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Los Angeles Kings: Not Easy For Black Aces To Stay Focused, Ready

Los Angeles Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier sprawls to make
a save during a recent practice session.
(click to view a larger image).
Photo: David Sheehan/FrozenRoyalty.net

EL SEGUNDO, CA — Every team in the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs has them, but they are usually unseen, or keep to themselves, staying out of the limelight, patiently waiting for their chance to crack the lineup, often a fleeting opportunity, at best.

These are the Black Aces, the extra skaters and goaltenders who rarely get the chance to play in the post-season, if at all, during a team’s run through the playoffs.

But wait a minute…where on Earth did the term, Black Aces come from, anyway?

As it turns out, the term was derived from the “Dead Man’s Hand” in poker, consisting of a pair of eights, the Ace of Spades, and the Ace of Clubs.

That was the hand Wild Bill Hickok held when he was murdered on August 2, 1876. Since then, that particular hand has been associated with bad luck.

According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, In 1940, Eddie Shore, former NHL star, and owner of the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League, began to call players who were working their way back into the lineup Black Aces, as they had run out of luck, in his mind.

“Anyone who crossed Shore became a ‘Black Ace,’ one of the many extras he kept on the squad, but wouldn’t dress for punitive purposes,” wrote current Hockey Night In Canada commentator Don Cherry, one of Shore’s Black Aces, in his book, Grapes: A Vintage View of Hockey. “The Black Aces had to work extra hard in practice and were always available to play should any of the regulars enrage Shore even more. In addition to scrimmaging with the team, the Black Aces were required to do odd jobs around the arena, such as painting seats, selling programs, making popcorn, and blowing up hundreds of balloons before the ice shows.”

The Black Aces in today’s NHL do not have to do the odd jobs that Shore required of his Black Aces. Instead, they remain important parts of their respective teams, such as the Los Angeles Kings, who have recalled a considerable number of their prospects from the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, along with a few of their prospects from Canadian junior teams.

But the Kings also have a few players who have been with the big club all season who have not seen much action all season long, who are, perhaps, the most notable of the Kings’ Black Aces—goaltender Jonathan Bernier, defenseman Davis Drewiske, and right wing Kevin Westgarth.

Even though they have played less than sparingly all season long, one might think that watching games from the press box or dressing room eventually gets easier. But that could not be farther from the truth.

“Mentally, it sucks,” said Westgarth. “This is where you want to be, and it’s incredible to be [in the conference finals] with this team. Obviously, to play would be that much better, but you just come to the rink every day, ready to go, hang out with the boys, and enjoy yourself.”

“[It’s] definitely [a challenge],” said Bernier. “It’s been a month? A month-and-a-half, almost, since I’ve played in a game. It’s not easy. Some days are harder than others, but that’s my job, so I’ve got to do the best I can.”

“It’s different [in the playoffs] because [as a backup goalie] you don’t play, so it’s a lot harder,” added Bernier. “During the season, it still wouldn’t be a lot, but at least I would play once every three weeks, or whatever.”

Bernier knows that he cannot allow his frustration with not being able to crack the lineup to affect his teammates.

“This is the time that every hockey player wants to be in [the lineup],” Bernier stressed. “That’s why we play hockey—for the playoffs, to make the playoffs, and to get your moment to shine. It is tough, it’s very hard [to not be playing].”

“I’m still frustrated, probably even more [than ever before],” Bernier added. “But I just figure, with experience, that doesn’t change anything. Even if you’re frustrated, it’s no good. It shows to [your teammates], and that’s one thing you don’t want to do for your teammates. You want to them to support you, and you want to support them as well.”

Westgarth echoed Bernier’s comments.

“I’ve always taken a lot of pride in being a good teammate,” he said. “Even if you’re feeling down one day, you can’t bring other guys down with you. That doesn’t serve any purpose, and it doesn’t even end up making you feel better. So I’ll have a smile on my face, laugh and joke, have fun out there, encourage other guys, When I’m watching games, when [a teammate] scores a goal, I’m jumping four feet in the air.”

“There’s been a lot of guys out of the lineup,” he added. “But even during our tough times this season, I’ve never seen anybody take it out on anybody else. There was frustration, but it never boiled over into in-fighting, or the negative desperation that you often see in those situations. It’s a great crew, and it’s been a great year. We’re all supporting each other, and this is when it matters most.”

Bernier is playing behind Jonathan Quick, a finalist for the NHL’s Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goalie in the league each season.

“If your goalie’s hot, you’ve got to go with him, and just roll with him, and Quick has been outstanding all year,” Bernier noted. “He deserves to be in the net in the playoffs, definitely.”

Despite knowing that it is unlikely that he will get a chance to play in the post-season, Bernier is maintaining a positive outlook.

“It’s still fun,” he said. “It’s a good ride. I’ve learned a lot from the playoffs. One day, if it’s me in the net, I’ll know what its like to win a playoff round, and to go through some adversity as well.”

Westgarth has another obstacle blocking his path towards cracking the lineup…the fact that the game is moving away from having an enforcer like him in the lineup. As such, Westgarth knows that his hockey skills have to improve.

“[After] signing with the Kings years ago, part and parcel to getting to the big club was bringing that physical edge, fighting, if need be, but also, turning myself into a good hockey player,” he noted. “That’s still my number one priority. But I have to stay ready, and be a dependable player if my number does get called.”

“The league is definitely changing,” he added. “It all kind of runs in cycles, so we’ll see in a little bit, but there seems to be a strange moving away from, what I think, in a large way, was part of the soul of hockey, to trying to suspend guys, which doesn’t seem to be working all that well. But that’s for smarter guys than I to be deciding.”

Even though the Black Aces are not getting a chance to play, they must be ready to do so at all times. After all, the playoffs take a huge toll on the players, physically, and one could go down at any time.

“We have a great group of guys, and they definitely make me feel that I’m part of the team,” said Westgarth. “But it is a challenge, because your schedule changes a little bit. Staying sharp, [keeping your head in the game], staying ready for practices, and staying ready by practicing well is incredibly important.”

“The coaching staff has done a great job of that,” added Westgarth. “I work a lot with [assistant coaches] John [Stevens] and Jamie [Kompon], and they’re doing a great job, staying honest [with us]. If we screw up in practice, it’s just as bad, or worse, than somebody else. They keep us on our toes, making sure we’re doing everything quicker, faster, stronger, and trying to keep us in that game mentality.”

“Westy has had to deal with it all year,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “He comes in, goes about his business, and he’s one of the more upbeat guys on a day-to-day basis. That’s just his personality.”

Given the Kings’ other choices, Bernier had better be ready, if called upon.

“He’s got to be ready to go,” said Brown. “You never know what could happen.”

“It goes a long way, when you see a guy who might not get into the lineup, going out there and working,” added Brown. “Bernier works hard. He”s out there [during practice] early, taking shots. As a backup goaltender, that”s part of your responsibility, but for the most part, he goes out there and challenges himself to try to be better, and ready to go.”

“I’m trying to stay positive and fresh in practice, because if I do get the chance, I have to be ready,” said Bernier. “You never know. I just work as hard as possible, and [work] on game-like situations so I can get ready.”

When asked if he would be comfortable with Bernier in goal, should something happen to Quick, head coach Darryl Sutter gave Bernier a solid vote of confidence.

“Absolutely. He’s next in line,” said Sutter, who then got a bit creative.

“Then there is [assistant general manager and former Philadelphia Flyers goalie] Ron Hextall and [goaltending coach and former Edmonton Oilers goalie] Bill Ranford. Both guys won Conn Smythe’s.”

“[Bernier’s] got his work cut out for him.”

Sutter certainly likes to have his fun, doesn’t he?


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9 Responses to Los Angeles Kings: Not Easy For Black Aces To Stay Focused, Ready

  1. Interesting you describe Westy, Bernier and Whiskey as Black Aces. Very traditional. Now days, that term is used exclusively for minor league players.

    • Gann Matsuda says:

      Who told you that the term is used exclusively for minor league players?

      • Sorry for the delay. It’s been a loooong few days.

        I’ve read a lot of stories about ‘black aces’ over the years and unless they specifically mention Shore’s legend, they always refer to them as minor leaguers. In other words, I have yet to read a story, other than yours, where regular scratches are called Black Aces.

        “Gaining Black Ace status it is not merely a symbolic reward for a good minor league season and it is certainly not an indictment of the players’ ability as it was in distant past.”

        “(It’s) not how the term is used today. In today’s NHL, ‘black aces’ are usually minor-leaguers that are promoted to the parent club to serve as extra bodies in practice or replacements in case of emergency.”

        Lots of these examples around, but you are bringing it back to its roots!

  2. Brian S says:

    I haven’t really viewed Bernier as a “Black Ace” seeing how he is our full-time backup G, but I understand he is doing double duty at this point… I mean, sure he won’t see a minute of playing time the rest of the postseason unless something goes horribly wrong. but the other guys, yeah I understand, they’re pretty much in that role at this point. don’t tell me it wouldn’t sound more than a little odd if you heard the name “Westgarth” or “Drewiske” getting anywhere near the puck in an actual game at this point.

    … and they are complimented by the bodies the Kings have called up now, many of whom have never even played an NHL game let alone been scratched for one.

    but heck the Kings themselves haven’t played in nearly a week… a little rest is nice, but it can’t be considered “easy” for any of them to stay sharp at this point!!

    GO KINGS!

  3. Mal says:

    All teams, NHL and minor league, have Black Aces. You forgot to mention you found this info at our site, blackaceshockey.com

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