LAKE GEORGE — Rick Kowalsky was no different from anyone he grew up with playing hockey.
“Every kid,” he said Wednesday, “starts their hockey career wanting — dreaming — of playing in the NHL.”
Kowalsky’s playing career came up short of that ultimate goal. The honor bestowed upon Kowalsky, now the 44-year-old coach of the AHL’s Albany Devils, with his induction Wednesday into the ECHL Hall of Fame was a gentle reminder of that truth. The 10 seasons he played in the ECHL — the “Double A” of hockey, as it was described several times during Wednesday’s induction ceremony at Fort William Henry Hotel — left him as one of the most-decorated veterans of the league, a feat Kowalsky accomplished in part because he did not last longer as a player in the AHL and never competed in the NHL.
That did not leave him bitter Wednesday. It was quite the opposite, really. He beamed with pride and spoke with gusto about the years he spent playing in a league that helped shaped him into the mentor he is now for a couple dozen Devils one step from playing in the NHL — or heading down to the ECHL.
“All those experiences helped to groom me as a coach and help me relate to players wherever they are in our lineup or in their careers,” Kowalsky said. “Whether it’s a guy that’s trying to extend his career or a guy coming up trying to find his role and his identity, I feel like I can relate to those guys.”
Kowalsky’s current players with the Devils, who played Syracuse Wednesday night, range in age from 20 to 32 years old. Some already have NHL experience or are close to getting the chance to get some. Others never will make that leap. Kowalsky sees a little bit of himself in both sets of players.
“I can relate to the guys playing on the fourth line,” he said, “and to the guys on the power play and on our first line.”
At some points during Kowalsky’s playing career, he starred. He scored more than 80 points in two of his ECHL seasons, was an All-ECHL first-team selection one time and capped his playing career as captain of the Trenton Titans’ 2004-05 Kelly Cup championship team.
In other years, he just had to survive to keep his playing days alive.
“I fought when I needed to fight,” he said, meaning it literally.
Kowalsky — one of two coaches to win coach of the year honors in both the ECHL and the AHL — has a sharp mind. A realistic one, too. His dream of making it to the NHL as a player ended early in his playing career, in which the only season he played more than 60 AHL games was his 1993-94 rookie season with the Cornwall Aces. Within a few years, his goal had been recalibrated from achieving NHL glory to holding on for as long as possible within the game he loved in cities he didn’t know had hockey teams when he was growing up in Simcoe, Ontario.
“And that’s why I’m still involved [coaching] in the game today,” Kowalsky said of his ECHL years during his induction speech.
While Kowalsky has a sensitivity for the player on his team whose career is heading away — not toward — the NHL, he admits there is a special feeling when he gets the opportunity to call a player into his coaching office and tell him he’s headed to New Jersey. Watching the dream become true, he said, is one of the best parts of the job he’s held for seven season in Albany.
“To be able to bring them in and tell them they’re going to the NHL to play their first game, that’s a feeling of pride because you feel a part of it and you’re so happy for them,” he said, adding the feeling is similar when he gets the chance to give a player his first AHL experience.
Of course, the situation can be reversed, too. Sometimes, players move down, not up. During his playing career, Kowalsky had five separate stints playing in the AHL. A move to the ECHL followed each time, and Kowalsky said he learned from those experiences how to deal with players of his going through the same thing.
“I’ve been in both those situations and had coaches talk to me about those situations,” he said, “and I think that has helped me — hopefully — help my players identify their roles and play to their identity.”
Kowalsky’s identity? Well, he’s a Hall of Famer. That speaks to his longevity and ability to adapt.
It speaks to his passion, too.
“I bounced around a little bit, but I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said of his playing career. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”