The 2016-17 season was looking to be the stuff of dreams for a 29-year old Cody Bass. In what was the start of his tenth professional playing season he was making the Opening Night roster as an NHL player for the first time in his career. That story looked to be an awfully good one out of the first puck drop. It quickly turned into a season to forget.
It’s easy in retrospect to gawk at the fact that the Nashville Predators placed Austin Watson on waivers to begin the 2016-17 season and instead kept Bass on their NHL roster. Watson went unclaimed on waivers, was assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals, recorded a goal in 3 games in the AHL, and was returned on recall during the infamous “Food Poisoning” game on 10/22/16. That game was played at the Bridgestone Arena against the Pittsburgh Penguins and ended up being an appropriate opening and closing chapter for Watson’s season as he would go on to play the best season of his career: 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists) in 77 games with the Predators and then 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists) in 22 games during their run to the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals – played against the Penguins. So, why Bass over Watson to start the season? Well, why was it so shocking when a recall batch of names such as Watson, Frédérick Gaudreau, Harry Zolnierczyk, and Juuse Saros were able to defeat the Penguins when most were able to do the same feat seventh months later? Answer: You didn’t know Watson was capable of doing that then. But you did know a more experienced Bass could provide a workman-like consistent and reliable job on a nightly basis. Bass was the comfortable and safe option at the time. Watson wasn’t where the Predators hoped he would be. Though, in making that choice, they may have sparked a flame within Watson to get him to the point where both wanted him to be. Again, something easier realized in retrospect.
For Bass, a native of Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada, he was finally starting a season off in a place that he always wanted to be. And it had only taken the 29-year old nine-seasons of work to get there: 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 66 games in the NHL, 98 points (41 goals, 57 assists) in 370 games in the AHL, and -more brutally- a combined 102 fighting majors earned (88 fights in the AHL, 14 fights in the NHL). That total for fighting majors doesn’t even include his 17 fights during the pre-season when enforcers, grinders, and scrappers are all trying so hard to make a big impression and set a tone for the season that follows. Nor does it account for the 2 fights he had during the 2013 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs as a member of the Springfield Falcons. When you put it all together, including the 3 fights he had with the Predators and 2 fights he had with the Admirals in the 2016-17 season, that is a total of 126 fighting majors over a decade’s worth of hockey. You can understand and respect just why Bass’ is willing and open to talking about a concussion history when knowing the brand of hockey he plays. He’s old school. He would have fit in during the NHL era when helmets were optional or didn’t even exist yet.
The issue of late with players of that cut these days is that it is an area of the game that is dying or -at least- being radically altered to the point that those who drop the gloves need a far greater array of skills. Bass does have those skills. He is an excellent face-off man that makes him flexible as a center and winger. He checks hard but is also very intelligent in the way he defends which makes him a quality mind for penalty killing efforts. And, offensively, he can go right to the net and work in the dirty areas without getting shoved aside easily. It took lots and lots of doing to get all of those attributes to the point that it was all NHL caliber but that’s what the lessons learned in the AHL are about: improvement and refinement.
Once Watson returned to the Predators in late-October it was evident that he was game to get on the same page as Bass for the role that he was providing. Watson had been in the organization for four-seasons leading up to the 2016-17 season and only had 3 fighting majors to his name. In fact, it was widely amusing for the Admirals locker room during the 2014-15 season when he did start dropping the gloves for the first time. Magnus Hellberg joking said, “He’s a heavyweight now. He’s a big fighter. People have to look out for him. He’s coming for them.” He fought once the whole of the 2015-16 season which was the first of his NHL career. Yet, after seeing Bass stay in the NHL and himself falling through waivers unclaimed all the way back to the Admirals, Watson dropped the gloves in the second game of the Admirals season before getting recalled and recording 13 fighting majors with the Predators. Message sent. Message received. And Watson’s time with the AHL was left in the past as he would storm to a career best season that also saw him shining his brightest once the playoffs started.
The Watson element left the Predators with a rather obvious choice once Bass was becoming regularly scratched. Bass was placed on waivers, went unclaimed, and was reassigned to the Admirals at the end of November. By that point he simply wanted to play.
“It was nice to make a team out of camp but I had a hard time kind of finding my role there,” Bass commented following his first AHL game of the 2016-17 season on 11/25/15 in Rockford. “I think it proved with the minutes and the games that I played. And I needed to play some hockey. So, they sent me down and I’m pumped. I’m excited to be here and part of this group. I loved it here last year. We had a good group last year. We’ve got a great group this year – a bunch of leaders, bunch of veteran guys, good coaches, good organization from the owners right down. I’m happy. I said it last year in an interview I had. I said, “I’m happy to be in Nashville and I’m happy to be in Milwaukee.” It’s hard to find that. So, I’m extremely happy.”
Bass suited up for 12 further games with the Admirals following that quote. It was that final game that made what was such a special season into such a sour one. On 12/28/16 the Admirals were playing their second game following the Christmas break. They were playing against the Iowa Wild at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. In the second period, right in front of the Admirals bench, Bass was caught in a quick race on a 50-50 puck when he clashed legs and dropped to the ice in pain. He soldiered off the ice and was then helped down the locker room tunnel to be further examined. Bass had suffered a severe hamstring injury that would require surgery. The process after surgery would force him to be stationary for a long time as the muscle groups affected were in a weakened state. And then came extensive physical therapy to strengthen the hamstring, the leg, making sure the opposite leg wasn’t taking a beating while compensating for damage on the other side, and to get his body back up to speed after being at a stand still for as long as he was out. For all that looked to be going better than it ever had before: that was the end of Bass’ 2016-17 season.
“The way my year started, for me, was the best I’ve had in my career,” said Bass in the final month of the 2016-17 regular season. I finally make the NHL team out of camp. And then I get sent down, which getting sent down was fine. I needed to come down and play games, get back in shape, and I think my game was at a good place where I think I was close to getting a chance to going back up again. And then it just ended. It was a fluke. I get a game suspension, comeback, fluke injury, fluke position, and that’s hockey. Mentally it was tough. I had a really, really hard six-weeks post-surgery. I just realized there was nothing I could do and I’ve got to find a way to be positive.”
How does one find a positive way to spin being dealt such a rough hand? Work. Bass worked to get back to the ice. And he accomplished doing just that by the end of the 2016-17 season as he was well beyond his initial expectations for a comeback and started skating on his own at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and then started ratcheting up into doing minor drills with the team during the 2017 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs.
“It’s been a long year,” smiled Bass following his first skate post-surgery. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen. Basically, I was written off after my injury. For me to be back here with the guys and hanging out and getting in a 20-minute skate with the guys means everything to me right now.”
Bass will turn 31-years old at the midway stage of the upcoming 2017-18 season. It will be his eleventh professional playing season and third as a member of the Predators organization. For as depressive as last season was for him after starting so well what Bass will be for the upcoming season could be very interesting to watch. Bass has been a war horse throughout his hockey career and puts his body through a tremendous amount of wear through the way in which he plays. The next moment he suits up and takes the ice for a competitive contest will be the first game he will have played in 2017. He is rested, repaired, and ready. Bass is the sort of player and person that you can already really tell what he can provide. His leadership qualities around the locker room are phenomenal and he back up his off-ice presence with hard work every shift. He may never have started a season in his professional career more fresh or healthy. And that could be something that can be visible when the games start in October.
Bass should start this coming season with the Admirals who already have their team captain from last season, Trevor Smith, returning. The Admirals will also have veteran forward -and 2014-15 Rockford IceHogs teammate to Bass- Pierre-Cédric Labrie introduced to the group. Jimmy Oligny, who also missed the end of last season due to injury, will return to the Admirals and be the more veteran presence of that group. It would feel one of the biggest strengths of last season’s Admirals, its leadership qualities, isn’t going to miss a beat. Bass coming back after what he experienced a season ago only strengthens that role for the AHL locker room.
What also should not be lost in Bass’ story for the 2016-17 season is how it started: in the NHL. For as turbulent as it quickly became the Predators organization thought highly enough of Bass as a player and a person to cement him into their roster to start a season. We’re not even one-year past that moment happening. If there are any stories I enjoy writing about on Admirals Roundtable it is capturing those moments that only the AHL could truly provide. Gaudreau going from undrafted, to the ECHL, to an NHL contract, to an NHL debut, to scoring goals in the Stanley Cup Finals. Mark Van Guilder and Mike Liambas battling for years on end to so much as play a single game in the NHL to say they were NHL players. Bass is an NHL player who was dealt a difficult setback last season. What a redemption story it would be to see him turn-around and get back.
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