By Hannah Goldman | Photo contributions by Ross Dettman
Growing up in Alaska, hockey was a way of life for Joey Crabb. From the time he could walk, he also could walk on skates.
And from the time he could skate, at three years old, he had a dream to play in the National Hockey League.
On November 28, 2008, Crabb’s dream came true. He laced up his skates for the Atlanta Thrashers, the Wolves’ NHL affiliate, and took on the Nashville Predators in his first NHL game. For the then-25-year-old, it was the culmination of 22 years of hard work, dedication and dreaming.
“I still look at projects from elementary school about what I wanted to do when I was older, and every single one of them was about me wanting to be an NHL player,” said Crabb. “I have been thinking about that for quite awhile.”
Since hockey is a big a part of the culture in Alaska, it is hard for Crabb to imagine doing anything else. His dad, uncles and cousins played for the same high school team that he did, and they all still play every week.
“It is definitely the biggest sport and everybody follows it,” Crabb explained. “It is Alaska’s sport. I think every male in my family plays or has played, and I am excited to go back and play in the men’s leagues with all my buddies that I grew up with.”
Although hockey is Alaska’s sport, Crabb misses more than just sticks and pucks from his home. When he has the chance to go back in the summer, the Anchorage native takes full advantage. Along with fishing, hiking and waterskiing, Crabb goes on trips with his family or friends every summer.
“We all have motorcycles and dirt bikes in my family, so we go up to the mountains and go riding a lot,” he said. “The places have the most beautiful scenery you can ever see. Plus, we are having so much fun on the dirt bikes. You can’t get that here.”
When it was time for Crabb to leave home at 16, the transition went surprisingly well. Crabb attributes the easy move he made to Ann Arbor, Mich., and the U.S. National Development Program to the people he was surrounded by.
“One thing that helped was that my best buddy from back home, Jason Ryznar, got picked for the same team, too,” he said. “I think that helped a ton. If I hadn’t known anyone, it would have been a lot tougher. On top of that, I had a housing family that was fantastic. I got really lucky.”
“[Our interaction] was limited at first because our teams were split up and he was a year older,” said Sterling. “But he is a funny guy and outgoing and was kind of just always there, joking around and having a good time. When we did hang out with the guys that were older than us, he was one of the first to include us.”
In the fall of 2002, the duo set off for Colorado College (CC), based in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Crabb felt right back at home.
“I loved it,” Crabb said. “That was a big reason why I went there. You can’t foresee the future, but the guys I was there with were another reason – Sterling, [former Wolves left wing] Colin Stuart and [Lake Erie Monsters center] Marty Sertich. I still keep in touch with everyone; they are a great group of guys.
“One thing that I appreciated about CC is that they recruit not only good players, but good people,” he continued. “I think that that is why we did well there – because we were a team.”
Crabb, who was selected by the New York Rangers in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, found himself without an NHL contract at graduation. Fortunately for the Wolves, the Thrashers quickly picked him up as a free agent, and Crabb joined Sterling in Atlanta for camp.
“It has been unbelievable to have someone to go through this with that I have been friends with for so long,” said Sterling. “We played in our first NHL preseason game together and we both have gotten to play in the NHL. It is just nice to share those moments with someone you consider a friend.”
Like anyone who had the dream of playing in the NHL, Crabb hopes to get another opportunity in the big leagues, but that doesn’t take away from his love of playing for the Wolves.
“If I am going to be in the AHL anywhere for four years, you can’t ask for a better place than Chicago,” he said. “This has been my home. It helps a ton that the organization and the people that run and coach it – from [former Head Coach] Johnny Anderson to [current Head Coach] Don Lever – are great guys and treat us well. It has been enjoyable every year.
“On top of that, we have had a core group of guys in Chicago this whole time. You don’t see that much in the pros. It is almost like another college atmosphere, and it is my fourth year, so I must be a senior!” Crabb joked.
Having lived close to each other for the last three years, and been roommates before that, Crabb and Sterling can’t imagine not being together next season. Although they joke that one won’t sign without the other, it would be tough not having the consistency that they provide for one another.
Crabb’s goal for the remainder of the season is exactly that: consistency. After a slow start to the year, the right wing exploded for 12 goals and 26 points from Jan. 10 to Feb. 21 and has already surpassed his previous career bests. Although he attributes a lot of his recent success to his linemates, Tim Stapleton and Matt Anderson, he just wants to keep it going.
“I have got to keep it up,” Crabb said. “I didn’t start picking up my season until I was put on a line with Anderson and Stapleton, but those guys have made a world of difference. One thing about our line that has been great is if one guy might be off one night, then another guy definitely steps it up. I just want to be consistent, and hopefully I can help my linemates, help the team and keep going.”
Crabb also attributes the change in his season to his hockey roots.
“I went back home for Christmas this year, and I really think that is when things turned around for me,” he explained. “I went out to the outdoor ice a couple of times with my buddies and my family, and found my moves and confidence again.”
The Christmas break seemed to be the remedy, not just for Crabb, but for the team as a whole. Crabb just hopes to continue doing his part for the team, proving that he belongs right where he has always dreamed
he would be.