Surprises Abound at SHL Awards

At the SHL’s sixth annual awards banquet, Commissioner Perry Mitchell handed out trophies honoring the league’s best players and coaches.  As usual, the awards were chosen based on votes from SHL players, coaches, and media.

The commissioner noted that this will be his last banquet, as he will be stepping down from his position during the offseason.  But he is pleased with the way the league has grown under his watch.  “In seven years, we’ve gone from 8 teams to 14, we’ve added a minor league circuit, and we’ve shared enough wild stories and epic showdowns to last a lifetime.  Keep it weird, my friends.”

The 2021 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: C Alain Beauchesne, Boston Badgers

The biggest award of the night was a significant upset.  C Calvin Frye of the Hamilton Pistols won this award last season, and he was widely expected to repeat this time around, since he led the league in points and led the Pistols on an emotional come-from-behind ride to capture the division and make the SHL Finals for the third straight season.

However, in a narrow vote, the voters snubbed Frye and picked the 23-year-old Beauchesne instead.  It was a turnaround of sorts for the Terrebonne native; two years ago, he was the heavy favorite for Rookie of the Year, but lost out to Kansas City’s Bastien Chouinard.  This time, the voters chose to honor Beauchesne’s starring role in leading the Badgers to their first-ever playoff berth.  He led the team in goals with 29 and tied for the team lead in points with 62.  Both figures placed him within the SHL’s top ten, and he finished with the same number of goals as Frye.

“Even with all the old guys on our team, Alain stands out as a leader,” said Badgers coach Kyle Barrow.  “He’s a tremendously capable shooter, he can hold his own on D, and he just gives us a tremendous dynamic spark.  I’m really looking forward to building our future around him.”

Besides Frye, other MVP finalists included his Pistols teammate Steven Alexander, Anchorage’s Jerry Koons, and Hershey’s Justin Valentine.

Rookie of the Year: D Laszlo Cierny, Anchorage Igloos

Cierny’s selection as the year’s top rookie represents a first of sorts.  In past years, this award has always gone to a player chosen at or near the top of that year’s entry draft.  Cierny’s story, however, is a bit different.

The blueliner was taken by Anchorage in the 2019 draft, and has spent the last couple of seasons with their affiliate in Minnesota.  This season, the Igloos had significant turnover in their defensive corps, having lost three veterans to free agency, and Cierny got his first shot at the SHL level.  He proved more than equal to the challenge, and voters gave him the nod in a divided field.

The 22-year-old Czech-born defenseman led all rookie blueliners with 27 points (5 goals, 22 assists).  He was no slouch on the defensive end, either, recording 116 blocks, a +23 rating, and a 51.0 Corsi-for percentage.

“With three rookies on D, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “But all of them did a heck of a job, and Laz in particular.  He definitely didn’t look like a rookie out there; he was disciplined, smart, and played with controlled aggression.  We lost some really strong guys to free agency, but thanks to Laz, we didn’t miss a beat.”

Others receiving votes included Cierny’s teammate Brian Coldivar, Saskatchewan C Trent Harlow, Milwaukee RW Quincy Mondile, Washington LW Heath Forbert, and Kansas City D Trevor Lockwood.

Coach of the Year: Rodney Reagle, Milwaukee Growlers

For much of the year, it looked like this award would belong to Ron Wright, the ex-Michigan coach who took over a floundering Hershey team in midseason and spurred them to the top of the division in a matter of weeks.  But after the Bliss just missed out on a postseason berth at the end of the season, the voters bypassed Wright and tapped Reagle instead.

The Growlers relocated from Dakota this season, and with Reagle as their new bench boss, they surged 18 points in the standings, going from a last-place tie in 2020 to making the first playoff appearance in franchise history this year.

“Honestly, I have to credit the voters for being so open-minded,” said Reagle.  “I would have figured they’d take one look at a goofball who likes to play dress-up behind the bench and say, ‘No way are we giving an award to him.’  But you like me!  You really like me!  I also have to thank my wife for forbidding me from wearing my gold lame suit to this banquet.”

In addition to Reagle and Wright, others receiving votes were Boston’s Kyle Barrow (who won the award last year) and Hamilton’s Keith Shields.

Sharp Shooter Award: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols

The Sharp Shooter Award is one of two awards that is not given out base on the outcome of a vote.  Instead, the honor is awarded to the player who finishes the season with the highest goal total.  Alexander ran away with this award, finishing the 2021 season with 43 goals, six ahead of Hershey’s Valentine.

Surprisingly, although Alexander has long been one of the league’s top scorers, this is the first time he has ever captured the Sharp Shooter.  (He had come in second for the award each of the five times it was awarded previously.)  His teammate Frye captured the honor last season.

Alexander dedicated the award to his teammate and longtime friend, RW Claude Lafayette, who spent most of the season recovering from a major car accident.  “I really wanted to bring another Vandy home for Claude,” said the winger.  “We didn’t quite get there, but we fought as hard as we could.”

Commissioner’s Trophy: C Calvin Frye, Hamilton Pistols

Similar to the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy is not awarded based on the result of a vote.  Instead, the award goes to the player who finishes with the highest point total.  For the first time since 2018, the award wasn’t split between players, as Frye was the single recipient.

Although the Pistols center narrowly missed out on the MVP award this time around, he is certainly not lacking for hardware.  Last season, Frye won both the MVP and the Sharp Shooter Award, having led the league in goals that season.  In 2016, he won the league’s inaugural Rookie of the Year Award.

In a season where there weren’t a ton of gaudy point totals, Frye’s 74 points in 56 games was enough to gain him the trophy, finishing four points ahead of Kansas City’s Bengt Frederiksson.

Like Alexander, Frye said that he would much preferred winning the Vandy for the third straight year.  “I know this award goes to an individual, but it really reflects our performance as a team,” said Frye.  “I couldn’t have done this without having great linemates like Alex and Waldo [Miranda].  And I can’t wait to be skating next to Claude again next year!”

Goalie of the Year: Ty Worthington, Anchorage Igloos

There was a time when it seemed like this award would belong to Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist in perpetuity.  But Lundquist has declined somewhat in recent seasons, opening the field to other contenders.  This season, he posted the worst numbers by far of his career.  With Lundquist out of contention, voters gave the award to Worthington for the second straight year in a close vote over Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen.

The choice between Worthington and Koskinen came down to a question of statistical value.  Koskinen posted a 30-15-2 record, leading the league in wins.  Worthington’s 23-19-4 record was less impressive on the surface, but the underlying stats argued in his favor: he had a lower goals-against average (2.38 vs. 2.75) and a higher save percentage (.922 vs. .915) than his Finnish-born rival.  (He also beat Koskinen head-to-head in the Finals, but awards voting closed before the postseason began, so that was not taken into account.)

In his acceptance speech, Worthington dedicated his award to the LGBTQ+ community.  The Igloos netminder came out as bisexual last summer, and he is the league’s only openly LGBTQ player.  (Boston coach Barrow is openly gay; he was voted Coach of the Year last season.)

“I didn’t know how it would go, being out in professional sports,” said Worthington.  “But my teammates, our front office, and our fans have been super supportive.  If there’s another player out there, whether in the pros or in college or in junior or wherever, who’s thinking about coming out: Do it. I promise it gets better.”

Other vote-getters included Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen, Hershey’s Nash Gould, and Boston’s Riley Lattimore.

Defenseman of the Year: Gary Hermine, Kansas City Smoke

In a year of unexpected award winners, Hermine may be the most unexpected of all.  The 23-year-old has been a solid blueliner for the Smoke for several seasons now, but he is rarely regarded as one of the league’s elite defensemen.  And while Kansas City posted the best record in its short history, the Smoke’s success was powered by its high-flying offense, not by its defense. (Kansas City allowed an average of 34.6 shots per game, third-worst in the league.)

And yet, it was Hermine who finished the season with the most blocks in the SHL, an astounding 169 in total.  (The Smoke as a team recorded the league’s second-fewest blocked shots; Hermine had more than a sixth of them.)  He finished with a +12 rating on a team that posted a collective -15.  And in spite for throwing himself in front of so many shots, Hermine played in all 64 games and posted the typically strong offensive numbers (10 goals, 37 assists) for which he is more commonly known.

“When I showed up at the banquet tonight, I kind of expected they wouldn’t let me in,” said Hermine. “Like, ‘Who are you?  You’re nobody famous.’  And that’s true, I’m not.  But this award shows that even if you’re just a guy and you’re not on a playoff team, if you work hard enough, you can get recognition for that.  That means a lot to me.”

Hermine edged out Boston’s Matt Cherner for the honor.  Others in contention included Hamilton’s Raymond Smyth and Hercules Mulligan and Anchorage’s Rudolf Kerasov.

CHL Update: Redline Down Centurions to Win Crown in New Town

The Indianapolis Redline have undergone a number of changes this season.  They moved to a new city, as did their parent club (formerly the Dakota Rapids, now the Milwaukee Growlers).  But the core of their roster was the same group that won the last two CHL titles in Idaho.  The Redline continued their winning ways in this year’s Finals, downing the Cleveland Centurions in 6 games to bring the Howard Trophy to their new hometown.

“It feels great to be on top again!” said Redline LW Terry Cresson, one of several players who has been with the team for all three titles.  “We’re starting to get good at this.”

The Finals matchup presented a battle of contrasting styles.  The Redline were the CHL’s top-scoring team, while Cleveland has the same suffocating defense that the parent Michigan Gray Wolves made famous.  “Whichever team drives the pace of play is going to have the upper hand in this series,” said Indianapolis coach Tony Hunt.

The series opened in northeast Ohio in crumbling Cleveland Arena.  The Centurions got the early advantage, scoring three times in the first period and riding a shutout from goalie Eugene Looney to a 4-0 win.  The Redline were unfazed by the loss, however; they also dropped the first game of last year’s Finals before rolling to a victory. In Game 2, Indy was able to push the pace a bit, and they broke the game open late in the second period, as C Tanner Brooks, RW Britt Cadmium, and D Jay Brewster scored goals in the span of just over six minutes on their way to a 5-1 win that evened the series at a game apiece.

The action shifted to Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis for the middle three contests.  Game 3 was a bit of a slog, as the play was chippy and penalty-filled (11 infractions in all) and the teams combined for just 93 shot attempts.  The Redline did a better job getting their shots on target, and this time it was netminder Brooks Copeland who posted the shutout in a 5-0 laugher.  For Game 4, Indianapolis used its superior speed to make Cleveland look helpless, outshooting them 33-23 and scoring four times in the first on the way to a 9-2 shellacking that moved them one game away from the title.  Looney, the hero of Game 1, was now the goat as Centurions fans called for a switch to backup Jeff Bingley between the pipes.  Coach Blaine Thurmond stuck with his starter, saying: “He’s the one who got us here, and I believe in him.”

Looney rewarded his coach’s faith in Game 5, making a 26-stop performance in a 3-2 Centurion win to stave off elimination.  D Gil Calvert got the visitors fired up early, dropping the mitts with Redline D Andy Ruger less than four minutes into the game.  The charged-up Centurions promptly scored twice to take an early lead, but a pair of ill-advised penalties late in the first (including a high stick by Calvert) allowed Indy C Dale Wilcox to notch a pair of power-play markers to tie it up.  Fortunately for Cleveland, Calvert came through with the game-winner in the third period on a slapshot through traffic.

Back home for Game 6, Cleveland fought valiantly to extend the series, with LW Carl Bleyer scoring in the first period to give them the lead.  But the Redline managed to overwhelm the Centurions again with their speed.  RW Dylan Alizarin scored twice in the second period to give Indy a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.  In the third period, they outshot hapless Cleveland 16-5, with Cadmium adding an insurance goal down the stretch.  RW Steve Brandon gave the Centurions hope with a goal in the final minute, but they never found the equalizer and bowed out with a 3-2 loss.

For all the goals that the Redline scored in the series, choosing an MVP was somewhat challenging, since the scores were so well distributed: every Indianapolis player except D Clark Blanchard scored at least once.  The award ultimately went to Alizarin, for his game-winning heroics in the clincher.  The winger argued that he didn’t really deserve the honor: “I wish I could cut this trophy into 20 pieces and give one to each of my teammates, because this was a total team effort,” Alizarin said.

The Centurions now face some important questions heading into the offseason.  Owner Brad Pelwicki has stated he will move the team out of Cleveland unless significant upgrades are made to their ancient facility.  The league, however, has indicated that they want to keep the Centurions in town, and believes that Pelwicki lacks sufficient capital to run the team properly.  Thus far, no progress has been made toward upgrading Cleveland Arena, and Pelwicki has made no move to sell.  The players declined to comment on the arena situation in interviews during the Finals.

“The way I see it, sometime before New Year’s, they’ll tell us where we’re going to play, and I’ll show up and play there,” said Bleyer.  “If it’s somewhere that has hot water in the showers and where the lights work all the time, that would be awesome.”

Pistols Ready for What’s Next After Finals Loss

How disappointed should the Hamilton Pistols be after losing in the SHL Finals to the Anchorage Igloos and missing out on a shot at their third straight title?  There are two ways of looking at that question.

Claude Lafayette

On the one hand, the Pistols had been trying to win it all for RW Claude Lafayette, who missed most of the season after a life-threatening car accident.  To come so close to the title and fall just short was heartbreaking.  LW Steven Alexander, Lafayette’s longtime best friend and running mate, expressed his disappointment in his emotional postgame remarks after Hamilton’s Game 6 loss.

“I feel like I let my brother down,” said Alexander, who scored late in regulation of the Finals’ last game to force overtime but produced just one goal in the rest of the series.  “I really thought we were going to win this for Claude, show all the haters just how great we are.  But we couldn’t get it done.  I couldn’t get it done.  That hurts.”

That’s the glass-half-empty view.  The glass-half-full view is this: Despite being without one of their best players for virtually the entire season, the Pistols came within two games of winning another title.  Assuming that Lafayette returns at full strength, they will be the strong favorites to take the Vandy in 2022.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing not to win, but there’s no reason for us to hang our heads,” said coach Keith Shields.  “With one of our stars on the sideline, we rallied from a slow start and finished with the top record in the league.  We beat a tough team in the division round, even without our starting goalie for a couple games.  And then we faced a really strong veteran squad in the Finals, and we came a couple bad bounces from winning.  I’m proud of our season, even though we didn’t quite meet our ultimate goal.”

The Pistols’ optimism for next season hinges on a couple of key questions.  First of all, it’s not a given that Lafayette will return and play at his old level.  Even once it was clear that the winger would survive his injuries, there was some question of whether he would be able to walk unaided again, much less play hockey.  Lafayette’s rehabilitation has been ahead of schedule, and he was able to get around the locker room on a walker by the end of the regular season.  But he faces a long and grueling summer of rehabilitation in order to get back to game shape.

Shields is confident that the winger will be in the lineup come puck drop next season.  “Claude’s a tremendously determined guy,” said the coach.  “I have no doubt he’s going to be taking the ice for us on Opening Night, and that he’ll be 100 percent.”

In addition to the questions surrounding Lafayette’s health, Hamilton faces a rapidly improving Eastern Division.  There were four legitimate contenders for the division this season: the Pistols, the Boston Badgers, the Hershey Bliss, and the Quebec Tigres.  All of those teams should be back in the mix next season, and the New York Night might join them if they see a step forward from some of their young players.  The Pistols, meanwhile, will have to find a wayto keep their roster intact, given their limited cap space.  LW Magnus Gunnarson will demand a significant raise, and D Raymond Smyth and C Marco Venezio are also at the end of their current contracts.

In addition, Hamilton will face another step on their postseason journey next year.  With the league expanding to 14 teams with the addition of Baltimore and Salt Lake, the owners voted to expand the playoff field from 4 teams to 8.  Given the number of strong contenders in the East, that could make the Pistols’ path to the Finals considerably more challenging.  If the expanded field had been in place this season, Hamilton would have had to face a punishing first-round matchup with Quebec before taking on the winner of the Boston-Hershey series to make it out of the division.

“It’s not going to be a cakewalk to get through the East,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “We know that, and we’re ready for it.”

Those caveats aside, the Pistols will definitely be the team to beat in 2022.  “I’d rather be us than anybody else in the league going into next year,” said Shields.  Instead of trying to win a Vandy for Lafayette, Hamilton will be trying to win it with him.

“I appreciate that they were trying to bring it home for me,” said Lafayette.  “But honestly, I’d rather be out on the ice helping them earn it.  Next year, I will.”

Koons Chosen as Finals MVP

It’s hard to think of anyone on the Anchorage Igloos as underrated.  The six-time SHL finalists and now three-time champions have been covered heavily throughout the league’s history, and their players have become household names for almost every SHL fan.

If any Igloos player could be considered underrated, however, it’s LW Jerry Koons.  The winger has never been interested in being famous, and is generally overshadowed by his top-line running mates: C Jake Frost is widely known as the team’s top scorer, while RW Nicklas Ericsson is lauded for his deft passing.  In recent years, Koons has seemed on the verge of losing his spot on the top line to Les Collins.

Jerry Koons

Ask anyone in the Anchorage locker room, however, and they’ll happily explain that Koons is vital to the team’s success.  “Jerry is the heart of this team,” said Frost.  “I may be the one who gets the headlines most of the time, but it’s Koonsy who’s driving the machine.”

This year’s SHL Finals provided an unusual showcase for a player who tends to shun the spotlight.  Koons was the offensive linchpin for the Igloos as they won their first Vandy since 2018, and his scoring brilliance led the winger to be chosen as the 2021 Finals MVP.

“You couldn’t have found a more deserving player for this award,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “Jerry’s been our MVP for a long time, but now the rest of you get to see what we see.  We needed a hero, and Jerry stepped up and put the team on his back.”

Koons’ dominance was impossible to deny in this series.  He scored a total of seven goals, more than twice the total recorded by any of his teammates and over a third of the 18 goals that Anchorage recorded in this series.

In Game 1, the winger’s performance was one of the few bright spots in a 6-3 Igloos loss, as he scored twice.  In Game 2, he helped rally Anchorage from a 2-0 deficit, scoring the tying goal in the second period and adding an insurance tally in the third to seal a 5-2 victory.  In Game 3, Koons was the only player to get a puck behind Hamilton Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen, who stopped the other 39 Anchorage shots to preserve a 2-1 win.  In the pivotal Game 5, Koons had a hand in every Igloos goal, scoring twice and assisting on Rudolf Kerasov’s marker in a 3-1 triumph.

As he accepted the award, Koons struggled to balance the MVP trophy in one hand while holding his young daughter, 3-year-old Maddie, in his other arm.  His older daughter, 7-year-old Jessica, held on to his leg as he spoke.

Typically, Koons downplayed the award, saying that he would have voted for D Tony Citrone, whose hat trick clinched Anchorage’s 4-3 overtime victory in the deciding Game 6.  “There’s no way I would have had a prayer of getting this without having such a strong team on the ice beside me,” said the winger.  “The story of this championship isn’t about me.  It’s about the fact that the best team won – emphasis on team.  I’m so blessed to be surrounded by such an amazing group of guys.”

In addition to the trophy, Koons received a new Kia Carnival SUV and a collection of hats and scarved made of qiviut, or musk ox wool.  “The Carnival is great; it’s big enough to carry Jessica’s hockey team and their gear,” said Koons.  “And this nice warm wool will keep us warm in Anchorage in the wintertime!”