Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports
Scoring goals as he has the past two games is great – Adam Cracknell can’t hide the smile when talking about putting pucks in the net. But the journeyman centre knows his offense isn’t what got him to the National Hockey League and it certainly isn’t what’s keeping him on the Vancouver Canucks roster. He’s a big-bodied utility player who’s proven versatile enough to plug whatever holes the Canucks have needed to fill this season. Oh, and that smile? The biggest reason for that is, at the age of 30, Cracknell is living – and loving – life as a full-timer in the NHL for the first time in his 10-year professional hockey career.
Not gifted, not flashy, he’s not even an everyday player. Yet 60 games into the schedule, Cracknell is still in the NHL – the only place he’s played this season. After years and years of shuttling between the big league and the farm, the fact he’s found a home with the Canucks and hasn’t had to spend a minute in Utica means an awful lot.
“It doesn’t matter where your stall is in the NHL, it’s always a good day up here,” Cracknell says of having a spot to call his own in the Canucks locker room. “I try not to take any days for granted. I came in here with the mentality that I know I’m getting older and I tried not to worry about the depth. And when I was told that I’d made the team, it was something that I never sat back on.”
Still, no one, Cracknell included, expected him to spend the entire season on the big-league roster. The thinking when he signed his one-year $575,000 dollar deal just weeks before training camp was that he’d be the kind of player who might get a look – perhaps one of the first recalls from the minors – but that he’d have to start the year in the American League and bide his time. A strong camp and a better preseason earned Cracknell the chance to stay and play and it’s an opportunity he’s held on to ever since.
With 43 games under his belt as a Canuck, he’s just five games away from doubling the most-games he’s ever played in one NHL season (24 with St. Louis in 2010-11).
“In my situation, it’s good that I’m versatile and can play left, right and centre and I think that helps with the coaching staff and if I need to fill in somewhere they can trust me in those positions,” he says. “I know my role is going to be in and out of the line-up some days, but with the injury problems it’s given me an opportunity to play hard and contribute any way I can. It’s staying ready throughout the season when we’re healthy and I have to be the guy to sit out here and there, but it’s not about frustration. It’s trying to work hard in practice and be ready for those opportunities because it happens quickly. In Colorado, we lost two guys to injuries and the next day you’re in the line-up.”
Such is the life for a player like Cracknell. No promises are asked for and none are given. Like so many others on the fringes of the NHL, Cracknell lives a life of survival at this level. Every time he gets into the line-up is another opportunity to prove he belongs. And so far this season, he has managed to convince the coaching staff that there is a place for him on the Canucks roster.
Even when the Canucks got completely healthy out of the All-Star break and had a glut of centres on their roster, Cracknell managed to keep his job.
“I don’t know if I thought he’d be here all season long, but I really liked the way he played,” Willie Desjardins says. “I knew him from junior, he’s a heavy, hard guy to play against. I knew he was depth player – and he knew that, too, coming in – but he’s has exceeded expectations I would think. He’s been good in a number of situations for us.”
Along with his fourth-line role and some penalty killing duties, Cracknell has tried to find other ways to contribute to the Canucks. Years of experience at all levels of the game have shown him the importance of being a good teammate and a true professional. Whether it’s strong practice habits, sticking around for extra drills or trying to bring a positive outlook to the dressing room and bench, Cracknell knows he has to go the extra mile to preserve his place in the cut-throat world of the NHL.
That effort hasn’t been lost on the coach.
“I like his attitude,” Desjardins adds. “He’s always talking. He’s one of the first guys up and cheering when other guys are doing things on the ice and it’s always good to have a guy like that.”
“I think that’s part of my nature, because it keeps me involved in the games,” Cracknell explains. “I want to show some support for my teammates. As a player, when you do things – hits, fights, blocking shots – you do it for your team and you want to see guys’ reactions. We don’t want a quiet bench. I think we’re better when we’re more involved. Sometimes it does start with one guy, but I think it’s contagious and if we have emotion on the bench it gets guys going. And it makes you want to sacrifice yourself for them and you get rewarded.”
Although a teammate of Cracknell’s, Henrik Sedin resides at the other end of the job security spectrum. The Canucks captain doesn’t have to worry about a bad shift or a bad game the same way a depth player does. Sedin won’t be replaced or dispatched to the farm, but Cracknell certainly could be.
That uncertainty is simply a reality for a player in Cracknell’s situation. Sedin recognizes that fact and admires the guys who are able to fight through the obstacles to carve out their spot in the NHL.
“He doesn’t know where he’s going to be when he wakes up,” Henrik says. “He could get sent down and all of a sudden he’s gone. He’s been through a lot – he’s been on waivers, he’s been traded, he’s been down in the minors, but I think that’s why he’s here is because he is a professional and believes himself that he can play here. I thought right away when I saw him in training camp that he could have a chance to be on the fourth line for us. He’s done everything. Even when he doesn’t play, he works hard, he’s positive, he’s outgoing and he’s fun to have in the room. And I think we’ve seen the last couple of games, when he’s on his game, he’s strong on the puck, he’s got a great shot and he’s one of those guys that understands his role.”
Now, with just days, to go before the NHL trade deadline, Cracknell’s ultimate role as a Canuck could be that of a bargaining chip. Is it possible the organization could flip the pending unrestricted free agent into a draft pick? He’s big, he’s versatile, he embraces the role of a depth guy and a team player and, as an added bonus, Cracknell has 10 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience to his credit with St. Louis spread out over two seasons (2012-13 & 2013-14), so he’s been through the post-season battles and knows how to handle himself. Might that be intriguing to a team looking to add depth to its bottom six for a long playoff push?
Cracknell knows a move at the deadline is a possibility, although after spending a full season in the same spot for the first time in his career, he’s not enamoured with the idea of packing up and leaving town.
“I don’t want to,” he says, bluntly. “I know it’s part of the business because it’s happened to me before. But I’m playing for our organization right now and I want to stay here. It’s my main goal. If something does happen, it’s part of the business. But I want to stay here and that’s my main focus. There are a couple of games before the trade deadline but I don’t want to get wrapped up in that. I love it here. Being in this organization and the way they’ve treated me and made me feel welcome, it brings another level to my play. I care about my teammates, I care about wanting to play here for this team and this city. It’s been a great opportunity so far.”
That opportunity may continue with the Canucks or, by noon on Monday, Cracknell could have a new hockey home. The uncertainty will hang over him until the deadline passes. However, when you’ve lived the kind of hockey existence Cracknell has from year to year not knowing where the path will lead you, a few more days shouldn’t be too much to worry about.