Oklahoma City Barons
(Steven Christy Photography)
At this time last year, AHL veteran Bryan Helmer was at his home in Westport, Ontario waiting for a contract offer. He was six points shy of equalling John Slaney’s record for career points scored by a defenseman in the AHL and 18 games away from 1,000 games played. With the support of his wife Pam, he continued to work hard, on and off the ice, confident that his hockey career would continue. It took until January but Bryan’s phone did ring and he found himself a valued member of the Edmonton Oilers AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.
As the 2011-12 season approaches, Bryan and his family are off to Oklahoma City to get settled for what will be his 19th season as a professional hockey player. Now the AHL’s all-time scoring leader for defensemen after accumulating 25 points in 42 games last year with the Barons, the three-time Calder Cup champion is ready for the challenges of a new season and unlike last year, his family will be by his side to share in the highs and occasional lows of the 82-game AHL season.
When Bryan joined the Barons last January, he and Pam decided that it would be too difficult to move the entire family mid-season, so he headed off to Oklahoma by himself. With their two children in school, it was the right decision but it was tough for the dedicated Dad to be away from his family and it led to some difficult moments. While we are all aware of the business side of the hockey, sometimes we forget that our favourite players and hockey heroes are husbands and fathers too.
“There were times last year when I was at the hotel after I broke the record and played in my 1,000th game, when I would be sitting there after practise thinking - what am I doing?” Bryan explained. “My kids are at home enjoying themselves and they would call and tell me what was going on in their lives. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. That’s where Pam came in - she was so supportive and has been so supportive throughout my career.”
Speaking with Bryan shortly after he set the record last year, I asked if the reality of his record-breaking accomplishment had set in yet. He said at the time that maybe it would by summer. This time around when we spoke about it, instead of looking back, the competitor that he is, Bryan remains focused on the upcoming season in Oklahoma City.
“I think it is still too soon,” he said. “When I’m done my career and I look back, it will be one of the big highlights, but right now I am still in that ‘what can I do next’ frame of mind. I still want to play the game and I want to win another Calder Cup; so it really hasn’t sunk in. When I talk about the record with people and I say I am the all-time points leader for defenseman, it doesn’t feel like I am. I always think, who me - this kid from Winchester?”
Last season, Bryan joined the Barons in time for what may have been one of the tougher playoff races in the AHL’s recent history. Oklahoma City eventually finished the year fifth in the Western Division with 91 points. As the season came to a close, one day they were in the playoffs and one day they were out - back-to-back losses could have sent them to the bottom of the division, while a winning streak brought the team within reach of the division lead. On the plus side of a lengthy playoff race, it can help bring the team closer together - the common goal of making the playoffs is there to see every day and rally around. With all his experience in the league, I wondered if Bryan had ever been in a race like that before.
“There was only one other time - I was playing in Worcester. I was sent down from St. Louis, we had 16 games left and it was a battle then. We made the playoffs on the last game of the season, but I have never been in a race where if you have a bad weekend, you could go from second place to last place - it was crazy! I have never been in a division where it was that tight from top to bottom.”
“Every game was like a playoff game, so that prepared the guys for the playoffs. That was something I was trying to tell them down the stretch, if we get into the playoffs we could be dangerous because we have already been playing playoff hockey for so long.”
Although the Barons lost in the first round of the playoffs to a very strong Hamilton Bulldogs team, the city rallied around their team and the fan base grew with every victory. The first year in Oklahoma City for the Barons can be considered a success.
“As the season went along, the people that came to the games started talking about us,” Bryan said. “Towards the end of the season, as we were winning, more and more people were coming out. People now know that we’re here and I expect we’ll have even more support this year.”
My conversations with Bryan always provide interesting insights into the world of hockey and being a professional hockey player. Even with all the success he has experienced in the NHL and AHL, he realizes what he needs to work on and strives to improve his game by setting a very important personal goal each season.
“I set a goal but I don’t say ‘I want to score 50 points’ - I just want to be consistent every night,” he said. “In the past, that has been a problem. I would go a month where I played really well and then all of a sudden it starts to go the other way. This past year, I went to Oklahoma and broke the record right away and things were good and all of a sudden things starting going bad for me but I was able to pick it back up just before the playoffs. Over the years, that is what I have tried to do and tell myself - play every game and be consistent every game.”
“I always look at my plus/minus; I always want to be a plus player. I would rather be a plus than get a point sometimes - I guess that’s just the defenseman in me! I feel that if I am even or have a plus, then I have had a good game. I always look at how the team is doing too. If the team is going well, then I think I’m doing well and obviously the other guys are playing well too.”
In a recent interview for the NHL Alumni Association with Kevin Lowe (the legendary Oilers defenseman and their current President of Hockey Operations), we discussed Bryan’s presence in Oklahoma City and the important role he will play as a veteran leader on the team. Lowe said that the coaches in Oklahoma City could not say enough good things about Bryan and he believes that having a good role model for the young defensemen in the organization will help them learn the pro game and take the next step in their careers.
Heading into his first full season with the Barons, Bryan is ready to be that role model and leader. He explained one of the lessons he has learnt during his career - having fun and having the right attitude is a key ingredient to a team’s success.
“There are always young guys coming from junior or college,” he said. “Where they have been the studs, playing 25 or 30 minutes a night and they have been playing in every situation. Then they come to the American Hockey League and they are not always in those situations, so they start to get frustrated. Everyone goes through it - you are starting off at the bottom again and working your way up. You have to prove that you can play and if you go to the rink with a bad attitude, well, it’s not going to work. I tell the guys to have fun when they come to the rink and to work hard. If they do that, things will start to work out for them.”
“It’s all about attitude. If you have the right attitude and you enjoy coming to the rink, if you have fun doing what you are doing, it is going to lead to success. On the three teams that I have been a part of that won a championship that is exactly what happened. Everyone loved coming to the rink and being around each other - that always shows on the ice.”
After struggling in the standings in recent years, the Oilers organization has focused on building through the draft and have become a much younger team. The Barons worked through lots of call-ups last year and they can probably expect the same to occur this season. Players on the Oklahoma City roster will know that working hard may be rewarded with a trip to the NHL. As some of the top prospects get a chance to display their talents in Edmonton, it will provide an opportunity for others to step-up their game in Oklahoma and play a bigger role.
“That’s where the organizational depth comes in; they’ll sign guys that will start in the East Coast League just for that reason. If Edmonton has injuries or they want to check out a young guy, they will call him up and we’ll bring in guys from the East Coast League that can play at our level. It’s unfortunate that this is the way it is - guys that are in the East Coast are good enough to play in the AHL, but because of the organization they are in they end up in the Coast.”
“I think it helps the young guys knowing that they are in the Oilers organization. If things aren't going well in Edmonton, they might get the chance to play in the NHL. Edmonton will want to see how these guys react and that is going to motivate them to play well in Oklahoma City. It helps us out that way but also, it hurts us a bit too. The championship teams I was on had very limited call-ups. We had the same team almost all year and that helped us out a lot with chemistry. Just being around the same guys, you get to know them and have fun at the rink. You also get to know the way they think and what they are going to do on the ice.”
In a recent email exchange to wish each other a happy birthday (I recently turned 37 and Bryan celebrated his 39th birthday in July), we discussed just how time seems to fly by. Didn’t we turn twenty just a few years ago? With three Calder Cups wins, over 1,000 games in the AHL and a record setting career, are there a few more years of hockey ahead of him?
“Yeah! I feel great, my body feels good and I am enjoying myself. I enjoy working out and playing the game. I don’t know how many more teams will give me a chance though,” Bryan said with a laugh. “If things went right, I’d love to play another year or two at least.”
I think I can speak for all hockey fans - we would love to see Bryan play for another year or two in the AHL and I am sure that Barons fans would not mind seeing him add another Calder Cup championship to his résumé.
Have a great season Bryan!
Steven Christy Photography