April 19, 2011
Detroit — The 65 Hockey Hall of Famers, 11 Stanley Cup titles, six retired numbers and two decades worth of postseason success used to intimidate Derek Meech.
"How could you not walk in this room, see all those faces on the wall, all those Stanley Cups, and not think or feel something," said Meech, 26, a defenseman.
Fortunately for Meech, the buzz wore off about three years ago after a few practices with the "Black Aces," a band of minor leaguers Detroit's front office selects each spring to tag along with the Wings during the playoffs.
After stints with the Grand Rapids Griffins, they're all eagerly putting in overtime with their pro counterparts. The Wings began the postseason with 15 Black Aces, and now are carrying eight — forwards Cory Emmerton, Jan Mursak and Tomas Tatar; defensemen Doug Janik, Brian Lashoff, Brendan Smith and Meech; and goaltender Jordan Pearce.
Some could be one mysterious postseason upper-body injury away from replacing a veteran for ice time.
"You have to adjust quickly," Meech said. "If you don't, you could end up star struck and in awe all the time."
The Black Aces, an NHL-wide nickname for reserves dating to the mid-1940s, can't get caught up in the newfound NHL lifestyle. Detroit has been plagued by injuries all season and wobbled into the playoff series against the Coyotes without knowing when Henrik Zetterberg could return from a lower-body injury.
Griffins general manager Bob McNamara takes pride in putting together a team with players capable of performing well under adversity.
McNamara claims the 15 call-ups is a season franchise record and shows what the front office thinks of the talent it has acquired over the years.
"They're exposing more guys to the culture than ever before," he said. "Even if it's just through the first or second round of the playoffs, no matter how long the run goes, the Red Wings want our guys with them. To experience that, as a young player, is a big deal."
McNamara points to Justin Abdelkader (109 career games with the Griffins) as a prime example of an up-and-comer who took hold of his Black Aces role, learned the ins and outs of playoff hockey, and never let go.
Another Aces alum is Tomas Holmstrom, who has 42 playoff goals in 13 NHL seasons. He spent 74 games in the Swedish elite league and six with the Adirondack (N.Y.) Red Wings of the American Hockey League before his first playoff game in 1997. The following season, Holmstrom scored seven postseason goals to help Detroit earn the second of its back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.
"You just got to wait for your turn and work hard," Holmstrom said. "Show what you can do and your time will come. Everybody has gone through it. You learn a lot, for sure, just by being around."
The Black Aces travel, practice and work out with their pro mentors, and attend team meetings to understand coach Mike Babcock's philosophy and strategies.
Some, like Meech, seem to get called up at the perfect time. After 230 AHL games, he played in 32 games during the team's 2008 Stanley Cup run and had his name engraved on the trophy, despite not playing a single minute during the playoffs. Meech got his name engraved on the Cup because of a successful petition to the NHL by the Red Wings.
"They really take care of you when you're here," said defenseman Jakub Kindl, a three-year Black Aces veteran. "You see how the pro guys work, and you can't help but get up for the opportunity."
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