If coach Glen Gulutzan could create the ultimate Wranglers player, the finished product would resemble Las Vegas left wing Steve Crampton.
“He’s a foundation block for us, in our identity and how we approach hockey games,” Gulutzan said. ”He’s a great team guy, a character, a hard worker. He cares, and he plays a well-rounded game. He can fight, he can score, he can make plays, and he’s a player that will be very, very hard to replace.”
Crampton led the Wranglers in penalty minutes with 131 and was second on the team with 62 points this season.
The only numbers Crampton cares about, though, are wins and losses.
“I always like to be one of the guys in there helping us get the wins,” Crampton said. “I take a lot of pride in that role. … I try to stay positive, although it gets emotional out there sometimes.”
Crampton, a blue-collar player, is known around the Wranglers for his leadership abilities. He’s an alternate captain.
“He’s very intense, and he might be our most vocal guy,” Gulutzan said. “He backs up what he says, and that’s what leaders are made of.”
Crampton, 25, said he developed his intensity playing youth hockey in his native Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“In minor hockey in Winnipeg, you’re taught to play pretty tough,” he said. “You’re always told don’t stay down unless your leg’s broken. After a while, it’s a pride thing, and you’ve just got to play like that.
“I’ve never been the greatest skater, so I make sure I take care of the little things — winning battles in the corners and making sure I go into the tough areas.”
Despite Crampton’s ECHL success, the 2000 eighth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins has played in only 11 games in the American Hockey League.
“It’s been very frustrating,” he said. “I’ve always been knocked for my skating, but when I get up there (in the AHL) I feel fine on the ice.”
Wranglers defenseman Mike McBain, who has played in the NHL, compared Crampton to former NHL star Cam Neely.
“He can score, he can fight, he can hit. He can do a little bit of everything,” McBain said. “He’s one of those guys you can’t replace. … The stuff he does get comes from hard work, going to the net and going to hard places.”
One hard place where Crampton went to work this year was on the forehead of Stockton’s Jason Beckett during the Wranglers’ 12th win in their current ECHL record 17-game win streak.
On his way to a “Gordie Howe hat trick” — a goal, an assist and a fight — Crampton landed a hard right, square on the forehead of Beckett, who left the ice for treatment while blood gushed over his face.
“It was like someone smacking a watermelon out there,” McBain said. “It was a good one, and we could hear it 15 to 20 feet away, and I’m sure some of the fans could hear it probably halfway up the stands.”
Crampton also held his own this season against Idaho’s Jeremy Yablonski, a former six-time Canadian Golden Gloves champion.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to go out and challenge guys to prove I’m tough,” Crampton said. “I play on emotion, and if I’m upset, it just happens.
“It’s kind of bad to say, but it’s a good feeling when some other guy is trying to beat you up and you catch him good. It’s fun, as long as you don’t get hurt.”
Crampton also usually hits the target on the golf course, where he qualified for two junior national tournaments in Canada and is nearly a scratch golfer.
“People say I have a slap shot-looking swing,” Crampton said.
Crampton, who had a goal and four assists in the Wranglers’ four-game sweep of Phoenix in the National Conference quarterfinals, likes the Wranglers’ chances to capture the Kelly Cup.
“There’s no reason we can’t do it, but it’s not going to be an easy road,” he said. “The next series will be 10 times tougher than the first one, and after that it will get tougher and tougher.”
• NOTES — The Wranglers added Kelly Czuy to their playoff roster and placed Sean O’Connor on the 30-day injured reserve.
“Now everyone’s here and we’re healthy,” Gulutzan said.
The Wranglers’ opponent in the National Conference semifinals is undetermined. They’ll play the lowest remaining seed from the Idaho-Stockton and Bakersfield-Fresno series.Las Vegas Wranglers