(Photo: Jason Clark / Courier & Press)

EVANSVILLE, IN — In the sport of hockey we all know how vital a part of the game scoring goals is, but along with scoring goals comes that spark every team needs to get fired up. That spark is the big hit at just the right time or the fight at just the right moment. Those intangibles are the added bonuses you get from that big power player on the team. The big power player for the Evansville Thunderbolts during 23 games of the 2017-18 season was forward Al Graves. While playing for the Thunderbolts last season Graves was able to put four pucks in the back of the net while assisting in four goals for a total of eight points on the season with 49 penalty minutes. I was able to sit down with Graves and get a little bit of information on what life is like outside the rink with the Thunderbolts forward.

The Sin Bin: At what age did you start to play hockey, and besides hockey growing up what other sports did you play?

Al Graves: Contrary to contemporary standards, I didn’t actually start to play hockey until I was ten, which is very late considering most kids that I work with in the offseason are usually beginning to play around three or four. My father was a firm believer in the idea that establishing a good skating foundation before placing a stick and gloves in my hands was paramount. I took skating lessons for a full year before I started with House League. To this day, I’m convinced that decision helped indoctrinate a strong sense of confidence, at least as it pertains to skating mobility and edge work. Believe it or not, I had been a track athlete longer than I had been a hockey player until I matriculated to college, where I made the decision to pursue hockey at the NCAA level. I started sprinting and jumping at the age of five. I’ve competed in the USATF National Junior Olympics, was a nationally ranked long jumper when I was 14, and I was also a Pennsylvania Independent School State Champion in the 100m. My father was a Division I All-American and national champion track athlete at Villanova, so I guess you could say track has always been in my blood.

TSB: Growing up in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania which team did you find yourself cheering for more the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Philadelphia Flyers?

AG: The Flyers have always been my favorite team growing up. I wear #17 for Rod Brind’Amour, whom I’ve always looked up to growing up as a young hockey player. I always admired his hard-nosed gritty style of play, as well as his work ethic. Watching him along with the infamous “Legion of Doom” line was truly something spectacular. Philadelphia sports fans are some of the most impassioned and ardent individuals around. We love all of our sports here.Growing up in that atmosphere most certainly whet my appetite for hockey. Geographically, Philadelphia is eastern Pennsylvania, while Pittsburgh is western Pennsylvania. Flyers and Penguins games have served as some of the most intense, entertaining and grueling hockey games because of the fact that it’s literally the prototypical east vs. west rivalry. Being able to start the season with the Flyers’ AA team in Reading last year was nothing short of an honor and a privilege.

TSB: During the 2015 – 2016 season you scored your first professional goal, tell me what kind of emotions did you feel when that goal went in?

AG: My first SPHL goal and the first game for that matter will always be a memorable one for me. Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect. Fervor and anticipation were at its peak. I remember getting into a fight with Dennis Sicard, one of the toughest guys in the league, earlier in the game. I don’t mind the occasional tilt and open ice hit because usually, that helps to augment my adrenaline, and actually gets me more focused on the game. Shortly after the fight, I went out the next period on a two-on-one break. Andy Bathgate made a great pass right on my tape; next thing I know the puck was in the net. I was elated, to say the least. The culmination of emotions of it being my first game, getting in my first fight, and then scoring my first SPHL goal was unfathomable; something I really can’t put into words, but a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.

TSB: During the offseason what is a normal day like for Al Graves? Do you have a set conditioning schedule and what have you worked hardest on this offseason?

AG: My offseason training regimen is rigorous for the most part. Considering the various roles I play for the team, I have to be adept in many facets of the game focusing a heavy emphasis on strength, fighting, and skill. I try to tailor my on-ice and off-ice workouts to reflect those dimensions in my game. In a typical week, I skate three to four times a week with a local Pro/AM group we have; work on my fighting technique two to three times a week with my father; off-ice stickhandling twice a week; HIIT (High-intensity interval training) training on a bike once a week, followed by four days of hockey specific hypertrophy strength training. On top of training, I also work part-time at my local rink that I grew up playing at helping run clinics, men’s league games, and team tryouts amongst a multitude of other duties. The aspect in which I’ve worked hardest on this offseason would have to be puck skills and puck protection. Hockey has progressed and evolved immensely. In order to move to the next level, each player has to have a multifaceted approach to the game, meaning you have to excel in more than just one area. You must possess a variegated source of tools at your disposal to help your team. Hence this year, I’ve focused on aspects that would aid in helping improve my skill set and puck protection skills. Offensively, I would consider myself a power forward and a big body, so naturally, being strong on the puck behind the net and in tight areas is where I should be able to win battles and excel.

TSB: Which players or player past/present do you enjoy watching play the game and what techniques do you take away from their game to add to your own game on the ice?

AG: Being a good student has always been something I’ve taken pride in at a young age. The same goes for hockey. I like to consider myself a student of the game; always learning, adapting and growing as an athlete. My father often quotes the famous Pablo Picasso saying, “Good artists copy, but great artists steal.” As crass as that may sound, I believe there’s some truth to it; I too like to take that approach as far as it applies to hockey. Growing up, I’ve always tried to model my game after power forwards like Jarome Iginla, Rod Brind’Amour, and Keith Tkachuk. More contemporarily speaking, I’ve tried to emulate my game after Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers. He and I are close in age, stature and skating tendencies. I try to glean certain aspects from his game and apply them to mine: efficiency at chipping pucks off the glass, defensive accountability, skating to the “dirty” areas of the ice to get pucks, winning puck battles along the boards, tipping pucks, etc. When I was with the Columbus Cottonmouths last year, I ‘d often ask our assistant coach to clip Simmonds’s shifts from the game the night before so I could study his aforementioned tendencies meticulously.Playing with the Thunderbolts last year for 23 games what are your main goals on the ice for this seasonAn important goal for me this season is to become more of an offensive threat. I’ve illustrated that I can be a strong and defensive minded player through my play this year, especially with the hits and the fighting. I’m confident that given the proper opportunity and chance this year, I would be able to produce more offensively.With those goals in mind, the preeminent objective for myself is to make that consistent jump to the ECHL. I’ve played a few preseason games for the Reading Royals last season, so I have gotten a taste of it. I think I speak for all of my teammates when I say we couldn’t ask for a better organization or fan base in Evansville, but for the most part, we all want to make that permanent jump from A to AA at some point.

TSB: We all know the hits and fights are the fans favorite part of the game but for the player what is the thought process that goes behind making those big open ice hits and fights to spark the team on the ice?

AG: What a great question. Being a physical presence, and from time to time having to play the role of enforcer, I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. To be honest, there are a few dimensions which could play a role in fights and hits. Sometimes a fight is necessary to spark the team after a tough goal against to shift the momentum, the same goes with a big open ice hit. I think just about any elite athlete would agree that “momentum” is indeed a real and intangible element which possesses the ability to change the dynamic of just about any game. As far as the role of protector goes, I cannot let opponents take liberties toward my teammates. When that happens, that’s when players on both sides tend to get hurt. To quell any incertitude, I sometimes have to “enforce” and make sure the cheap shots and dangerous plays are kept to an absolute minimum. And of course, sometimes it is cool just to put on a show for the fans, and make sure everyone gets their money’s worth!!!

My thanks to Al Graves for taking time out of his schedule to sit down and chat with me. Look for Al and the remainder of the Thunderbolts as they start the season on October 21 against the Peoria Rivermen.

Follow Justin Rieber on Twitter at @SinBinBolts

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