BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
When Erik Burgdoerfer left Bakersfield at the end of last season and headed back to his home in New York, he pretty much felt his playing days in Bakersfield were over.
He had played nowhere else in his three years of professional hockey, but after two straight sub-par seasons, he had a sour taste in his mouth.
When new coach Troy Mann took over the team in June, getting Burgdoerfer back in the fold was a top priority for him.
It was anything but an easy sale.
"It was a battle, man, a 100-percent battle," Mann said.
"It was very, very difficult for me to say that was the best way to go with my career, coming back and doing the same thing," said Burgdoerfer, 25. "When you've done the same thing for a couple of years and it hasn't turned out the way you wanted it to you certainly should consider all options, so I'd say everything was on the table."
The only player from last season's roster that Mann had any knowledge about was Burgdoerfer.
Mann was an AHL assistant coach in Hershey, Penn., last season and due to call-ups and injuries the team needed a right-shot defenseman.
"I had called (Idaho coach) Brad Ralph, who I was close to, and he thought the best right shot-D was Burgdoerfer. We were ready to call him when all of a sudden, we got a D down from Washington. That was February or March of last year. If he was catching Ralphie's eye, he was legit."
It took until August, but Mann's sales pitch finally paid off.
"What the new regime here, if you will, sold me on was it's not a new team; it's like getting traded," Burgdoerfer said. "It's just that you're used to the place you live and the building and the fan support.
"It took a little while this summer. I'm not going to lie. I love playing for the fans here, but it was tough for me to legitimize coming back here as a step forward so after a lot of conversation here I am and I'm pretty happy with the decision."
That's because for the first time since Burgdoerfer's rookie season in 2010-11, the Condors (36-30-2-4) have a winning record and are headed to the ECHL playoffs.
Burgdoerfer said the product Mann was selling turned out to be as good as advertised.
"It's another level, a lot more professional," he said. "You can tell there's more of a commitment to win by the organization. It was a big relief seeing that coming in. We talked about it, but sometimes talk can be just talk. It was very good to see."
Despite the changes, the team got off to the worst start in franchise history at 1-10-1.
"I'm sure when we were 1-10-1 he might have been questioning (the decision to return) a little," Mann said. "Not so much what we were doing but, he might have been thinking, 'Geez, what did I get myself into.'"
Not so, said Burgdoerfer, an alternate captain, who went on to score a career high 11 goals and 22 points this season and had the best plus-minus rating -- a plus 15 -- of any player who was with the Condors for the 1-10-1 start.
"I'm sure everyone had that little panic button in their head, thinking about pressing," Burgdoerfer said. "Maybe some for the fans a bit, maybe the media. But for me, being on teams that were legitimately not competitive the past couple of years, you could see the difference.
"We had the talent, we had the ability. It was just a matter of gelling and getting it to click. It was more frustration rather than hitting the panic button in my head. We needed to come together as a group and get some mojo going so there was just a little bit of frustration. But I wasn't disappointed in my decision because we started off slow."
Nearly a dozen players were released or traded during the first 16 games and others signed as Mann scrambled to find the right fit of players.
"Give (Burgdoerfer) some credit as part of the leadership group that kept things together as we recruited on the fly and changed things around," Mann said.
On Nov. 27, the Condors began to right the ship. From that point to March 4, they had the best record in the league at 24-10-2-2.
They hit a rough 10-game stretch after that, going 3-7 when they were short-handed during a tight stretch of games, then won six straight down the stretch -- their longest winning streak this season -- before losing their final regular-season game.
Those early losses developed resolve and the rest of the season built confidence, attributes the Condors can use in the playoffs, Burgdoerfer said.
"'You take the way we played when were successful," he said of the mindset going into the playoffs. "We know we can play that way, We now we can string a lot of wins together. You go in with the confidence of knowing you can win consistently."
And about that decision to come back to Bakersfield?
"To be honest, it was a breath of fresh air to be on a winning team and be a part of something going in the right direction. 'Personally, numbers wise, it was a good season. But more for me it was being part of a winner again and having that feeling of going every night and knowing we have a chance to win. A breath of fresh air for me really."