Gwinnett Gladiators' Michael Forney (77) fights for position in front of Greenville Road Warriors' Chris Chappell (18) and goalie Dov Grumet-Morris in a game earlier this season.
Raw is a fair way to describe how Michael Forney looked in his first few weeks as a pro hockey player.
Barely more than a year later, he was one of the guys pulling the Gwinnett Gladiators out of the worst slump in franchise history.
Forney, a 2006 draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, came to Gwinnett as a rookie out of the United States Hockey League, not the upper echelon of junior hockey. And even though Forney had played parts of two seasons with the perennially powerful University of North Dakota program, he looked out of his depth when he arrived in Gwinnett last fall.
“The thing was, the best thing about him, is he accepted it,” Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. “He knew he was raw.”
Forney averaged a point per game in his last season of junior A hockey for the Green Bay Gamblers. But he went 11 games without a point and 21 games without a goal as a rookie assigned to Gwinnett last year.
“It was definitely an adjustment period from junior hockey,” Forney said. “It was definitely a good learning experience. Jeff taught me a lot. It’s great having a coach like that with so much experience.”
Pyle worked Forney into a regular shift and as his ice time increased, so did his level of play.
“I think it was just a confidence thing and it’s a big jump from Junior A to pro,” said Pat Galivan, his linemate now and also a rookie on last year’s team. “It’s a little bit easier coming from college because the guys are bigger and faster.
“But just once he got a chance to get some playing time, you could see how much skill he had.”
There was never any question Forney had the talent. He was drafted in the third round, so obviously someone saw something in him. It was just a matter of developing it.
The biggest thing was making him an all-around player.
“He knows the game, he’s coachable,” Pyle said. “He’s willing to learn and I think the biggest thing was his mind-set.
“Halfway through the season he started doing the dirty work, the little things well and he got successful.”
Pyle put him on a line with Tim Miller and Matt Francis, both first-year players out of the college ranks.
“Coach told us we were all young guys, all rookies and we should just play simple,” Forney said. “Get pucks deep and generate offense. Once we bought into that we gelled.”
Forney got a little off track again at the end of the season as the Gladiators’ playoff hopes died and Pyle had some concerns when he coached him in the Thrashers’ July prospect development camp.
“He was doing some stuff that, if it works, it’s looks great,” Pyle said. “But if it doesn’t, now you’re a turnover. You start giving them reasons to not keep you.
“That’s why I try to get on their side and put some pressure on them to quiet the critics. You do that, now you have a legit beef of why you aren’t going up — or are going up.”
Forney started this season with AHL Chicago, but was assigned to Gwinnett on Oct. 27.
“With the team we had, I thought he had a good start,” Pyle said. “But again, just not overly committed and kind of to where he liked being here. He was doing things as a bit of a leader, but wasn’t quite ready to step up as THE leader.”
The Gladiators were at the top of the ECHL standings at the end of November, but went into a free-fall in December. They were winless in a record 11 straight games until breaking out of the streak on Jan. 6 on the road against league-leading Greenville.
“The last three weeks, I challenged all the (NHL and AHL) contracted guys and told them they are supposed to be our best players, our leaders,” Pyle said. “They send my message, they work the hardest, they are the best in systems and every cliche I could throw at them.
“He and Gali stepped up. And Miller.”
Forney had two assists in the slump-busting win over Greenville. He followed that up by scoring twice, including the game-winner on a set-up from Miller with less than six minutes left in regulation, the next night to again beat the Road Warriors.
“You could see the difference in Forns’ game the last three weeks,” Pyle said. “I’m not saying he’s got to be a bruiser. He’s got to be physical when he needs to be and he’s got to use his brains to keep himself out of situations where he can get run. Just use his skills thinking the game to his advantage more.
“A lot of guys, they’ve got all the skills in the world, but they don’t know how to use it or when to use it.”
Forney has 11 points in the last eight games and Gwinnett is 5-1-1-1.
“He’s got a great shot,” Galivan said. “I try to set him up as much as possible. Every time I do he seems to put it in the back of the net.
“I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. He deserves everything he’s gotten. It’s taken a lot of work for him to climb up the ladder, but he’s done it.”
Forney didn’t get the break the rest of the team did this week. He returned from a call-up to Chicago just hours before the Gladiators game Sunday afternoon and the next day was on a flight to California to represent Gwinnett in the All-Star Game. He had a pair of assists in the ECHL’s rout of host Bakersfield and then returned to the team in time for this weekend’s road trip to Kalamazoo.
But Forney was happy to be picked and Pyle certainly likes what he’s seen from the Minnesotan.
“The last three games have been probably the best from the standpoint of his showing the leadership to pull us out the trouble we were in,” Pyle said. “All the fans have seen the effort, it’s kind of been by everybody, but we’re riding the coattails with him and Gali and Millsie. Its kind of rubbing off on everybody.
“The last three games, he’s found a way to be a leader in every aspect. That’s all I wanted out of him.”