IceCaps' resident enforcer is far from a one-dimensional player
Players don’t come to American Hockey League training camps to get in shape anymore. They arrive, almost to man, in tip-top condition.
Their engines are fine tuned, the chassis are solid, their wheels balanced. The preseason amounts mostly to road testing.
© Telegram file photo
The St. John’s IceCaps’ Ryan Schnell (left) fights the Worcester Sharks’ Jimmy Bonneau in a game at Mile One last season. Schnell says seeing the Montreal Canadiens’ George Parros injured in a fight with the Toronto Maple Leafs Colton Orr on Tuesday was a ‘scary’ sight for someone in a similar role.
So it was this fall with the St. John’s IceCaps, led by a workout demon of a captain in Jason Jaffray.
But it wasn’t Jaffray who topped the team in conditioning tests this year. And it wasn’t any of those rookies who look like they might be auditioning for the cover of Men’s Health.
Heading the list was left-winger Ryan Schnell, who arrived in St. John’s feeling A-1 not only in body, but in spirit
Schnell played 22 games for St. John’s last season after being brought up from the ECHL in mid-December. He was brought in for toughness — he had put up 125 penalty minutes in 11 games for the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles — and he ended up in seven fights for the IceCaps.
But Schnell, as those labeled hockey fighters often do, saw himself as more than a scrapper. So did IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge as he prepared for the 2013-14 AHL season, which begins Friday night at Mile One Centre as St. John’s takes on the Providence Bruins.
In mid-July, St. John’s signed Schnell to an AHL deal. On the same day, they inked another tough-nosed forward in Blair Riley, and McCambridge began talking about an “energy” line featuring Riley and Schnell on the wings, with John Albert at centre.
“That’s always a confidence-booster when you see things being put together through the summer and that you might be a part of it,” said Schnell, a 23-year-old native of Cary, Illinois, northwest of Chicago.
“You never really know how things are going to go throughout training camp and how guys will fit in, or if there are injuries or what’s taking place in Winnipeg, so to be part of the plan felt good.
“I knew who (Riley) was and I’m excited we got a player like him. He’s physical and fights, but can play every game, and put up some decent points.
“Johnny’s got speed and energy, so he can do his thing and we can work the corners.”
Schnell has a pretty good understanding of what McCambridge wants from him and how he will be used.
“The fighting thing is kind of second nature to me,” said the six-three, 225-pound Schnell. “I know I can do it and fight the guys who are in this league, but it doesn’t need to be every single night. I’m not just looking to go out and get into a fight.
“I can play 10 minutes a game or whatever Keith puts me out for. I know I am reliable and can provide energy and a good strong forecheck and create plays down low.
“I believe my work ethic is there every day”
McCambridge believes it, too. He was obviously pleased with Schnell’s team-leading level of conditioning — “especially considering how committed to fitness some of our players are” — but notes the winger’s improvement in many other areas from last season, including skating and puck-handling.
“We can’t afford to have one-dimensional players,” said McCambridge. “Players in that role have to be responsible defensively and have to be able to skate besides playing physical and keeping other players honest and being a good teammate.
“Ryan Schnell can be all of that.”
Schnell, a product of the United States national development program — where he was teammates were the likes of Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, Kevin Shattenkirk and Albert, his close friend and roommate — is happy for an opportunity to showcase more than his fists.
“If you look at the way the game is going, you can’t be one-dimensional and I don’t think I’m one-dimensional at all,” he said. “If you look at the last three, four, five years, guys who are that way are looking for jobs, because there really isn’t a job for them.
“The reality is you can never can stop trying to get better, whether its’s skating — and I think my skating has come a long way — puck-handling skills and quick-decision making.
“At the same time, I know my leash is shorter than someone like Eric O’Dell or Andrew Gordon. I know I have to make the plays when they’re there.”
Parros’ injury a stark reminder for Schnell
Ryan Schnell is not a goon. He’s not even an enforcer, at least not in the old-time hockey sense. But he is a hockey player who fights, and fights quite a bit.
In 177 career professional games, split between the ECHL and American Hockey League, the six-foot-three, 225-pound winger for the St. John’s IceCaps has fought nearly 60 times, or an average of about once every three games.
So as he watched the Montreal Canadiens’ George Parros taken off in a stretcher after going face-first into the ice Tuesday night when he lost his balance in a scrap with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Colton Orr, what Schnell was feeling went much deeper than it did for the average viewer.
“It’s a scary thing to see, especially since I have a similar role to him (Parros),” said the 24-year-old Schnell.
“You try not to (envision yourself in that situation). You never know exactly what will happen in a fight, but you do know anything can happen and it did in that case.
“We’re on a couple pieces of steel that are maybe an eighth of an inch thick standing on ice. There’s not much for balance out there.”
In the first game of the new NHL season, Parros suffered a concussion when he lost his footing as he attempted to throw a punch at Orr, but the Leaf slipped and the Habs’ forward went over the top of him, falling directly on his chin.
Parros, who signed with the Canadiens as a free agent in the off-season, suffered a concussion, but was released from hospital Wednesday morning. The team lists him as being out indefinitely.
“I had a similar situation once where I fell and couldn’t get my arms out in front of me quick enough to stop my fall and busted my lip open,” said Schnell.
“In those situations, you feel fortunate for your health.”