In the American Hockey League teams always have a couple of players who are on the cusp of making their NHL team’s opening night roster. 32-year-old defenseman Nolan Yonkman was on the fringe of making the Anaheim Ducks opening night roster; however; the Saskatchewan native found himself back in the American Hockey League, a place he knows all too well.
Before the bright lights of the NHL draft, the towering 6’6” D-man painted a picture of his earliest hockey memory in Punnichy, a small farming town two hours away from Regina. “It’s a small town in northern Saskatchewan. My Dad was kind of running the rink at the time. He had time off in the winter so we were able to work on the game early on. It was all about hockey just like any small town in Canada.”
Yonkman spent his junior career playing in the Western Hockey League one of the primary feeder leagues that supplies players to the NHL. Over his four-year stay in the “Dub” he honed his defensive skills which led him to the NHL entry draft.
His Mack truck like frame caught the attention of the Washington Capitals who selected him 37th overall in the 1999 NHL entry draft. Although it was more than a decade ago, Yonkman remembers his emotions in Boston, the sight of the 1999 draft, “You’re excited and you’re anxious to see where you go. It’s a big step in anybody’s career and I was honored to be drafted by the Capitals. It’s a day you’ll never forget.”
After the ink was dry on his NHL deal, he was assigned to the Portland Pirates, the prior AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals in 2001. Yonkman’s physical presence was welcomed by the higher ups in Washington who decided to give him a 24-game look in his rookie season which is every Canadian kid’s dream. Nolan was all smiles looking back on those 24-games sharing, “Playing against such elite players is something you’ll never forget. Playing with guys who are Superstar Hall of Famers at that time you’re at top of the world, but you can’t be in awe and my first NHL game was against Boston. Joe Thornton was out there. It’s a roll of emotions.”
Yonkman has competed on NHL ice 74 times since 2001, but a greater part of his career has been in the American League where he has seen his fair share of heartbreaks. Nolan described some pivotal games he competed in, “I played in a couple game sevens in the second round those are always the biggest games. I’ve won some and lost some. In Milwaukee, we went to the second round and two years ago in San Antonio, we went to the second round and lost against Oklahoma City.”
If you excel like Yonkman, thirteen seasons pro can propel you into a leadership role and leadership describes Yonkman to a T who spent five seasons as a Captain in the AHL. The right-handed shot brings his veteran influence to the maturing Admirals. “Yonks” commented on how his leadership ability may rub off on the younger guys stating, “I think it’s coming to the rink every day. You’re getting paid now to do a job. It’s your responsibility to prepare and get better every day and I think that is what we have to instill in these guys. A lot of them have the tools physically, but it’s the mental part of the game that will make a longer career.”
In all fairness hockey is hockey, but when you dive deep within you’ll notice that no two teams or Conferences play the same. The bone crunching defenseman has competed in the AHL’s Western Conference for the past six seasons so coming back to the Eastern side of the League may be a hurdle. Yonkman commented on the changes in the East, “ I find it’s a little more open and spread out. It might be a little closer checking over there.”
So if the Norfolk Admirals young guns pay close attention to Yonkman this season and flock under his leadership, they could find themselves bolstering a letter on their jersey in the near future.
Follow Ted on Twitter-@Bauerhockeydude