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BETTER AND BETTER

02/20/2005 7:13 AM - Milwaukee defenseman Andrew Hutchinson has shown steady improvement during his three years in the AHL

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Yogi Berra, who never mangled a sentence that he didn’t utter, claimed that “baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical.”

Baseball and hockey are two different sports, but it’s the same stuff between the ears that determines whether a player prospers on the diamond or on the ice.

Hockey, in fact, is all about mental agility: a complex combination of confidence, courage and commitment. Physical skills aside, it’s often what goes on inside the head of a player that will ultimately cast him as a success or failure.

Nobody exemplifies this better than Milwaukee Admirals defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, who is arguably one of the most improved players in the American Hockey League since he entered the circuit three seasons ago.

Older and wiser – he will turn 25 on March 24 – Hutchinson is clearly not the same player who came out of Michigan State University, where he had a solid four-year career.

For the second straight season, Hutchinson was named to the PlanetUSA team for the AHL All-Star Classic – a major accomplishment considering the state of his game when he turned pro.

“Andrew has come a long ways,” says Admirals assistant coach Todd Richards, older brother of the Griffins’ Travis Richards and a former defenseman himself.

Recalling Hutchinson as a rookie brings to mind a young man whose inexperience was evident in his tentative, almost hesitant style of play.

“The big thing with Andrew was he couldn’t pass the puck,” Richards says. “He knew how to pass the puck, but he passed it like… well, like my kids would pass the puck, and my kids are six and eight years old.”

“When you get to pro hockey, you’ve got to snap the puck and pass it hard. Andrew, like a lot of first-year guys, got to this level and he struggled.”

To build his confidence, Nashville sent Hutchinson to the ECHL – twice.

“We sent him down to Toledo,” Richards says. “He played some games there and we called him back up and there wasn’t much of a change, so we sent him back again and when he returned the second time, he was a totally different player.”

Hutchinson’s coach in Toledo was Claude Noel, the former Kalamazoo coach who took over the Admirals two seasons ago and led Milwaukee to its first league championship last year.

“When I coached Andrew in Toledo, ‘dazed and confused’ would be the best way to describe him,” Noel recalls. “As a coach, you try to show a little confidence and stay with young players until they find their game.”

Like many rookies, Hutchinson struggled finding his place in the pro ranks. “There’s an adjustment period for these guys,” Richards says. “They come from a junior or college program where they were king and suddenly they’re not anymore.

“When you’re good, you can get away on skill alone, but at this level they find they can’t rely just on skill any more. It comes down to how you work and what you’re going to do to get better.”

The answers are often found in the head – and in the heart.

“What we try to teach our players is self-analysis,” Noel says. “As long as they’re honest with themselves, as long as they’re willing to change their game to what fits this level, then they have a chance to go somewhere.

“Andrew came to Toledo and he sorted things out, which is what happens to all good players.”

For his part, Hutchinson recognizes that Toledo two years ago was a turning point. “Basically, Claude showed a lot of trust in me,” he says. “He let me know right away that he was going to play me a lot.”

Admitting that he wasn’t quite ready for the AHL wasn’t easy, but Hutchinson realized that it would take time for his confidence to catch up with his performance on the ice.

“It’s hard as a rookie when you’re not playing like you’re used to playing,” Hutchinson says. “When you’re playing against guys who have been playing for years and who know the game a little better than you, it’s a bit of an eye-opener.”

After his 10-game stint in Toledo, Hutchinson finished the 2002-03 season in Milwaukee, where he recorded nine goals and 17 assists in 63 games. “By the end of the year, he was one of our best defensemen,” Richards says. “When he injured his wrist during the first round of the playoffs, it really hurt us.”

Last season was a different story. He shuttled back-and-forth between Milwaukee and Nashville during the regular season, seeing action in 18 NHL games with the Predators before rejoining the Admirals for the playoffs.

“I was getting my frequent flyer miles,” Hutchinson says. “I was nervous for the first couple of games in the NHL, but after my second time there, I got my confidence and it was a lot of fun.”

It also took some time to adjust to the ups and downs of being recalled and sent back to the AHL. “It’s tough when you’re between two teams and you’re playing with different guys all the time,” he says.

Coming back to Milwaukee for the playoffs was a blessing. He excelled on the ice and helped the franchise win its first title in its 26-year history.

This season Hutchinson has picked right up where he left off, battling the Griffins’ Niklas Kronwall for point leadership among AHL defensemen. Through
43 games, he had already matched his point total for last season.

“The more experience, the more games you play, the better you get,” he says. “It’s just confidence and getting to know the game a little better.”

His improvement is obvious. “You can see the great skills and all the talent he has,” Richards says. “He’s a great skater and he can really separate himself from the other players.”

“Andrew is a lot more poised,” Noel agrees. “The difference in his game the past two years has been his intensity level. When he plays with more intensity, and he is more involved in the game, he makes better decisions. A lot of it is confidence.”

And for a young player, confidence is everything.

Hutchinson certainly had his confidence at MSU, where he was a Second Team All-American choice during his senior season.

“I loved going to school there,” he says. “Some of my best friends are people I met in college, and I still talk to a lot of the guys. I liked (East
Lansing) so much that I live back there in the summers now.”

Hutchinson works out with former Spartan teammates like Adam Hall
(Nashville) and Mike York (Edmonton) as well as the various members of the Miller family during the off-season.

One of his fondest memories at MSU was opening the 2000-01 season by playing in “The Cold War” against Michigan in front of 74,544 fans at Spartan Stadium.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “To play a game in front of 70,000-plus fans in a football atmosphere was just crazy. It was cold out there – your toes were frozen almost as soon as you stepped on the ice – but it was a lot of fun.”

But his biggest thrill in hockey came last season when he scored his first NHL goal in a game against Colorado.

“Wyatt Smith, who’s playing in Milwaukee this season, won a faceoff back to me on the point and we worked the puck down the wall until I got behind the net. It was basically just a wrap-around attempt. I think the puck bounced off the goalie’s skate and went in.

“Just to get that first goal is an amazing feeling.”

Hutchinson eventually recorded four goals and four assists with the Predators. While he would love to be playing in the NHL this season – as would about 700 other guys – he insists that he isn’t losing any sleep over it.

“I’m not disappointed to be in Milwaukee,” he says. “We have a great group of guys here and I think we have a good team again. Can we repeat? You can never predict how you’ll finish, but if we’re playing our best hockey at the end of the year, you never know.”


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