Early in the hockey season, when the Alaska Aces hit their first rough patch and hints of malaise surfaced, veteran Brian Swanson, the former National Hockey League center, pulled aside rookie center Ethan Cox at the end of practice.
"A lot of guys were falling into a mopey mode or going through the motions," Cox recalled. "He said to keep working hard in practice. I took that as keeping an even keel and doing the best job you can, regardless of the outcome, and it'll work out in the end.
"He said it just to me. But I wouldn't be surprised if he had that conversation with a lot of guys."
Tonight, the Aces entertain the Kalamazoo Wings in Game 1 of the ECHL's Kelly Cup Finals at Sullivan Arena. The Aces were the 19-team league's best club in the regular season and they won each of their previous eight playoff games, sweeping two opponents and qualifying for the Finals for the third time in their eight ECHL seasons.
So, things have worked out.
Yet for all of the Aces' considerable talent -- they collected a large haul of all-league awards -- a critical, if somewhat intangible, component of their success is the leadership delivered by their trio of thirtysomethings.
This team that is half composed of rookies is captained by two-time Kelly Cup winner Scott Burt, a 34-year-old winger in his 13th pro season. Among the alternate captains are Swanson, 35, in his 12th pro season, and league Most Valuable Player Wes Goldie, 32, and in his 11th pro season.
They have helped their younger teammates learn how to conduct themselves on and off the ice, how to prepare for games and how to strive each day to become better during a grinding, eight-month season.
In hockey, one of the higher compliments bestowed upon a player is that he is good in "the room" -- that's a reference to the locker room, or what in pucks parlance is commonly called "the dressing room." A "good room" furnishes cohesion and camaraderie that mold 20 or more players into a group with a common cause, and whether a room is good often depends on leadership.
"To me, our room is in check," said Aces coach Brent Thompson. "They command the room."
Although Burt, Swanson and Goldie will speak up, either to inspire the team or to correct mistakes, they are more inclined to lead by showing instead of shouting.
Goldie, for example, joined the Aces this season with a reputation as a goal-scoring sniper indifferent to defensive play. Yet while he led the league in goals, his commitment to the defensive diligence Thompson demands proved a revelation. Goldie's regular-season plus-minus rating of plus-25 -- plus-minus is about the sport's only defensive statistical measuring stick for individuals -- led the Aces and ranked fourth-best in the league.
"First and foremost, you have to lead by example," Goldie said. "You can't be telling guys to do certain things if you're not doing those things. You don't want to be like a parent and be on them, and on them, and on them."
Swanson said that in hockey, where hard labor is considered one of the greatest virtues and laziness is an indictment of character, leaders need to show the way. That's especially true on a team like the Aces, who have 11 rookies among their 23 active players.
"You don't need someone in your face every day -- no one wants that, and guys will tune you out," Swanson said. "If you do the right things, hopefully guys will pick up on that. And we've got a group of guys who want to learn how to be professionals, so they've all kind of grasped it."
Cox, 23, the rookie center, said the strength of leadership from the Aces' older players -- defensemen Bryan Miller and Chad Anderson, both 28, are also part of the club's leadership group -- has been a boon to the younger players.
"They're invaluable, because a lot of older guys don't have to go out of their way, and those guys are willing to do that and teach guys ways to be successful and how to win championships," Cox said.
Thompson said Burt, Swanson and Goldie have provided the younger players a template for success.
"They had respect from the start because of their stature," he said. "They maintained that respect by the way they came to the rink and competed every day.''
Burt said he learned much of what he knows about leading from two teammates when he played for the ECHL's Idaho Steelheads -- former NHL defenseman Matt Martin and former UAA defenseman Jeremy Mylymok served as his models.
"I just soaked it in," Burt said.
Goldie said he learned in his first couple of pro seasons by watching Peter Geronazzo -- Geronazzo, incidentally, was a senior at Colorado College when Swanson was a freshman there.
And Swanson said when he was a rookie with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League in the 1999-2000 season, he always kept an eye on teammate Rob Murray, a former NHL center.
"I watched him every day, how he approached everything," Swanson said. "He brought it every day. There were days he could barely walk because he was so bruised and battered. But he was great, in his attitude and how he approached the game."
Now that mantle has been assumed by the guys who seasons ago learned from their older teammates.
"I think character and leadership is probably the most important thing on a team," Thompson said. "If I say, 'Do a certain detail,' they do it. And if the young guys don't do it, I can get on them. There's an accountability throughout the room.
"Take Swanny. He's probably the most coachable guy on the ice, even through it all -- being a veteran, playing in the NHL -- and he'll still try to do what the coach needs him to do."
One day, Burt mused, the Aces who are rookies today may look back on their first seasons as pros like he recalls his time with players who served as his mentors.
"I hope I leave these young kids with something," Burt said. "It's an accomplishment if one day one of these young guys says to his teammates, 'I had this guy Scott Burt I played with, or Brian Swanson, or Wes Goldie ..."