By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman
The calendar on the wall suggests Nolan Baumgartner is closer to being a hockey heirloom than a hockey hotshot.
Considering the Chicago Wolves captain made his professional debut with the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals way back on Oct. 18, 1995 – and the 35-year-old defenseman ranks as the third-oldest player in the American Hockey League – it’s fair to say Baumgartner stands closer to the end of his playing career than its beginning.
But Baumgartner is nobody’s museum piece. In fact, his future in hockey appears as bright as anybody else in the Wolves organization – and in more ways than one.
Wolves general manager Wendell Young believes Baumgartner has a chance to play more games in the NHL, where he has spent time with six teams over 10 seasons. Considering Baumgartner ranks among the Wolves leaders in ice time – and takes more than his share of shifts on the power play and penalty-kill – it’s clear he still has skills.
But in the same breath, Young praises Baumgartner as a “hockey guy” and a “lifer” and envisions him making an impact on games after he hangs up his skates.
“He’s a guy that I think will eventually be in the coaching ranks because he garners so much respect,” Young said. “He could be a teacher (this season) and be a helper in getting guys up there. He could give the Canucks some games if they need it, while at the same time teach and help develop and give the young guys a sense of calm out there when he’s playing.”
“As a player, you don’t want to think about the end of your career,” Baumgartner said. “But, yeah, I guess after I’m done, I hope I can put something together and maybe start in coaching. I’m interested in the management side of it also.”
Wolves head coach Craig MacTavish and assistant coach Karl Taylor have encouraged Baumgartner to build his coaching resume while he’s still playing. Though he missed the team’s first four games this season due to injury, Baumgartner went on the initial road trip to Texas. MacTavish allowed Baumgartner to run the pregame meeting for the players.
Taylor, meanwhile, offered to teach Baumgartner the computerized video system that makes scouting so much more helpful and detailed – provided the technology is used correctly.
“It’s such an elaborate system now compared to 10 years ago when everybody used VHS and pressed ‘Stop’ and ‘Rewind’ and ‘Fast-Forward,’ ” Baumgartner said. “But now it’s all done on computer and it’s all right there at your fingertips. I think all of these little things are good to have once you’re finished. If you can learn now, it’s only going to make you a step ahead when you’re done.”
This is not to suggest Baumgartner doesn’t spend the vast majority of his time working to earn the Wolves some wins now. As soon as he became healthy enough to play, MacTavish paired him with defenseman prospect Kevin Connauton (Vancouver’s third-round pick in 2009) to serve as the team’s top pair on the blue line.
“We talked about it as a staff,” Young said. “There are certain guys you play with, especially on defense, where you make your partner better. He’s a guy that whoever we put with him is going to be better.”
Connauton, who boasts a big slapshot and a relatively advanced offensive game, can’t help but learn little defensive nuances from Baumgartner that ought to make him a more well-rounded player. Watch them when they leave the ice after a shift. As soon as they settle into seats side-by-side, they usually start discussing what just happened and what should occur on their next shift.
“He’s a really approachable guy. You don’t always find that with older guys on teams,” said Connauton, who was 4 years old when the Washington Capitals made Baumgartner the 10th overall selection in the 1994 NHL draft.
“Being a younger guy, especially, you can be intimidated by them. Nolan does a great job of making himself approachable and available to everyone on the team. And watching certain parts of his game, you can tell they’re a little more mature than everyone else’s. It’s something you see all year and the longer you’re around him, the better off you are.”
There’s a lot to learn from Baumgartner. During his nearly 20-year career, he leave has won four championships at the junior level and appeared in almost 1,000 games as a professional. He has played on the same NHL team as Dale Hunter in the era when “there was a lot of hooking and holding and clutching and grabbing.” He has paid enough dues in the AHL to become a three-time all-star.
And, of course, Baumgartner boasts the pedigree to work behind the bench or in the front office someday. But he’s going to put off the next stage of his career for as long as possible.
“I just love being out there,” he said. “You’re out there getting paid to play a game. You never know when your last game is going to be (or) your last practice. There’s going to be a day when someone’s not asking for my autograph. There’s not going to be the kids that look up to you the same way as they do when you’re an athlete.