Michael Russo's Sunday Insider: Aeros feel Wild's pain

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 10:48 PM

When the parent club is having trouble keeping a full roster, the minor league affiliate has to roll with the changes, too.

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Matt Hackett's brief call-up to the Wild left the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros with one goalie, Darcy Kuemper.

Photo: Josie Lepe, MCT

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On Dec. 2, Houston Aeros General Manager Jim Mill ran into a pickle.

The Aeros, the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate, were in Rochester, N.Y. The next afternoon, they had a game against the Toronto Marlies.

Back in Minnesota, Niklas Backstrom strained his groin, meaning the Wild, about to board an aircraft for a five-game road trip, needed a goalie. In parachuted Matt Hackett.

That left the Aeros with one goalie, Darcy Kuemper.

"I began dialing folks. I called [Maple Leafs exec] Dave Poulin and asked if the Maple Leafs or [AHL] Marlies had a practice goalie that could back up Kuemp," Mill said. "But they were all university kids, and you can't sign junior kids."

So Mill called Wayne Cowley, who led the Cape Breton Oilers to a Calder Cup in ... 1993. Mill knew Cowley because it was Mill who replaced Cowley on the East Coast Hockey League Raleigh Icecaps when Cowley signed with the Edmonton Oilers that year.

These days, Cowley owns a bar called Bottom Line on Front Street in Toronto across from the Air Canada Centre. Cowley's last pro hockey game was in 2000, with Flint of the United Hockey League.

Nevertheless Cowley, one day before his 47th birthday, signed a pro tryout agreement with the Aeros and backed up Kuemper against the Marlies.

"I don't know who ran the bar that night," Mill quipped.

The Wild has been decimated by injuries, which has led to a constant revolving door of reinforcements between St. Paul and Houston. If you include call-ups Kuemper and Chad Rau, who never saw action, the Wild used 36 players in 36 games.

That has created a trickle-down effect that has stressed the Aeros.

Take Dec. 17. The Wild lost to the Islanders in a game in which Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mikko Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse, Devin Setoguchi and Casey Wellman didn't play.

Afterward, the Wild reassigned Cody Almond and recalled Rau and Jed Ortmeyer.

"That left the Aeros short, and we already had [defenseman Kyle] Medvec playing up front," Mill said. "So I called Rio Grande Valley, who happened to be in Wichita. We were in Oklahoma City. So we had to get Chad and Jed back to Houston for a flight to Vancouver.

"Rio Grande Valley was busing to Allen, which is outside of Dallas. I got a cab for Aaron Lee from Allen to Dallas International so he could get on a direct flight to Houston for the game that day. It's not always that complex."

Mill was on the phone until 2 a.m. For such circumstances, he has an ever-deepening list of ECHL players and Central Hockey Leaguers, but they're not always available to be signed to tryout agreements. It depends on that team's location, the Aeros' location, how long the Aeros may need a player, and how shorthanded that would leave the team Mill's snatching players from.

"I can't leave Toledo with seven forwards. Nick Vitucci has to win games, too," Mill said.

This season, Mill has brought in Lee, Cowley, Florida's Mike McKenzie, Toledo's Harrison Reed and Joey Martin, Ontario's Mike Montgomery, Kalamazoo's Elgin Reid and Chicago's Rob Nolan.

Minor leaguer Mike Bartlett's on top of the list, but instead of stringing him along at the start of the year, Mill released him and recommended him to Binghamton.

"Then when I need him, I couldn't get him. That happens a lot," Mill said.

Like the Wild, the Aeros have used 34 players already. There have been 25 transactions since Dec. 1. The Wild has executed 16 recalls -- two more than the entire 2008-09 season.

Yet, as of Friday, the Aeros were three points from the AHL lead.

"Torch [Aeros coach John Torchetti] and the staff have done a real good job continuing what was started here last year by [Mike Yeo] and his staff," Mill said. "It's been a seamless transition."

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