“The Black Ace” – a badge of honor for an NHL prospectNEXT IN LINE. As a black ace, the NHL dream is even more intense. Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
As legend has it, the origins of the term Black Ace can be traced back centuries. 1876, to be specific. That is the year in which famous Old West lawman “Wild Bill” Hickock (no, not William Karlsson) was shot and killed while playing a game of poker. As the story goes Hickok, equally notorious for his gambling as for his sharpshooting skills, died holding a poker hand of two black aces, two eights and the Jack of diamonds. The hand subsequently passed into legend as a symbol of bad luck under the name “Dead Man’s Hand”.
Let us skip ahead some 70 years to 1940 when legendary NHL defenseman Eddie Shore had just retired and bought minor-league franchise Springfield Indians. A skilled hockey player noted for his tough and (sometimes) brutal approach to playing the game, Shores hardnosed personality carried over to ownership where he would often punish his players for not playing the style he wanted. Once in Shores doghouse, you’d have a hard time getting back on the ice unless you played exactly like the former NHL:er wanted. It was under these circumstances Shore began referring to his benched players as “Black Aces”, as in holding a dead man’s hand. Don Cherry, at the time a player for Shore’s Indians, gave this description in his book Grapes: A Vintage View of Hockey:
“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. 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.”
Skip ahead another 70 years and the term has mutated into something considerably more positive, more akin to having an ace up your sleeve. Today, a Black Ace is born when a young prospect – whose AHL, junior or European season has just ended – gets summoned to their respective NHL team during a Stanley Cup run. This is made possible by the NHL having different roster rules for the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, you can carry as many players on your roster as you want while not having to consider the salary cap.
Traditionally this call-up happens sometime around late April, early May once it has been determined which of the clubs prospects are available, not to mention healthy, to join the playoff run. Now this doesn’t always mean the prospect is inserted into the lineup right away. For many, being bestowed with the title of Black Ace is as close as the NHL dream gets – at least in that particular season. A badge of honor if you will. For a select few, it becomes more than that.
“IT REALLY CAN HAPPEN AT ANY MOMENT”
While Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray and Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban are both famous for making immediate impacts in the NHL playoffs before they made much noise in the regular season, they don’t really fit the bill of a Black Ace due to the fact both were called up while their AHL teams were still playing. A more fitting example can be found in Eeli Tolvanen this season who, once his former club Jokerit was eliminated, immediately joined the Nashville Predators in preparation for their playoff run. While he did play in three regular season games, Tolvanen is still adjusting and looks to find himself outside of the starting lineup once the Predators get going against the Colorado Avalanche.
“You’re asking a lot of a young player to come in and play at this time of year in (the) playoffs,” said Predators general manager David Poile in a radio interview with Nashville station 104.5-FM before Tolvanen had been signed. “However it turns out, if and when we get him over here, it’s going to be great experience for him, more depth for us.”
New Jersey Devils’ defenseman Ben Lovejoy spent the 2009 Penguins Cup run practicing and hanging around the team.
“I got to be a part of things”, Lovejoy told the Post-Gazette in 2016. “There were five or six of us that came up in case of an injury and we did everything. We practiced with the team. We were around the guys. It was at a point of my life where I had never spent significant time in the NHL so I didn’t know what I was getting into and I got to have one of the best seats in the house to watch the Penguins win the Stanley Cup.”
Nikolay Goldobin (Vancouver Canucks) and Ryan Carpenter (Vegas Golden Knights) both got called up to be around the San Jose Sharks during their playoff run in 2016.
“We’re just working out almost every day,” Goldobin told the New York Times at the time. “Ready for the chance. Happy for the team that they made the final. It’s hard. I’m happy for the team, but, of course, I wish I could play and help more. Still, it’s an exciting time for everyone who is playing and not playing.”
“It really can happen at any moment,” Carpenter added. “Part of just being a professional is realizing you just have to be prepared. Coaches try to remind us that you really are just one injury away from being there. You really can’t predict, so it could happen at any time.”
As for the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, there are a number of candidates who could find themselves on NHL rosters in a few weeks time.
Should the Manitoba Moose be eliminated in the AHL playoffs, you can be sure Sami Niku and Mason Appleton joins the Winnipeg Jets if they are still in Stanley Cup contention. Likewise, Pittsburgh Penguins likely wouldn’t mind having a player like Daniel Sprong join them for a taste of the NHL playoffs should the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins be eliminated early. For the Washington Capitals, signing and bringing SHL playoffs breakout star Axel Jonsson Fjällby over to North America surely wouldn’t hurt.
From “Wild Bill” Hickok to Eddie Shore to today’s NHL, the Black Ace has been through many iterations. In the future it is entirely possible it could mean something else. As of right now, being chosen to represent your NHL organization as a Black Ace is essentially the equivalent of getting a big pat on the back, followed by the organization saying:
“You’ve done well. Now come see how it is done in the pros.”