Ian Clark's On Hockey: Healthy scratches have vets itching to play
While it's a good problem for a coach to have, a loaded roster means somebody has to sit. And if you're playing professional hockey, you're a competitor, and that type of personality does not enjoy watching the game while wearing street clothes.
Yet such is the case for several Manchester Monarchs.
Owners of a 5-1-0 record, good for first place in the AHL's Atlantic Division, the Monarchs are off to an undeniably successful start.
But with the NHL lockout adding to the Manchester roster four players who otherwise would be skating for the parent L.A. Kings, many veterans are finding themselves on the sidelines.
The four would-be Kings give the Monarchs a roster of 26. AHL rules allow teams to dress 20 per game.
Manchester is especially deep along the blue line, with seven defensemen on the roster. That has led to something that would have been unheard of last season: assistant captain Thomas Hickey being a healthy scratch for three games.
Hickey played all 76 games last season and 77 the year before (when the season was longer).
"It's not fun, but you've got to learn from it and set an example for your teammates," said Hickey, who got back in the lineup Sunday. "Sometimes the time off might be a good thing. I'm not happy about it at all, but I'm ready to play every night, so that's something they should know."
Hickey's return on Sunday meant that Andrew Campbell was the odd man out. "Soupy" has been an ironman throughout his career, playing every game last season and no fewer than 72 games in any of his four pro seasons.
In the season-opener, it was David Kolomatis watching from the stands. Kolomatis has since made it tough to scratch him, scoring two goals in his first game and adding another on Friday. His three goals this season have him on pace to shatter last year's full-season mark of five.
"You're obviously not happy when you put the work in all summer and you don't get the first game that you want," Kolomatis said. "You use it as fuel to the fire and come back out, and you know you want to make an impression."
Monarchs head coach Mark Morris knows it's not easy for players to sit.
"This is probably the hardest part of coaching," Morris said. "A lot of people think it's easy, but any coach worth his weight cares about his players and how they're going to respond to not being in the lineup."
Morris said that it can be difficult for players to see the bigger picture. Often the mandate from the Kings is for younger players - especially high draft picks - to see more ice time early on for the purpose of evaluation.
"A player may only look at it through his own eyes," Morris said. "But the organization has goals and things they need to do."
But that doesn't make things any easy for veteran players used to seeing a lot of ice time.
"We're painfully aware of the contributions some of our older players have made in the past. Over the course of time, these things tend to settle out," Morris said. "But that initial shock of not playing is tough. We remind them to be good soldiers and that some things are beyond their control and to put their best foot forward in practice."
Kolomatis said that trying to understand the situation does not help you maintain a competitive edge.
"I don't think you ever want to understand it. You want to make the coach's job as difficult as possible every night," Kolomatis said. "That becomes something in the back of your head, that you're doing everything you can to stay in. Selfish as it sounds, you want to play every night. You don't want to make it easy for them to take you out. No one wants to be out. I don't ever want to be out again."
But even with the disappointment of not playing, the outward demeanor of the Monarchs players has been positive. Veterans such as David Meckler and Justin Johnson have yet to play this season, but they remain upbeat.
"You've got to be positive. I spend time with guys that don't get in the lineup much this year - a guy like J.J., who hasn't played at all and he's the most positive guy," Hickey said. "I think everyone can learn from that. You've got to be a good teammate. When you're in, other guys are doing the same thing for you."
Ultimately, there's no way everyone can be happy and get the playing time he wants.
"Sometimes there is no right answer," Morris said. "It's just part of the professional game."
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Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.