The Rockford IceHogs skated almost half the season without having named an official captain. Instead, they were using a few assistant captains that worked together. A couple weeks ago, that changed when they named Jared Nightingale.
“Obviously anytime that you’re recognized, whether it be by your peers or a group, especially as captain of a hockey team, it’s quite humbling,” he said on being named captain. “I didn’t expect that. I’m thrilled and really excited about the opportunity to help our team make the playoffs.”
Nightingale, a 31-year-old defenseman from Cheboygan, Michigan, is playing in Rockford for the first season. It was something that he had not expected. Although he’s held a leadership role in the past, it is the first time he has captained an AHL team. As someone just on an AHL contract, it came unexpected when there are other great leaders on two-way contracts throughout the roster. But, he knows what is important for the team in order to be successful.
“I think it might be kind of cliché but you want to be the same person you’ve been. So I guess away from the rink, it’s important to have a bond with your team. The teams that go the farthest are always the teams that want to fight to the last second,” Nightingale said. “They want to keep the season going as long as possible. I think that’s important but that’s not just the captain that does that. It’s got to be everyone pulling the same weight, even away from the rink.”
The bond that a hockey team has is something that many people undervalue. But if the players don’t care about each other off the ice, they won’t want to play for each other on it. Through his time with other teams, Nightingale has picked up a few things that he brought with him. After last season with the Syracuse Crunch, he started a bowling league in Rockford. He also continued his years of having a Christmas party, something he has always had but they did not seem to have already in Rockford. He hopes that will make the team more successful.
“In my last year in Hartford, we had a really close team. The guys all came together and we were actually really close to beating Norfolk who went on to win the Calder Cup. I think the closeness of a team is one of those things people don’t appreciate as much as really matters,” he said.
“We’ve been struggling a little bit of late but I’m a big believer that we can learn from that. We have a young group and good character guys. I definitely see a process going on that we can have a strong second half,” Nightingale said.
This is the 8th season for Nightingale playing professional hockey and he has spent that time between the ECHL and AHL so far. For the past few seasons, he has been in the AHL full time. During his time, he has learned a lot about what can make it a challenge playing in this league.
“I think the challenge in the AHL is you have a handful of guys that want to be up, in our case with the Blackhawks, which isn’t wrong at all. Then there’s another group of guys that are stressing out about getting sent to the ECHL,” he said. “As a guy that’s been around, a good leader can try to keep the team’s mind in Rockford and in the present. It doesn’t do any of us any good to dwell on the what-ifs. The off-ice stuff is so important because you build a bond and friendships.”
It all comes back to that off-ice dynamic of the team and he feels like as a captain, he can help that by leading by example. That is not the only role of a captain, though, and he has had the benefit of learning from some really great leaders over the past few years.
“I’ve had a lot of great leaders and I could go on and on. But there are a few that stick out to me. Last year’s captain (in Syracuse), Mike Angelidis, was one. He’s not known for putting up a lot of points but he’s a team-first guy and you wouldn’t appreciate him as much unless you had him on your team. I learned a lot just by watching how he dealt with the day-to-day stuff leaders go through,” said Nightingale. “Then probably the biggest influence I’ve had in pro hockey has to be Wade Redden. Obviously he had an unbelievable NHL career. Then he ended up getting sent down to Hartford by the Rangers for two years. I never heard him complain about it. He was still one of the first guys to the rink and one of the last to leave. As talented as he is, he was an even better person off the ice.”
Getting to play with Wade Redden had a huge impact on Nightingale. The two spent the better part of two seasons in Hartford as a defensive pairing and Nightingale opted to wear 6 this season in tribute. One of the greatest lessons he learned was how important it is to work hard and make the most out of every situation. Complaining about things outside of your control will never help you in the long run.
“You can always find reasons to complain in your first or second year in hockey. There are times you think you should be up in the NHL,” he said. “When you face that early adversity, if you have the right mind set, it’ll only help you down the road. Hockey is a small world and you don’t want to burn bridges.”
Adversity is certainly something that Nightingale is all too familiar with. That is probably what makes him such a great leader because he can tell younger players about what he went through and how he overcame it. The first challenge for him was tearing his ACL. It came right at the beginning of his professional career and he did not let it stop him from chasing a dream.
“At the time, I was pretty upset but I had a good support group with my parents and my brothers. You always have to look at the glass as half full, though. I had an AHL deal that I lost. I was hungry to improve. I’ve been playing this game since I was 5 years old and I always had a dream to at the highest level,” he said.
“Why should I give up because of an injury? Every player goes through injuries and I really do believe that injuries and everything else you go through helps shape you as a person,” Nightingale offered. “It can also make you, if you allow it, a better hockey player. That’s exactly what happened with me. I learned to appreciate everything. I’m still a work in progress though. I’m not perfect.”
After losing that AHL deal, Nightingale did what he had to do to get another chance: he played in the ECHL. His brother, Adam, got him a shot playing with the Charlotte Checkers, who were still in the ECHL at the time, because he had played there the season before. Over the next couple seasons, he had to battle a lot to get to where he is now. But, his teammates undoubtedly benefit from that experience now.
Nightingale spent the majority of the 2007-2008 season in the ECHL recovering from his surgery with only two brief AHL call-ups. To start the next season, he found himself in training camp with Hartford, only to get cut. He got the call after about a quarter of the season and stayed up. The next season started the same way. He got cut out of camp again and earned his way back once again. Finally, for the 2010-2011 season, he earned a full-time spot in the AHL and has not looked back since.
“At the time, I was really bitter and I used that as motivation. It happens a lot, so I like to share it with the guys. A lot of guys give up during times when they could actually take a lot from it. Even today, I’m really thankful to be here in Rockford and be a captain and have the chance to work with younger guys. I’m also working on myself, you’re never done improving,” Nightingale said. “I still have a dream to play in the NHL. I know that it’s slim, but I believe things happen for a reason. I wouldn’t trade getting sent down to the ECHL or getting cut by teams in the past for anything. Those experiences are what shapes your character. Those are the things that develop your mental toughness, which I definitely think is a strength of mine.”
Making it into the AHL from the ECHL full time is not an easy task, which is something that Nightingale recognizes. During his time there, he landed on something that got him noticed: fighting. That has been something he has kept doing since.
“For me, I broke into the AHL because I was willing to fight or at least step up and defend my teammates. I didn’t win every fight but I don’t think that’s the most important thing. The coaching staff in Hartford appreciated my hard work and willingness to step up, Nightingale. “It’s kept me in the AHL and I’m really thankful. There are a lot of good players in the ECHL too but it’s so tough to crack the AHL when you’re not drafted, like I wasn’t, and stay in the AHL. I feel really fortunate that things have worked out.”
After his time in Hartford, he headed to Syracuse to play with the Crunch for the 2012-2013 season. Prior to that season, their NHL affiliation had changed. Syracuse now held the prospects from Tampa Bay, the same prospects who won the Calder Cup during the 2011-2012 season in Norfolk. The result was that the team had a lot of talent again and went all the way to the Finals where they lost to Grand Rapids.
“I didn’t dress at all in the playoffs and there were 20 games during the regular season, too, that I didn’t play because I was scratched. We had 8 defensemen on NHL contracts in Syracuse and I knew that we had a special team,” he said. “It would have done no good for me to show up to the rink and complain because I wasn’t playing. Five years from now, we might not remember who led our team in scoring, but they will remember what type of teammate or person you were.”
Despite not getting to play at all in the playoffs and having to sit during the regular season, Nightingale says that the learned a lot from being part of the team. Although another contract was not on the table in Syracuse for this season, there was an offer on the table.
“I didn’t get offered a contract there but actually, the Syracuse coaching staff wanted to see if I was interested in coaching. They wanted to see if I was ready to hang them up, which I wasn’t quite yet,” Nightingale said. “The contract came up in Rockford and I think it’ll be a unique story and hopefully I can get that NHL game I’ve always dreamt of.”
The opportunity in Rockford has been one that Nightingale has really enjoyed. Not only does he have the chance to play with some great veterans like Wade Brookbank, Brad Winchester, and Jason Labarbera, who recently joined the team, but he also is working with a great group of younger guys. His role as a captain and a leader is to help the team succeed.
“I think it’s really important for younger guys to have a leader. I think the most rookies I’ve ever had on a team is 6 and we have something like 12 this season. There are a good group of us too though. We have a great group of core guys that I think are good for the young guys we have,” he said. “You go through the growing pains and ups and downs. You cant really put a price on having a good core group. Our team has been taking steps in improving. I’m excited to see where we can go for the second half.”
With so many younger players, a player like Nightingale becomes even more important. He has really been through a lot and loves to share his story. Many younger players struggle with the idea of spending time in the ECHL. It was actually a great experience for him. It gave him the chance to work on some things that he has struggled with.
“The biggest thing for me was skating. It’s something that maybe didn’t come as easily for me but since college I’ve had a power skating coach. I think confidence is another big thing for me. You have to believe you have the tools to play in the AHL or NHL even,” Nightingale said. “Hockey is a game of confidence. When you feel confident, you go out there and you want the puck instead of just wanting to get rid of it. The biggest leap I made from the ECHL to the AHL was when I had someone believe in me. I had that in Hartford and I had a role there.”
The Rockford IceHogs will look to finish strong in the second half of their season as their new captain continues to provide strong leadership. One thing is certain, though. Jared Nightingale has a lot to offer the team both on and off the ice. He does not take any chance for granted and believes in working for everything that he gets.
Until he hangs up the skates, Nightingale will still be chasing the same dream that he has had since he was just 5 years old. He wants an NHL contract and to play in that one game. Although he recognizes that he’s older than most guys getting their first look, he has seen it happen. He is not ready to give up.