I learned a lot about the AHL while following several teams this past season, but I learned the most by following former Everett Silvertip Mitch Love's weekly blog as part of the Houston Aeros. Mitch had a lot to write about, as the Aeros made a spectacular run for the Calder Cup, making it to the third round of the playoffs before falling to the Manitoba Moose in 6 games. Mitch's blog featured many players who stepped up to help the team go that much further. A few names jumped out, including former Silvertips teammate John Lammers, Benoit Pouliot (who I featured in a blog about 3 players drafted in 2005) and Tony Hrkac.
When I mentioned the last name to several people, I received the same initial reaction. "The Hrkac Circus!" "What a badass!" "He's still playing?"
The last bit is sort of true. Tony Hrkac actually retired in 2006, following a storied career that spanned nearly 20 years and included stints on nearly has many teams, both NHL and AHL. According to his website, he has a total of 371 points (132 goals, 239 assists) in 758 career NHL games with Atlanta, Anaheim, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, San Jose, New York Islanders, Edmonton, and Quebec. He's hoisted one Stanley Cup (in 1999, with the Dallas Stars). He's been honored as the best college player in the US (Hobey Baker Award, 1987, following an amazing season with the University of North Dakota). One team has retired his jersey (Milwaukee Admirals in 2007).
The Houston Aeros coaxed Tony out of retirement this past March, and at age 42, he showed he still has the stuff that earned him the "Hrkac Circus" moniker so many years ago. He made a number of key plays for Houston, including a double overtime goal to force a Game 6 between the Manitoba Moose in the AHL Western Conference Championships.
I recently caught up with Tony, who was enjoying the off season and preparing to return to his "day job" as men's hockey coach for Concordia College in Wisconsin. That is, unless another team is in need of his still-stellar on-ice skills. Read on to learn more about why the Aeros called on him, what he thinks about North Dakota being forced to lose the "Fighting Sioux" name, the hockey roommate who made him so tongue-tied, he didn't even know how to address the guy, and who he really credits for his Hobey Baker Award (Hint: this is why you want him on your team!).
KING 5: How's the off season treating you?
TH: It's going. I'm recovering. (laughs)
KING 5: What made you decide to come back?
TH: To see if I could do it. I don't know. You never really get over playing hockey or whatever sport you play. I did miss it for a few years and just had an opportunity to come back and play.
KING 5: Did Houston come to you and ask you to play? How did that happen?
TH: The assistant coach (Luke Strand) and myself did a couple of hockey camps over the summer in Madison, Wisconsin. After the camp at night I'd skate with Ryan Sutter who plays with Nashville, and a few other pros and the Wisconsin Badgers college team. He saw me skate a couple of nights and thought I could still play so he kind of kept me in mind and when they wanted somebody for the playoff run, he asked me if I wanted to play.
KING 5: The Aeros' playoff run was one of the most exciting I've ever heard or seen.
TH: We had a good run. We had a good team. There aren't that many teams where everybody gets along like that and play hard for each other. We went on a pretty good run. I wish it had gone a little longer but everybody played well and we went pretty far.
KING 5: It certainly wasn't for lack of trying. People were stepping up all over the place. You had that double overtime winning goal against Manitoba to keep that run alive. There were different people each time, it seems. It wasn't the same people doing it.
TH: Exactly. There was a total team effort. I think with our team, we had to have a total team effort or else. We had some good players scoring, but we didn't have an outstanding two lines where they were going to score every night. We had a well balanced team, like you said. There was somebody every night and we needed everybody.
Tony asked me if I would be catching up with Mitch Love during the off season while Mitch is home in Everett. It was very clear that Tony has as much love and respect for Mitch, as Silvertips fans have for their former captain.
TH: Mitch is a great guy. He's someone you hate playing against but you love having on your team. And he's just tough. He's so smart, and is a good fighter. An all around good guy. I enjoyed being around him.
KING 5: I want to go way back now--how old were you when you started skating?
TH: I was 4 when I started skating. I was 6 years old when I started playing in an outdoor league. It was kind of semi-organized (laughs). I was 7 when I started playing organized hockey- in an organized league. I'm from Thunder Bay, Ontario. I started in the Elks league. There were a couple of different leagues in my town. The one I started with was the Elks and just moved on up through the leagues.
KING 5: Did you go from Midgets to college?
TH: No, I played one year of junior hockey in a Tier 2 league in Ontario. The name of the town was Orillia. It's a little town near Toronto.
KING 5: How did you make the move to college?
TH: I got recruited. I got a call from a few colleges and I decided to go to North Dakota.
KING 5: Once you got to college, it seemed like you were history in the making. I've seen video of you and people who went to UND and are more familiar with the Fighting Sioux than I am say that you were on arguably some of the best teams to ever come out of that school. What was it like for you?
TH: My first year, we had an all right team. We lost in the 2nd round in the playoffs. I left and went to Team Canada, which was a development team at the time. We traveled around the world and played different tournaments and played some exhibition games here and there. I think it helped me a lot playing international competition. That was when I was 19 and I got to see the world, too.
Then I went back to college because I wanted to get back into a league and go back to school, actually. It was fun on the national team but you want to play for something, also. So, I went back to college in '86, '87. We just had a good team right from the beginning. We had a great time together and everybody liked each other on that team, also. We just clicked right from the beginning and it was a great year. It's always fun when you're winning.
KING 5: Not only did the team have a great year that year, you had a great year. You had 116 points. You were on fire. That was the year you won the Hobey Baker Award.
TH: Yes, but the reason I could do that was because we had four good lines, a good team concept right from the start. Our goalie was Eddie Belfour- our goaltending was solid, so that made everyone else play a little bit more offensively. We knew Eddie was in net and not too many pucks were gonna get by him. We had a good, solid defensive core and most of them were defensive defensemen, so we knew our end was taken care of, also. So, it made a few of us offensive players take a little more chances, too. You could do that with a team like that. It's all a team effort.
KING 5: It seems like there were no weak links on that team.
TH: No, there weren't. We had a very good team and we enjoyed each other. We had fun with each other and that makes it a lot more fun here.
KING 5: The Blues called you up after that '86-'87 season. (NOTE: St. Louis drafted Hrkac #32 overall in the 1894 NHL Entry Draft)
TH: Yes. About a week after the season ended, I went up to play in the playoffs. I played my first couple of years in St. Louis.
KING 5: I'm kind of going off subject here, but I think it's interesting that you get drafted by St. Louis and another Fighting Sioux standout, TJ Oshie, gets drafted by St. Louis. He didn't stay for his senior season and went straight into the NHL as well.
TH: Well, there are only 30 teams and so many players so someone's going to get drafted by the same team. He's doing really well right now. He's having a terrific year. I think he's a big part of their program. I think they're counting on him to be one of their leaders in St. Louis in the next few years. He's done a great job and I think him staying in school for a couple of years helped him a lot. It made him grow a little bit. A lot of guys at 18, you're not ready to play. You're still a kid and the guys in the NHL are men. They are good, on the best league in the world. So, it always helps if you can develop for two or three years in college and go in as a 20, 21 year old and step right in, instead of having to play in the minors or wherever.
KING 5: How does playing in college help prepare you for the NHL?
TH: You're usually 18, 19 when you go to college and typically you're not that big. I wasn't, anyway. Those extra years- you grow, so physically you're a lot bigger and stronger just because of the weight lifting and stuff you do in college, and then mentally also, you're growing up. You're going to class; you're on your own. You have to go to class or else you're gonna fail. You're making decisions that affect your life and it makes you grow up a little bit quicker, I guess. You've got to make the right decisions for yourself, so mentally, it helps you tremendously. And the competition. College hockey is great hockey. It helps out on the ice. You're playing good teams, good people and it makes you a better player.
KING 5: It seems interesting to me that you get players like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin who are drafted and the next year, they're in uniform.
TH: They're exceptional players at a young age. They're great players. There are not too many players that can step in as 18 year olds and play that well. Mario Lemieux did it and (Wayne) Gretzky and Crosby and Ovechkin. But, not too many can do that at 18. Those guys are exceptions.
KING 5: Do you think maybe some of the younger guys put pressure on themselves to try to make it quickly like these young kids did?
TH: Yes. It's enticing because once you get drafted... that's where, as a kid you dream of playing. It's your ultimate goal. And sometimes... well, they're (NHL teams) not really leading you on. They want you to come and play, but at 18, 19, it's very tough. Maybe they want you to develop in the minors. Sometimes, it's good to do that. Sometimes it's better to stay in college or juniors. You just never know. You think you're ready, and other people tell you, who have been there before, they think you're ready. That's the time you should go. Listen when people tell you that you need a couple more years. Because it is tough. It's a grind. It's hard on your body. Every day you have to go out there and prove yourself, because there's somebody else waiting to take your job.
KING 5: You teamed up with Eddie Belfour again with Dallas to win the Cup in '99.
TH: I was also on the (Chicago) Blackhawks that lost in the Finals to Pittsburgh 1992 for the Cup. Eddie was on that team (Chicago) too.
KING 5: What is it like to know that you've made it to the top of the NHL and win a Cup?
TH: It's a dream come true. When you're a kid and you're playing road hockey, you're always playing for the Stanley Cup. And to actually play for it- was an honor, first of all. Not too many guys get to do that. And to win it, is something else. It's the ultimate goal in your hockey career. It's a great feeling to know that, no matter what, I've won the Stanley Cup.
KING 5: There was a commercial this year that was just a video montage of players raising the Cup and at the end it says, "The Stanley Cup weighs 35 pounds. Except when you're lifting it." Is that true?
TH: Yes, it seems a lot lighter, for sure. You're on Cloud Nine when you're doing it. You just want to lift it over your head and it seems light as a feather.
KING 5: When did they start the tradition of players getting to spend a day with the Cup? Has it always been like that?
TH: No, I think it started in the mid-80's. The Edmonton teams would take the Cup for a while. It would just disappear for a few days here and there and there wasn't somebody going around with it. I think they wanted to protect the Cup so they planned every guy getting time with the Cup. At least, I think that's what happened. It would just disappear and nobody would know where it was, so I think they (the NHL) wanted to control it a little bit more. And they let each player have the Cup for a little bit instead of a few people taking it for a couple of weeks.
KING 5: What did you do with the Cup?
TH: We took it to our kids' school in Dallas. We were supposed to have it during the summer, but right before we got it, they changed the date on us. We got it near when I had to go back to training camp, so we just took it to the girls' school. They were in 3rd and 4th grade at the time. We took it around to their classrooms and enjoyed it.
KING 5: Did you drink out of it?
TH: Oh yeah. You've got to do that! (laughs) There's a lot of things that guys do with it, but you've gotta drink out of it, for sure.
KING 5: You played for a number of NHL teams. Aside from winning the Stanley Cup, what memories stand out for you?
TH: Obviously, you have your good games here and there and great memories, but just the memories of meeting all the people that I've met over the years and the guys that I've played with. It was an honor to play in the NHL. Not too many guys get there and get to reach their dream. I did and I enjoyed every minute of it.
KING 5: You played with Joe Sakic on the Nordiques. What do you think of him calling it quits? (NOTE: Joe Sakic retired on July 9, 2009, following a 20-year, Hall of Fame career with the Quebec Nordiques and Colorado Avalanche)
TH: He's had a great career. He's one of those guys that is just a terrific guy, first of all. As a person, he's one of those guys that don't really come around often, guys like (Steve) Yzerman. Great guys off the ice. On the ice, he's probably one of the best players in the 90's, even in the early 2000's. He's one of those guys that you want to start a team around, and that's what Quebec and Colorado did, and it worked well for them. They were always at the top when he was playing. Just a terrific guy. He's a great guy, great teammate, unbelievable.
KING 5: I've read that when you played for UND, you guys were a lively bunch. What's the craziest memory of that time that you can share?
TH: (Laughter) Where did you get that we were a lively bunch? (more laughter) We had fun together. Everybody got along. We always did things together. The whole year was fun. Of course, winning week after week makes things a lot easier. Everything is better when you are winning. People are nicer, classes become easier. (more laughter) Just that whole year was a good time. Again, we enjoyed being around each other.
KING 5: One thing we've been following here, with my news anchor Dennis Bounds and my friend Shawn Turner (who are UND alums), is the fight over the "Fighting Sioux" name and how it must go away. How do you feel about that?
TH: Well, obviously, I like the name. I wish it would stay, but it's not going to and I guess we have to get over that. I thought it was a great name. It made me look up the history of the Sioux. But, again, it's not to be. I know they're (UND) moving into another conference and they won't allow it, either. I guess pretty much, the fight's over so, we've just gotta move on.
KING 5: In your career, who's the funniest guy you've had on your team; the biggest practical joker?
TH: There's been a few guys, but in Dallas, two of the guys that were very funny together: Brian Skrudland and Mike Keane. Every day, they were joking around and they made me laugh. Those two guys, especially together, they kind of played off each other. They were really good. Really funny guys.
KING 5: It's so important to have someone on the team like that, isn't it?
TH: I think so. It makes the guys laugh but they also came to play and I think that's the biggest part about being pro- is knowing when it's time to get guys relaxed, which they did, and other times when it's serious and we're ready to play.
KING 5: One team has retired your jersey - the Milwaukee Admirals (AHL). How soon after you retired (in 2006) did they retire your jersey as well?
TH: Not for a couple of years. They told me about six months in advance so we could pick the best date to do it. We were at a golf tournament together. I do things with them in the summer, golf tournaments and such, and they (Admirals representatives) were all out there at the same time and they told me. It was an honor and a shock. I didn't think that was going to happen. It was an honor and a privilege.
KING 5: So, you've been retired for three years when you come back for the run to the post-season with the Houston Aeros. Now that you've put on the skates again and you've had this run, are you coming back for another season?
TH: (Laughter) Well, I haven't gotten a phone call yet. I don't know. It's one of those things where, the AHL is a development league. They want to develop younger guys, see what they have to offer and see if they can play. So, it depends on what a team is looking for. But, I'd listen to offers. Right now, I'm back coaching at Concordia University (in Mequon, Wisconsin). That's what I'm doing right now. If the right offer came, the right chance, I'd consider it, but it's something I'd have to talk over with my family.
KING 5: When you were coming up, which players did you look up to?
TH: Guy LaFleur, in the 70's when I was really young. And then I got to play with him and room with him in Quebec, so that was a great thrill of mine. And obviously Gretzky in the '80's was a guy I watched carefully. He's the greatest player ever and was always like to emulate the guys that are the best.
KING 5: So, you grew up liking Guy LaFleur, and then you're not only playing with him but you're rooming with him. Was that surreal to you?
TH: Yes, it was. I got traded right near Christmas from St. Louis to Quebec and the first time I walked in the room, he was sitting there and he said, "Hi, Tony." I didn't know what to call him, Mr. LaFleur? So, again, it was a great thrill of mine and what a terrific guy he was, too. He's first class. He helped me with anything I wanted. It was just a thrill meeting him.
KING 5: How did your two daughters feel about you coming out of retirement to play again?
TH: They loved it. We had a family talk and they were all for it.
KING5: What kind of music do you listen to, to get you pumped up for a game?
TH: Whatever they had on the stereo this year. I don't bring my iPod into the dressing room, so whatever the young guys had going, I went with it. (laughter)
KING 5: What was the majority of the music in the locker room?
TH: Whatever they're playing now- hip hop and stuff like that? (laughter) It was fine. (more laughter) We usually had a couple guys who were in charge of the music so, whatever they played. I knew most of the songs because my kids listen to the same stuff, so I knew what was going on. (more laughter)
KING 5: How did the "Hrkac Circus" name come about?
TH: Well, really, our name is pronounced HUR-kach'. It's like, Joe Sakic, is really pronounced SAH'kich. We're Croatian. The HUR-kass came when my dad was younger. I think one teacher couldn't pronounce HUR'-kach and just said HUR-kass and then it just caught on. And then "Hrkac Circus" came on in college. I guess they were just trying to find a name and someone saw that in the paper and that caught on.
However you pronounce his name, the result is the same. Face off against Tony Hrkac and you can expect to be scored on. And it doesn't matter how much time passes between games. It's easy to see that this is a man who continues to stay in playing shape and that his love for hockey hasn't diminished a bit since he first laced up the skates at age 4. And, as the Houston Aeros (and their opponents) learned, Tony Hrkac is still dangerous on the ice, and still capable of delivering clutch plays and goals, even in double overtime.
I know that at age 42, a lifetime of hockey must be taking a physical toll, but selfishly, I hope a team convinces Tony to remain un-retired and play another season. I know that scores of fans, past and present, are hoping the same thing right about now.