an impressive resume with eight years of NHL experience, and most recently, played professionally in Europe in 2006.
The veteran adds depth and experience to a relatively young core of blue liners whose average age was 23 — led by 28-year-old captain Chris Dyment — before his arrival.
It’s not every day that a group of minor league players get to share a locker room with a former NHL player, and they are picking his brain every chance they can get with the opportunity.
Wilson has 10-plus years on a number of his teammates who can’t even grow the traditional playoff beard yet.
“I’m struggling to grow my own,” Wilson joked. “It’s great, a lot of them are still learning the game and they are asking me a ton of questions. They ask me who the best player I played against and who I played with, playing in Europe and stuff like that.
“I love to help them out as much as I can,” Wilson added. “Dylan Quaile is the youngest and he’s from my hometown, too, which is kind of neat. We got to play a game together, which was fun, as partners. It feels like I’ve never been away really.”
Wilson endured the quadruple-overtime game, and then played a key role in the Game 2 win with a goal in the second period that helped the T-Devils even the series in a 6-5 win at home last Saturday.
“I actually felt great for playing seven periods,” Wilson said. “I was actually worried going into the second game, but I actually felt better after the second one. At my facility we have a skating treadmill so I’ve been going on that. I’m surprised how well I’ve felt.”
Even though he’s playing in arenas with 10,000 fewer fans than he was accustomed to in the NHL, the playoffs bring a different kind of intensity that anyone can get up for, regardless of the venue and how many people are there to see it.
Everyone in attendance during Game 2 saw exactly what Elmira has in store when it heads back home for the next three games of the series. The T-Devils hopped over the bench to congratulate goalie Gerald Coleman on the win and Elmira headed off to its locker room in defeat.
But before the Jackals skated off the ice, they decided to mix things up one final time before leaving Trenton. The officials tried their best to hold off the 40 players from both sides who were throwing punches — both physical and verbal — trying to send a message before Game 3 on Wednesday.
“Whether it’s NHL or junior hockey or whatever it is, we had two real close games and you know the series looks like it’s going to go six or maybe seven games,” Wilson said. “We’re going to face those guys for the next two weeks. Whether guys are trying to send a message or whatever, they’ve already played each other 16 times with exhibition so they are pretty sick of each other already.”
The latter half of Wilson’s career was spent with underachieving teams that missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he was welcomed to the barbaric games that are the NHL postseason — especially before the lockout when players were basically allowed to tackle opposing players — in two of his first three years in the league.
He had two good runs with the Sabres that included a run to the conference semifinals where his team was eliminated by the Flyers in 1997. The next season, he made it to Game 6 of the conference finals before losing to the Washington Capitals.
Both teams that ended his season advanced to the finals before losing to the eventual champ Detroit Red Wings, who were the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup winners those two seasons.
Wilson appeared in over 25 NHL postseason games and totaled just two points, but his point production wasn’t as important as his steady play on the blue line with plus/minus ratings over 10. His experience and poise should be a big factor going forward in this series as he looks for his elusive first championship.