Tuesday, November 10, 2009

AHL: Interview with Riley Armstrong, Abbotsford Heat

Photo: Abbotsford Heat

Former Everett Silvertip Riley Armstrong likes to visit Western Washington during the summer. Now, he won’t have so far to travel. Riley left the Worcester Sharks (San Jose Sharks AHL affiliate) during the off-season and signed on with the Calgary Flames. He’s starting the season with the Flames’ AHL team, which moved to Abbotsford over the summer and changed its name to the Heat.

When I caught up with Riley a couple of weeks ago, he had just found an apartment and was busy learning his way around. We chatted about a number of things, including: what he likes about the Calgary organization, how he’s similar to former Everett teammate (and KING 5 Hockey blogger) Mitch Love, what he loves about his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and what makes him so qualified to judge a unique Canadian TV show that turns former NHL bruisers into figure skaters.

SR: How’s Abbotsford?
RA: Not bad, just slowly getting settled in here and trying to figure my way around and stuff like that. I just moved in (to an apartment) about 3 days ago so I just got my couches and stuff. I just rented furniture and got it delivered yesterday.

SR: Did you take anything with you from Worcester?
RA: No, I left all my furniture there. I had it in a storage unit and I just left a whole house of stuff, pots and pans, couch, kitchen table and stuff like that. I just left it there and I’m trying to sell it to the guys on the team or will hopefully figure out something to do with it.

SR: So you’re starting from scratch again.
RA: Yeah, I am; which isn’t bad. I just decided to rent furniture here since I have a one year contract, where I could possibly be somewhere else next season, so I didn’t really want to buy a lot of stuff and then have to bring it home to Saskatoon for the summertime. It (renting furniture) makes it a little easier. A lot of the guys on the team are doing it since this is a new city.

SR: Last year, the team was in Iowa, wasn’t it?
RA: The team played in the Quad Cities last year so I think this is a pretty big change for the guys. Being in Canada now, you have all the hockey highlights all the time, which you kind of miss when you’re in the States. You’ve also got the best of both worlds being in BC, where you have the ocean right there and I’m living in the mountains (in Abbotsford) so it’s a pretty big change from living in Saskatoon all summer.

SR: How would you describe Saskatoon to somebody who’d never been there?
RA: I think Saskatoon is kind of a laid back city. I wouldn’t say there’s too much action going on and it takes about 15 minutes to get from one end of town to the other. But at the same time, there is a lot to do. The river flows right through the city so on a nice night out, you can always go for a walk down by the river and enjoy some ice cream at the Double Decker Bus. It’s my go-to spot there. I go out to eat quite a bit with my brother and my family. We don’t live at home with our parents anymore so it’s our time to go hang out with one another. There’s a lot of good restaurants to go to in Saskatoon, so I think that’s one of the bonuses of the city. You’ve got three good steakhouses, some good sushi places, Chinese food. They’ve got it all.

It’s always fun to go home, back to Saskatoon for the summertime. I feel comfortable in the city. All my friends and obviously all my family live there, too. (Note: Riley and his brother, Atlanta Thrashers forward Colby Armstrong have bought homes in the area.) I hang out with my brother – we get along great. We talk about hockey and break our jobs down. We learn from each other and push each other. We also work out together. I think at the same time, my parents would love us to be living at home. I don’t think, as a parent, you ever want to see your kid move away, but we’ve kind of been at that age now, me being the youngest in the family at 24, it’s kind of time to move out and move on at some point in life. It’s always nice to go home to home-cooked meals from your mum and dad that you enjoyed so much growing up. I think my dad cooks the best steaks on the barbeque and my mom has one of the best spaghetti dishes going, so it’s always fun to get the call saying you’re having steak or spaghetti for dinner that night, you’re pretty excited to go over there and have a nice dinner.

SR: I spoke to some players who are just making the transition from the WHL to the next level of play and they all really miss the home cooked meals, either from their parents or from the billet family. It’s a hard part of their adjustment to living on their own.
RA: When I was away from home the first year when I left Everett, I got tuned into the cooking channel. I went out and looked up some recipes to try and start cooking, trying different things. I think later on in life, you might get married and you’re gonna have to cook dinner so it’s always good to get some practice while you’re doing it on your own here and hopefully, you don’t get your family sick (laugh).

SR: What do you cook? What’s your signature dish?
RA: My signature dish is spaghetti with chicken and vodka sauce. I’ve also learned from my dad, how to cook salmon on the barbeque. You cut up potatoes and carrots and wrap them in tin foil, put them on the barbeque and let them marinade in butter. It’s one of my favorites from my dad. I’ve spent hours around the barbeque learning it from my dad so I think I’ve almost got it down now.

SR: Turning to hockey - tell me about Flames training camp.
RA: When I first got there, we did some fitness testing, then practiced against one another. There were probably about 60 kids at camp. They weeded kids out through the week and then they got into exhibition season. I had the opportunity to play in the exhibition game that was held in Saskatoon. That was my first time ever playing in Saskatoon. I never played there when I played for Kootenay or Everett. All my friends were at the game. It was sold out, and it was pretty cool to play in the city that I grew up in. My dad couldn’t make it, but my mom was there and my sister. It was definitely awesome to step onto the ice and have my friends down by the glass, banging on it. It was an awesome experience.

SR: The last time we talked, you said you were looking forward to working with the Sutters and the Flames organization. How have they been?
RA: They’ve been pretty good. They’re up front; they’re a pretty honest group of people. I think I can learn from them in so many ways to hopefully get better in my career. They’re a hard-nosed working family and that’s the kind of people I like. That’s something I think I bring to my game every night, so hopefully they can see that in me and I can get back up to Calgary throughout the season.

SR: The people I’ve spoken with who are familiar with you say that about you—that you are hard working, you don’t slack off, that you take every game seriously.
RA: That’s just how I grew up. I wasn’t the biggest guy. I think most of the time, these 6’3”, 6’4” kind of guys get a few more opportunities because they’re taller and possibly stronger. So, I have to use my strengths, my advantages, my speed and hard work.

SR: How are you guys gelling in Abbotsford? You just arrived from Flames camp. Are you on set lines yet or are you still working things out?
RA: We’re still kind of working things out. This is obviously my first year with the organization. There are other guys that have been here (with the team) for three or four years. I think the coach here has a read on them better than he does on me, so I’m just trying to go out there at practice and show him what I can do and the things that I bring to the table. I think things will sort out from there. It doesn’t really matter what line I’m on. Basically, everyone who plays in the league can play, so it doesn’t matter if you play on what they call the “first line” or the fourth. If you go out there and play hard every night, that’s what they’re looking for you to do, so hopefully I can contribute and score some goals again this year.

SR: I’ve been a fan for years, but have only been covering hockey for a year and I honestly can’t tell you who’s on the first line and fourth line. But going back and looking at the scoring summary of a game, you find a lot of times, the third and fourth line guys are digging in and scoring as much as the first and second line guys. And sometimes, it’s the fourth line guys who are carrying the team.
RA: I’ve never really played on a “top” line before. I do have good skill, I think, and work on that part of my game often, but at the same time I think you just want to get back to the basics. I think my best games are when I’m grinding it out, when I’m in the corner, or when I’m just in the game more, instead of just being a perimeter player. I like to get into the action, get my nose dirty once in a while.

SR: You and (former Everett teammate) Mitch Love seem to have a really similar work ethic- the same drive to get out there and do whatever it takes to play, to get into the middle of the action, and the same kind of dedication to help the team.
RA: We’re the same kind of person. He walked on to Swift Current and made that team. I walked onto Kootenay and made that team the first year and we’ve kind of been on the same path – we’ve never been drafted to the NHL and we’re in the AHL. I think if you want it, you have to go get it. It’s out there for you to take. I think we’ve learned that playing under Kevin Constantine and Doug Soetaert (in Everett), helping us out through the time we spent there. Hopefully, we’re still on the right path and one day we both can be in the NHL.

SR: Lightening things up a little—do you have a pre-game ritual?
RA: I’m not really into that too much. I think it boils down more to, if I find a good place to eat, I’ll just go to that same place all the time. I’ll eat different foods on different days, as long as it’s a nice place to go eat. After I eat, I usually come home and have a nap and then I head to the rink. I don’t like to get to the rink too early, since we’re already there two hours before a game. If you get there two and half or three hours early, you’re just sitting there thinking. So, I usually get there right about two hours before the game and then I settle in. I tape my sticks the same way all the time because it feels comfortable for me. Then I get dressed and go out on the ice for warm ups. It’s not that do anything special but I think if I really, really looked into it, I’d find that I probably do a lot of things the same way throughout the day, but at the same time, I don’t really let that stuff get in my head, like if I put my skate on wrong or lace it up wrong, I have to get all undressed again. I’m not as crazy as (former Everett teammate; current Providence Bruins standout) Zach Hamill.

SR: I’ve heard stories about Zach and other players, who really do seem to have to follow a set routine and are almost superstitious about it, to the point where, like you said – if they lace up a skate wrong, they have to start all over again. How does that kind of stuff start?
RA: I think you might get dressed (a certain way) and you play a really good game – you have two goals. And then you do it again the next game and you have a goal and an assist. Then you think, “Wow, I have to do this every single game.” And I think it kind of gets in your head that you have to keep doing it. And if you get hot – like one year Zach (Hamill) had 93 points and he must have been doing something right all the time so he kept doing it and doing it. It seems to be working for him. He’s still playing well and will probably get up to Boston this season and have some NHL games.

SR: Were there any players in Worcester who took things a little too seriously like that?
RA: There was one guy in Worcester, Kyle McLaren, who played in the NHL forever. After every single period, he would get undressed and shower and then get dressed again. He’d wear all brand-new underwear under his equipment. I don’t know why he did it and I never really did ask him. I think that was kind of his thing so I just let him do it, but we always gave him a little bit of a hard time about it.

SR: I’ve heard stories about stars, like Sidney Crosby, who has to walk into the arena a certain way. And if someone stops him, he has to leave and come in again. That’s pretty obsessive.
RA: I think people have their ways about certain things. I’ve never really been one to walk in and out of a rink weird or do anything like that. I just kind of take life as it comes. I think it doesn’t really matter what I do before the game, it’s how I prepare in the morning and how I prepare while I’m at the rink, (that determines) whether I’m going to play good or not play good. I don’t think it has anything to do with how you get dressed or what you eat or anything like that. It’s just how you focus and if you are focused and if you are prepared to play the game that night.

SR: Do you have a favorite pre-game meal?
RA: I like to eat a Caesar salad and spaghetti with a little bit of meat sauce. I don’t really like a lot of sauce so that it’s like a soup, almost. I just like enough to have some taste. If I could, I would just eat plain spaghetti, something light that doesn’t sit in my stomach all day and night. And I like to drink a Coke or a Pepsi.

SR: Is there any particular music you like to listen to on game day? Any music that helps you get pumped up for a game?
RA: I think I’m kind of weird when it comes to listening to music for game day. Everyone listens to hard rock or rap and it gets them pumped up. I like to listen to songs that I can sing along to. I’m really into Sugarland right now. They have some really good songs and they’re just a really good band. Nickelback as a few really good pump-up songs but I’m not really into the loud music. I just like to keep it mellow a bit.

SR: Have you seen the CBC show “Battle of the Blades?” As soon as I saw the ads for it, I thought of you because of your background in figure skating. (Note: Riley figure skated until he was 15, then turned to hockey full time)
RA: I actually watched it two nights ago. I watched it because Claude Lemieux is in it and I played with him last year. And I actually know a girl who is one of the partners. I figured skated with her when I was younger. It was pretty weird seeing her out there skating, and also seeing Claude Lemieux out there skating, after he was laughing at me that I used to figure skate. I was actually nervous for the guys, wondering if they were going to trip on the toe picks or not. It was actually a pretty entertaining show. My mom was telling me I should sign up for that but I don’t think that would be fair since I can do all the tricks on my hockey skates, I would win the competition pretty easily.

SR: There were a few heart-stopping moments for me, seeing these guys doing those crazy spins where they hold the girls by their feet. I was waiting for one of the girls to bust her chin open on the ice. But it was funny, too, to see these fighters like Bob Probert and Tie Domi figure skating.
RA: Yeah- you’ve got these rough-nosed guys you’ve seen dropping the gloves for 18 years in the NHL and now they’re figure skating. It kind of shows a different side of them where people can get to know them better than just as guys who fought all the time on the ice.

SR: One of my co-workers met a player with a tough-guy reputation and was surprised to learn how friendly he was. Some the nicest guys I’ve met are players who are “fighters” on the ice. In fact hockey players, as a whole, seem to be the most approachable, down-to-earth people.
RA: With hockey, the one thing they (coaches/organizations) always talk about is getting out in the community and visiting hospitals, visiting schools and talking to kids. I think every hockey player goes out there and tries to help at least one kid follow his dream, just like how it was when we were growing up. We had the Saskatoon Blades come into my school when I was young; talking about the things they did to make it. I’ve always enjoyed doing that. Me and Mitch did that a lot in Everett. I did it quite a bit in Worcester, too.

To go with the fighter question: I always call the fighters off the ice, little teddy bears. I think the “mean streak” they have in them is like a switch that goes on when it’s time for them to do their job, to protect players. I don’t think every guy has that switch, maybe one or two guys per hockey team. I think it’s unbelievable, the way they can do their job, the way they can control themselves and that they can still play the game but when it’s time to do their job and protect somebody, that they can go out there and do that. But off the ice, they’re like the big teddy bears. You can joke around with them, play fight with them. It’s awesome to have them as friends, too, because you know they’ve always got your back.

SR: I don’t remember hearing about you getting into any fights. Are you a fighter?
RA: I’ve actually had quite a few bad experiences fighting. I think I help the team by scoring goals and being an “energy” guy. I’ll go to battle for my teammates but that doesn’t necessarily mean fighting. I’ll skate into a situation to back up a player, to show that we’re a team and will stick up for each other. I wouldn’t say that fighting is something I do well. I think that’s why we have guys on the team that will do it. In the situations that I’ve been in, I’ve had a lot of good guys to back me. When I played with Mitch Love, he always came in there at any given time to help me out, whenever someone had me down. And then in Worcester, I had Brad Staubitz and Frazer McLaren who were always there to help m out. Now they’re both in San Jose, so it’s awesome to see them play in the NHL. Those three guys will always be lifelong friends for me.

I think all the guys who have the responsibility (of being fighters) can also play the game, or they wouldn’t be allowed to go on the ice. They have to be just as good at playing hockey as they are at fighting. You can put them on the ice knowing they can get the job done, and if it’s time for them to do their “other” job, that comes as second nature to them.

SR: Any predictions about who is going to win Battle of the Blades?
RA: (after watching one episode): I want to say Craig Simpson. Actually, I want to change that to Glenn Anderson. I was just going over everyone’s programs in my head and I think Glenn is going to come out on top.

SR: Did you skate pairs or single when you were young?
RA: I did a little bit of pairs skating when I was little. The girl I skated pairs with was Katherine Husiak. She still lives in Saskatoon. We talk once in a while. My mom was her coach too and made us do pairs. I think I was 8 or 9. I wasn’t strong enough to lift her over my head or do anything like that so we just did the little kid kind of pairs stuff, with jumps.

SR: So, in your figure skating expertise, Glenn Anderson had the best moves.
RA: Yes, he showed the best potential to get better throughout the show.

SR: And how do you think your old pal, Claude Lemieux, is going to do?
RA: (Laughs) I don’t know. The way he skates with hockey skates, the toe picks could come into effect with him, but who knows? I think they’re skating quite a bit and trying to get used to figure skates so I think Claude will do fine. I’m not gonna say he’s not gonna come a close second to Glenn, but I think he’ll probably be on the show for quite a bit.

Well, we’re a few weeks on from Riley’s prediction, and Glenn Anderson is out of the running. However, Riley’s former Worcester Sharks teammate Claude Lemieux is still in the heat of competition, along with Riley’s original first choice, Craig Simpson. If you want to know what we’re talking about, you can check out the show “Battle of the Blades” on CBC-TV. Check the website for dates and times.

Riley has also discovered Twitter and is having fun learning this social networking tool. Here’s his Twitter handle: @Pitter20.

The Abbotsford Heat is off to a decent start.  You can track their season on their website - just click here.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview, I've got to check out his Twitter.