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Syracuse Crunch opinion piece: Playing with strangers

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Turnover in the AHL is just about the only constant. Change is the norm, and team rosters can look drastically different from season to season. If players don't know each other, then how can they be expected to work together to win hockey games?

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Scott Thomas

The art of team building can be a tricky skill to learn and to manage, especially in a sport like hockey, where it seems like players spend at least seven months living in each other's pockets. No one can doubt that guys who play professional hockey spend a lot of time together during the regular season. The AHL in particular sees this a lot, being, for the most part, a bus league. Also, most players in the AHL are young and unmarried, so they often room with each other in lieu of living with a family unit. Older players might not have their families with them for a variety of reasons, so they, too, might room with another guy or two. These guys live together, work together, and play hockey together. They're on the same team.

Based on all of that, it's probably pretty easy to dismiss "team building" as a necessity. These guys see each other all the time; why would anyone have to put any effort into making them get to know each other? Wouldn't that just happen?

I was pondering that very thing this past weekend, and ended up thinking of my own work environment. I spend at least eight hours of every day working in the same building as a lot of other people. However, I only have a vague idea of who my co-workers really are. I know the names of their significant others, their pets, and their children. But, I've never done anything with them outside of work, and have no real idea of what goes on in their lives, just as they don't really know much about my own. It just takes a conscious effort to get to know people beyond what the pictures on their desk might show.

The energy and time needed to really become close to those we work with can be difficult to come by for most of us. There are people who get to know their co-workers really well. But, they will tell you that it takes work and effort to find that kind of common ground.

Luckily, getting to know our co-workers well isn't required for the kinds of jobs the majority of us do. But for hockey players? Well, there are some people - and I'm beginning to see that I'm one of them - who think that it really is practically a necessity. And, unfortunately, it's a necessity that isn't being met in Syracuse.

Ever since coach Jon Cooper left the Crunch in late 2013, there's just been something "off" about the way the team has been playing as a whole. No one has really been able to put their finger on what it is. Sure, the Crunch's depth has varied over the seasons, but that's certainly been restored. Yes, there's been a lot of roster turnover, but that happens with every AHL team. However, not every AHL team has that "off" feeling that the Crunch has had.

This has been mentioned many times, but team building has been a huge part of every Tampa Bay Lightning farm team that has done well in recent memory. The 2012 Calder Cup champions, the Norfolk Admirals, have been touted as one of the closest teams anyone had ever seen. They had many common bonds - fishing, surfing, beards, bromances, charity work - and all of those bonds were brought to Syracuse when the team was moved here. The Crunch, in turn, benefited from those same bonds, bonds that continued to be nurtured and developed, and was able to reach the Calder Cup final in 2013.

Those bonds didn't just happen. Regardless of their work environment, no group of people can be thrown together in the same vicinity of each other and just be expected to become close. A few might click here and there, but larger groups of people aren't going to come to care for each other without effort.

Fans in Syracuse have seen this kind of odd "can't put a finger on it" disconnect before, when the Crunch was affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks. Those years, the Crunch's coaching staff and veterans were disinterested in getting the players together and having them get to know each other. The players actually bantered with each other on Twitter about the different "teams" they were on, teams that were based on where they lived in and around Syracuse. This was a wake-up call to the fans, who began to see more of what was going on in the dressing room and how it was affecting the team on the ice.

To be blunt: those guys lived apart geographically, never bothered to try to find any common ground, and ended up looking and feeling far apart on the ice, both literally and figuratively.

Team building is still a buzzword around the War Memorial, but is it actually happening? Sure, the team takes those pre-season jaunts around the world in the name of team building. But, if no one is making the effort to push the guys together while on those jaunts, then they might as well just be on a bus to Rochester.

Normally, this kind of responsibility falls to the coaching staff, but not always. In 2007-2008, when the Syracuse Crunch featured larger-than-life personalities like Jon Mirasty, Zenon KonopkaDerick Brassard, Derek MacKenzie, and Derek Dorsett, the team often took it upon themselves to do things together. One of their favorite activities was going fishing at a player's place that was on the water. They'd have a cookout, sometimes have families and other friends over, and fish. That was it. But it was an authentic activity, and they got to know each other better because of it.

If Rob Zettler and Trent Cull aren't going to try to find ways to get this team together, then it's up to the veterans to take responsibility for it. The Crunch is playing like strangers, which something that I think has been a growing problem for the past few seasons and is a large part of that "can't put a finger on it" feeling. The team plays disconnected because it is disconnected, and development is going to suffer if that kind of disconnect continues.

I know Crunch captain Mike Angelidis has a family and a lot on his mind. I get it, and no one has tried to be a bigger advocate for him in that way than me. But his hockey family has to have a place in his life, too. This team needs a figure to rally around, now more than ever with Eric Neilson gone. Neilson was such a huge part of every team building activity the Crunch - and Norfolk, too - did. We all knew that.

With Neilson gone, the Crunch and its fans need Angelidis to be that guy. He's the only one left who was a part of both that Norfolk team and that Syracuse team. When Angelidis is present and with us, with his heart and soul on his sleeve, he can inspire his fellow players to go through brick walls. He ignites both this fan base and the dressing room. He's proven that season after season, and he was wanted back desperately this season because of that.

That Angelidis is needed now. Putting all of this on his shoulders isn't fair to him. I'm painfully aware of that. But I just don't see these guys coming together without their captain making it a priority. I just don't.

Latest Stats for the Syracuse Crunch:

  • Regular season record (wins-losses-OT losses-SO losses): 5-4-0-1

  • This past week's results: A 4-3 loss Friday night vs. Albany and a 2-1 win Saturday night vs. Lehigh Valley.

  • Place in Eastern Conference: 7th

  • Place in North Division: 4th

  • Top scorer: Jonathan Marchessault (6-3-9)
  • Top scoring defenseman: Anthony DeAngelo (3-5-8)

  • Top defenseman, +/-Matt Taormina (+4)

  • Top scoring rookie: Anthony DeAngelo (3-5-8)
A rundown of the AHL's new standings system can be found over at Syracuse.com.

Other transactions and player news:

-Forward Tye McGinn was returned to Syracuse from the Lightning this past week.

-Goalie Adam Wilcox got his first professional victory this past Saturday, stopping 25 of the 26 shots he faced.

Syracuse Crunch media highlights:

  • The Crunch's SoundCloud has been updated with broadcasts and player interviews from the past week.
  • A rundown of the Crunch's promotional schedule so far can be found on their website.
  • Be sure to use the hashtags #SyrCrunch, #BelieveInBlue, and #TampaCuse when tweeting about the team.
  • Video highlights from Syracuse's games this past weekend: