The month of March is universally known as the transition in seasons, changing from winter to spring. A period where the grass turns green, the sun shines longer and flowers start to bloom.
The buds in Syracuse are starting to peak out from the snow and prepare for a bright appearance once warmer weather arrives. There is one sprout stronger than the others, that can be seen at the Upstate Medical University Arena. A bloom that epitomizes the saying, “only the strong survive”.
This bloom has grown from the seed planted by Head Coach Ben Groulx in October and has finally begun flourishing. Entering March with an overall record of 21-19-6-1, the Syracuse Crunch have endured a roller-coaster season in the standings, finding themselves in and out of postseason contention.
Now at April’s start, the Crunch have been blazing hot, winning 11 of their last 18 games, and moving into not only fourth place in the tight North Division race.
The secret to their recent success is not only the conditioning, improved defense, or increased goal-scoring – which resulted in 67 goals since the start of March – but the tight-knit bond this team has kept the entire season.
“We all share the same goal, we’re trying to win every game and make the playoffs,” said Captain Gabriel Dumont – the Crunch leader in points (53) and goals (25) so far this season. “You spend so much time together, you become closer.”
There is never a dull moment around these guys. Towards the end of one recent practice, the players were working on skills while Groulx was completing an interview off the ice. During the interview, Groulx’s cheeks become red from grinning for a lengthy period. His team was casually firing pucks just wide enough to ricochet loudly off the end boards. They conveniently slammed into the plexiglass as Coach began answering questions.
“He’s going to coach us hard, so it’s always fun to get back at him a little bit,” said Alex Barré-Boulet, who’s scored 13 goals in the last 18 games.
On the ice, the Crunch are an army ready for battle, rolling thick and ready for war. Off the ice, the players are just as close, always cracking a joke or talking trash, just enjoying each other’s time and presence.
“Tampa does a great job of not just drafting good hockey players, but also good people,” said Dumont. “It’s easy to make good friends on this team.”
When the players want to partake in an activity that doesn’t include hockey, a team favorite during the season has been ping pong. Though the game brings a lot of fun, the competitiveness stays the same, though Barré-Boulet claims dominance.
“I’ve been giving him a run for his money lately, but I think he’s still the best,” said Dumont.
Defenseman Darren Raddysh says he’s not the best ping pong player, yet he’ll play whenever he can. Instead, he prefers a local indoor golf simulator with forward Daniel Walcott, which he admits Walcott is the best.
“I won’t lie, I do get some strokes, and Raddysh will give me 10 shots, but I still win,” Walcott said.
Raddysh instead claims he holds the spelling crown on the Crunch.
“Any English spelling bee I’m probably the best at, if it’s French, I’m not going win at all,” joked Raddysh.
In locker rooms across the sports world, music is an important piece of the pre-game atmosphere. Who better to be the official Crunch locker room disc jockey than Walcott, who has held the job since his rookie year. He says his selection of pump-up songs, such as Joe Budden’s “Pump It Up” and DMX’s “Where The Hood At” are top notch and the reason he’s held the unofficial position for so long.
Another important element to a team’s bond, are the road trips. On the road, the team spends all their time around each other preparing to play as a unit in front of an opposing team’s heckling fans.
For the Crunch, they look forward to their road trips and the many activities to pass the time. A favorite pastime is playing cards, such as “seven up-seven down” or “pass the ace.” Another team favorite is pranking – and no one is safe from it.
Barré-Boulet says forward Charles Hudon is the most likely to pull a prank, while Raddysh says he is the most likely to get pranked on the team.
“Everyone likes to come after me, and I’m easy to get under the skin,” admitted Raddysh.
Walcott was said to be the most likely to pull a prank, but he argues it’s a misconception and people know when a prank is of his doing.
“Everyone assumes that I’m doing the prank, so in their shoes I would be loving it because it’s a free prank,” Walcott said.
There is no better example of how close these players are, than when the Crunch hosted their division rival Rochester Americans on Feb.19 – which also happened to be Walcott’s birthday. Physical play and fights are a part of the game of hockey, but this day was a little different with numerous stoppages due to an altercation. Early in the second period, Walcott received a pass along the goal line from forward Otto Somppi and fired it home increase the lead, 3-1. From this moment on, Walcott found himself in the center of multiple scrums with his team constantly coming to his aide. The Crunch eventually won 6-3 and Walcott, being the brash hockey gladiator he is, had told his teammates not to join in during his skirmishes, because he joked “he can take on the five guys himself.”
“I said don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine down there,” Walcott said. “I love my teammates, I know they’ll have my back and I’ll have theirs.”
When it comes to the root of this tight-knit bond this group has, Raddysh credits the leadership group, especially guys like Dumont, Barré-Boulet and Walcott.
“They’re always bringing a good vibe to the room and know when to say the right thing,” Raddysh explained. “Those three guys for sure are the nucleus to our team.”
Though the Crunch have been red-hot in the win column, they are still battling to clinch a spot in the playoffs. Walcott, a seven-year player for the Crunch, keeps the fans close to his heart as they eye the postseason and constantly eyes the thought of bringing a Calder Cup to Syracuse.
“I’ve always wondered what the parade down Salina Street would look like,” said Walcott. “We’re pushing for that, we’re in a battle and it’s exciting.”