Friday, January 14, 2011

Muskegon plays the numbers game

By Christopher Heimerman, Lumberjacks staff

What’s in a number? Oftentimes a lot. Sometimes very little.

Some of the Muskegon Lumberjacks’ players had fairly free reign when picking the number they’d wear for the first-year United States Hockey League club. Others had a short list to peruse. Ultimately they all bear a unique number - as unique as the stories that led to them wearing the numerals.

Sometimes numbers get hijacked

Left wing Mike Conderman, one of the team’s pre-draft tenders, was pretty insistent that he wear No. 19 - that is, according to his bookend on the Jacks’ top line, Casey Thrush.

“He got the tender and he’s older, so he got the one-up on me,” says Thrush, who’s worn 19 all his life and even has the number written in marker on the side of his Team Maryland hat. “As soon as I met him, he said his one condition on signing is that he’d get 19.”

Thrush, who was the Jacks’ top draft pick, has enjoyed success his rookie USHL season and suddenly is considering sticking with No. 24. Centering Conderman and Thrush is Jacks captain John Parker, who wears No. 12. He’s always worn either the Jarome Iginla-inspired number or 66, which Mario Lemieux made famous.

When Parker opted for No. 12, Jacks center Chris Lochner lost his top choice, but he was happy to be the Eric Staal to Parker’s Iginla and wear No. 21.

“In the Olympics, Iginla and Staal were fighting for 12 and Iginla got it,” Lochner says. “I saw that Staal just switched the 1 and the 2 around, so I did the same thing.”

Jacks defenseman Carter Foguth is no stranger to the occasional knuckle-duster, and he’s thought about having a civil conversation with 16-year-old blueliner Mark Yanis about the rights to the number 14.

“I had worn 14 all my life, and when my cousin played at Michigan State, he wore 14. And I loved Brendan Shanahan growing up,” Foguth says. “But there’s a reason they call him (Yanis) the shark; he stole it from me. I might have to have a word with him about it.”

“There’s absolutely no way he’s getting it,” deadpans Yanis, who’s been a Shanahan fan and worn his number since he was in mini-mites.

But Foguth will settle for No. 5, which career-long Red Wing Nicklas Lidstrom wears.

“Lidstrom was my favorite player growing up,” Foguth said. “But I still kind of got stuck with it.”

Numerical emulation

Most of the Jacks, in fact, picked their number because their favorite player wore it first. Jacks goaltender Joel Vienneau, a French-Canadian from Hearst, Ontario, wears 29 because of his fellow countryman and favorite puckstopper Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Jacks assistant captain Brendan Woods chose No. 17 because while father Bob Woods coached the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, the team signed Christopher Bourque, son of former Boston Bruins superstar Ray Bourque. The living legend’s son wore 17 and had a profound effect on the top prospect in his coach’s family.

“He was one of my favorite players on and off the ice,” says Woods, “so ever since then I’ve chosen the number 17.”

Jacks defenseman Travis Walsh wore No. 52 – a mighty high number for a blueliner - last year in Sioux Falls. While he figures he’ll change it up at some point, for the moment he wears No. 4, which his favorite defenseman John-Michael Liles wore.

Alexx Privitera, who leads all USHL defensemen with 20 points, also wore an awfully high number last season. But his hand was forced a bit with the Team USA U-17 squad, as their skaters had to pick a number higher than 40. So he took his current number 18 – which he’s worn since his squirt minor days – and multiplied it by his grandfather’s No. 5 to get to the No. 90 he’d wear in Ann Arbor.

The Old Tappan, N.J., native isn’t optimistic he’ll be able to take 18 with him to Boston University next season.

“If I could get 18 at Boston, I’d love it,” says Privitera. “It’s just a number, though. It would be nice to have, but it’s unrealistic to think I’d get it as a freshman.”

Jacks center Isaac Kohls admits he’d be willing to battle for the double sticks that Zach Parise wore at Shattuck-St. Mary’s a couple of years before Kohls was a freshman at the high school.

“I’ve been successful with number 11; it’s been my favorite number for awhile,” says Kohls, who watched Parise “a ton” when he played for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. “I probably would’ve fought for it.”

Jaycob Megna, like his favorite athlete Kobe Bryant, stands about 6 ½ feet tall. He’s tried to wear Bryant’s old number, 8, as long as he can remember.

“Although I obviously play a different sport, the things I've learned from watching him aren’t sport-specific,” Megna says. “I have always admired how hard he worked on and off the court, always striving to be the best. His drive and desire to win have also been things that I've tried to emulate.”

Doing more with less

One player with limited options was 16-year-old Jordan Masters, who was offered either Nos. 13 or 28. When he chose the number worn by Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, 28 remained unclaimed. That is, until Travis Belohrad became the latest addition to the squad. Belohrad’s linemate Ryan Misiak, the team’s leader in points with 34, actually had a choice between 26 and 28, neither of which held any sentimental value.

“26 has definitely grown on me,” says Misiak. “It’s a good number now.”

Charlie Taft had a short list of options, but says No. 27 was “just what he was feeling at the time.”

Mike Moran insists his No. 25 has no significance.

Jacks assistant captain Kevin Albers, similarly, had never worn nor did he have an emotional tie to No. 7, but has been pleased with the results it’s brought since he returned from off-season shoulder surgery.

“So far, so good,” says Albers. “It’s treated me well.”

Matt Berry, whose 15 goals are third in the league, is wearing No. 9 for the second year. When he couldn’t get his longtime number No. 10 last year, he moved things down a notch. After racking up 122 points in 77 games for Belle Tire a season ago, he wasn’t willing to budge.

“This year I just wanted to stick with the same number; I didn’t want to change it up,” Berry said.

Jacks netminder Paul Berrafato grew up wearing his current number of 30, but last year it was taken by another puckstopper with the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.

“I wanted to be different, so I went with a little 36 - maybe a fighter’s number, a quality duster,” Berrafato said.

After Berrafato made the Jacks’ squad, head coach Kevin Patrick texted him the option of taking Nos. 1 or 30.

“I texted him back and said 30 would be fine, but I offered to wear 36,” Berrafato said. “Coach texted me back and said ‘30 it is.’”

- Christopher Heimerman is the communications director and broadcaster of the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He can be reached HERE.

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