The Atlanta Thrashers consider character an extremely important quality in a player. During their interview process for the annual NHL entry draft, common questions they like to ask that offer a window into character include ‘what would your 10th grade teacher say about you?’ and ‘what would your best friend say about you?’
The Thrashers signed free agent right wing Joey Crabb on Aug. 31, without having interviewed him in his draft year, or any other time. They didn’t need to ask him what his best friend would say about him – instead they asked one of his best friends directly.
Brett Sterling, the Thrashers’ fifth round pick in the 2003 Draft, played with Crabb for four years at Colorado College. Sterling and Colin Stuart, another Thrashers prospect and former Colorado College teammate, both acted as character references for the free agent.
“Basically they asked me what kind of guy he is,” Sterling retold. “They’d seen him play, but they didn’t get to experience him off the ice. I spent four years with him. I basically explained he’s one of my best friends in school, spent pretty much every day with him for the past four years, and I just told them what I think of him as a guy. They wanted to make sure they’re getting a good character guy.
“He’s a talented hockey player, but more than that, he’s a great guy to have in your locker room. He’ll fight for any of his linemates, just the thing you want when you’re going up.”
Sterling, also a rookie professional this year, is more of a sniper, while Crabb has less flash, is more of a playmaker, with size and grit at 6’2 185 lbs.
“I think I’m a well-rounded player,” Crabb described. “I play both ends of the ice, offense and defense, a little bit of skill and power. I do what my role is and whatever they have that be that’s what I’ll play.”
At CC, the right winger played mostly on the first or second line and in all situtations.
“I was pretty fortunate Coach Owens and the rest of the coaching staff gave me a pretty big role there. It was nice.”
Crabb was the third leading scorer on the team last year with 18 goals and 25 assists in 42 games, behind 2005 Hobey Baker winner Marty Sertich and former runner-up Sterling.
He did better every year statistically, going from eight points to 27, 31 then 43, and he felt he improved in all areas as well.
But it was not enough to get the kind of deal he wanted from the New York Rangers, who had drafted him in the seventh round in 2002.
“Luckily Atlanta came calling and I got a deal done with them,” he said. “It’s great for me and hopefully it’s good for them too.”
Thrashers GM Don Waddell seems to think it is.
“We’re looking to add some depth,” Waddell said. “Here’s a guy that goes up and down the wing very well, he’s got a good nose for the net, he can score a lot of goals, passes well.”
To the Thrashers, he was worth a contract given the big picture. They didn’t have to use a precious draft pick or work out a trade to acquire him.
“All you have to do is pay them money,” Waddell said of free agents like Crabb. “To me it’s an easy signing.
“You could see in Traverse City, he’s always around the puck. He has the knack to go where the puck is going. He’s a guy who’s going to take some time, a young kid just coming out of college, but he’s an up and down winger who could play in the NHL.”
Crabb surely has Sterling to thank for putting the Thrashers’ eyes on him so many times over the years. But he couldn’t help ribbing him a bit when asked what Sterling would say about him if asked again for the record.
“What would he say about me, huh? I don’t know,” Crabb said, laughing. “We spent four years together so he’ll probably have a lot to say. He has a lot to say anyways. Hopefully all good things just like I’d have to say for him.”
Sterling wasn’t about to refute the fact that he has a lot to say.
“[Crabb]’s more the quiet guy, crack a joke here and there,” he said. “I carry the load of the talking for us.”
Sterling’s talking has not yet included nicknaming his buddy, who they’ve just been calling Crabber.
“He doesn’t have anything special, unfortunately. I need to find one for him.”
If closeness is measured in time spent together, Crabb, 23, and Sterling, 22, are very tight.
“The last three months of school me and the rest of the seniors, (Trevor) Frischmon, Marty Sertich we did everything together. Movies, everything you can imagine,” Sterling described. He and Crabb didn’t officially live together, but Sterling was an almost daily visitor.
“I was like a seventh roommate,” he said. “So basically you could say I lived there with him.”
Sterling will likely be more than an honorary roommate if they both end up playing in the same city this year.
“I’d be willing to bet we’ll live together, assuming we’re in the same spot,” he said.
Indeed, Crabb sounds like an ideal roommate.
“Oh, he’s very clean! He’s one of those guys who’ll get on you about it and if you don’t do it, he’ll finally do it for you. Which I might have him do for a while,” Sterling joked.
It’s a time of transition for the pair, as teammates become foes. Their other buddy, Sertich, was signed by the Dallas Stars this summer, whose AHL affiliate is located in Des Moines and is in a division with Atlanta’s affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. The idea of playing against Sertich a lot appeals to Crabb.
“Yeah, that will be really neat, in fact he was in Traverse City with Dallas and we got to see him almost every day. Me, Sterling and him all talked about how neat it was, playing with each other all four years and here we are in the same camp just a couple months later. If he does end up in Iowa and we happen to end up in Chicago, that’s I think eight games against each other, so that will be pretty fun.” (Note: Chicago plays Iowa 10 times).
But at the present time, Crabb is a new visitor to Atlanta. Though the temperatures cooled down to the low 80’s just in time for the start of camp, it’s still a bit too hot for the Alaskan. Adjusting to the climate is just one thing he’s been getting used to this week in his first NHL training camp.
“I feel good, same as in Traverse City, the first day I was a little shaky, getting used to it, but the last couple days I’ve felt pretty good. I feel like I’m in pretty good shape and it’s been going well.”
Being out there with veterans has been a rare but special treat for the prospects. It began only on Sunday, the third day of camp.
“Like today I skated out there with (Steve) Rucchin, (Scott) Mellanby and (Slava) Kozlov and some other guys, so that was fun,” he said afterwards. “I grew up watching those guys.”
His first NHL camp, and first exposure to a new organization, it’s been an intense learning process so far.
“They’re teaching a lot of systems and just little things they want you to know. You’ve got to think a lot, got to keep your head going out there, because coming from Colorado College, it’s all new systems. I think that’s one of the things a good player can do is get used to the new systems and use them. Neutral zone and offensive zone forechecks, staying away from the boards on the breakout, little things like that that I’ve never heard before, but they’re definitely helpful.”
While everything going well is mostly due to his abilities, he said it does help to have friendly faces in the locker room.
“Oh for sure,” he said emphatically. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of the other guys too and they’re great guys, but it’s great having Sterling and Colin Stuart around.”
Crabb had played against goaltender David Caruso (Ohio State), but not defenseman Nathan Oystrick (Northern Michigan), though he said he “definitely knew about him.”
Teammates became foes, but old rivalries will also need to die quickly as foes become teammates. Colorado College’s in-state rival University of Denver has an alumnus in the Thrashers system in center Kevin Doell.
“The first couple days he was centering me and Colin Stuart — a couple CC guys getting centered by a DU guy,” Crabb said, still in disbelief of cats and dogs living together. He was sure to point out, however, “There’s three CC guys and only one DU guy.”
Since the CC guys now outnumber their rival alma mater, have they given Doell any grief yet?
“I haven’t yet. I don’t know him too well,” Crabb said. “But I’m sure Colin Stuart does. I’ll pick up the slack later.”
It may be the only slack Crabb will be picking up anytime soon. Having played for four years on an Olympic-sized ice sheet, his conditioning is good.
On coach Bob Hartley’s mountain drills, Crabb came in around 46 seconds on Sunday, a solid number for a rookie. This summer he trained back home in Anchorage, which seems to be a recipe for success.
“I worked out with one of my best buddies Jason Ryznar (NJ),” Crabb said. “I’ve been training with him ever since I was 16 years old. We lift and run together.”
Crabb was a linemate of Sterling most of their time at CC, and last year they played together virtually all year. But in his freshman year he played on a line with Stuart, and one of their main jobs was shutting down the other team’s top line. It’s a combination and role that will likely be repeated this year. Both project as good checking wingers, though Crabb has more offensive upside.
So far he’s survived the first cut, and it looks good for him getting into tomorrow’s home preseason matchup against Florida, having practiced with Team A on Tuesday. On a team that has open roster spots on the lower lines, it’s a good situation to be in.
“My goal [for the year] is just to improve and I’d like to get a few games up, but I’m just going to see what happens and how it works out,” he said. “They’ve got a good team and it’s a tough lineup, but I’m just going to do the best I can and wherever I end up. It’s hard to know what to expect your first year coming in.”
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