Erik Condra, like millions of others, watched the 2020 Stanley Cup Final between the Lightning and Stars from his couch.
Yet a number of the players Condra watched in the Final were there in small part due to his mentorship.
Indeed, from 2016 to 2018, Condra — his days as a reliable bottom-six NHL forward behind him — played for the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. Then in 2018-19, Condra moved on to the Texas Stars, the Stars’ AHL affiliate. He was a productive scorer on those teams, but he was mainly there to teach and look after both franchises’ top prospects on their journeys up to the NHL.
Out of the millions of viewers, likely only Condra could claim that level of influence.
“I felt like a proud dad,” he said. “Playing in the minors, I didn’t think some of them were going to make it right at the start of the year. But they ended up becoming really good players and growing in their development, and some of them were very impactful in winning the Stanley Cup.”
Condra, 34, now hopes to continue that remarkable golden touch with the Blackhawks, who hired him as a player development coach on November 23 — the same day he officially announced retirement from his playing career.
He joins an excellent Hawks player development department loaded with former NHL players.
Mark Eaton, who played 650 games as a defenseman for the Flyers, Predators, Penguins and Islanders from 1999 to 2012, was recently promoted to department head.
Brian Campbell, who played 1,082 games as a defenseman from 1999 to 2017 and was a key part of the Hawks’ 2010 Cup team, works closely developing prospects with the AHL Rockford IceHogs. He took on a bigger role this past season, spending 35 games behind the bench.
Yanic Perreault, who played 859 games as a center for the Maple Leafs, Kings, Canadiens, Predators, Coyotes and Hawks from 1993 to 2008, works most often with IceHogs forwards. Chris Kunitz, who played 1,022 games as a left wing — most famously with the Penguins — from 2003 to 2019, helps young players already on the Hawks’ NHL roster.
“We all bring different skill sets and mindsets to the organization, but we’re all fighting for the same thing,” Condra said. “[We’re] supporting each other and also giving our specific ways that we came up and roles that we played. The more you hear the same thing from different voices, the more the young guys start to believe it.”
Condra himself played 372 NHL games as a right wing, primarily for the Senators, from 2010 to 2019.
The Notre Dame alumnus was never a star, offensively topping out at 25 points in 2011-12, but served a valuable role as a defensive forward and penalty-killing specialist.
“I got the most out of the skill I had,” he said. “That accomplishment of my first game in Ottawa was amazing. All of a sudden, I blinked and it was 11 years later and almost 400 games in the NHL and just as many in the AHL. It flies by but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
As he transitions moving forward from player to coach, he’ll receive plenty of advice from the other members of the department who have made similar transitions, including Campbell.
“It’s fairly natural,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of things to learn: how to deal and handle expectations, timelines of how [prospects] develop... But if you ask a lot of questions, you learn from a lot of people, and then you figure those things out.”
Condra will work most closely with the Hawks’ forward prospects — opposing Eaton, who works most closely with the Hawks’ defensive prospects. He’s technically replacing Derek Plante, who left the Hawks in July to become associate head coach at Minnesota-Duluth.
If he can do to those prospects anything close to what he did with the Lightning and Stars’ prospects, the future Hawks will be in great shape.
In Syracuse, Condra mentored the likes of Anthony Cirelli, Mitchell Stephens, Mathieu Joseph and Carter Verhaeghe, all of whom played significantly for the Lightning in 2019-20. Cirelli finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting for the league’s best defensive forward.
And in Texas, Condra played some with both Denis Gurianov, who emerged as a breakout star in the 2020 playoffs, and Roope Hintz.
“I tried to take those guys under my wing,” Condra said. “You see how good of a player Cirelli was; he was always going to turn into that. But some of these guys come into the AHL and they think it’s going to be easy because they’re good players, but the first 15 to 20 games, they really struggle. You just have to get their confidence back and help them along the way, which I tried to do.”
Both Condra and Campbell said one of the most important lessons to impart on young players is patience. The majority of NHL players spent several years in the minor leagues before eventually breaking through; in fact, Condra and Campbell themselves are living proof of it.
But when the breakthrough finally arrives, the feelings of joy and validation are contagious. Condra has experienced that secondhand satisfaction an incredible number of times already as a player-coach, and he expects it to be the most rewarding part of doing the latter role full-time.
“The biggest thing for me is building a relationship with these young kids so they trust you and so they take the ownership of their careers into their own hands,” he said. “When you see that happen, and they send texts or ‘thank you’-s, or you see them raise the Cup, that means the most.”