SHL Issues First Annual Awards

Starlight Hockey LeagueAt a banquet celebrating the league’s second season, SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell formally announced the creation of a new series of awards recognizing the league’s top players and coaches.  “We see this as an opportunity to recognize the many great individual performances that make the league so much fun to watch,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  These awards will be voted on by the league’s players, coaches, and beat reporters.

The commissioner announced the inaugural group of award winners, which are as follows:

jefferson-mcneelyMost Valuable Player: RW Jefferson McNeely, Washington Galaxy

McNeely had a strong sophomore season for the Galaxy, scoring 39 goals and notching 70 points while leading his team to its second consecutive SHL Finals appearance.

“Jefferson’s got more fakeouts than a three-card monte dealer,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “I mean, he gets a headman and starts heading up the ice, then all of a sudden he makes a move and he sheds his defenders and he’s breaking free.  If he ever gets tired of hockey, he should try being a magician.  He’s got that sleight-of-hand thing down cold.”

Other finalists for the MVP honor included Michigan G Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, Hershey C Justin Valentine, Anchorage RW Nicklas Ericsson, and New York C Brock Manning.

calvin-fryeRookie of the Year: 
C Calvin Frye, Hamilton Pistols

The SHL had a very impressive freshman crop this season, and the voting for the Rookie of the Year trophy was very close indeed.  But Frye made enough of an impression to receive the accolade.  The 22-year-old led all rookies with 59 points, a number that included 30 goals and 29 assists.  He made enough of a splash that the Pistols traded away star C Rod Remington to make room on the team’s top line.

“Calvin is just an exceptional young man,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “He has enormous God-given talent, and there’s no doubt about that.  But he also has a tremendous work ethic.  He’s driven to make the absolute most out of the gifts that he’s been given.  And even though he’s one of the youngest guys on the team, there’s no question that the whole team looks up to him as a leader.  As a coach, he’s my dream come true.”

Other top vote-getters in the crowded field included Saskatchewan LW Troy Chamberlain, Quebec G Riki Tiktuunen, Michigan D Fritz Kronstein, and Seattle RW Vince Mango.

Ron WrightCoach of the Year: 
Ron Wright, Michigan Gray Wolves

The selection of Wright as Coach of the Year comes as little surprise after he led the Wolves to a 43-14-3 record and their first SHL title.  It’s a happy ending to the game of coaching musical chairs that led Wright to Michigan in the offseason.  After incumbent Wolves coach Martin Delorme led the team to a close second-place finish last season, he left to become the first coach of the Quebec Tigres, his hometown team.  Meanwhile, Wright had had a falling out with players and management in Hamilton, and was already contemplating resignation.  When the Michigan job opened up, Wright jumped at the chance.  Suffice to say, it’s been a win-win for both parties.

“Coach Wright is the big reason we won this year,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “He’s very smart strategically, and he’s also really dedicated to practice and the kind of lunch-pail work most players don’t want to do.  He’s told us again and again that championships aren’t won with highlight-reel plays; they’re won through strong fundamentals, wall work, controlling the puck.  Now we’ve seen that approach pay off firsthand.”

Other coaches receiving votes included Washington’s Reagle, Dakota’s Harold Engellund, and Hershey’s “Chocolate Chip” Barber.

brock manningSharp Shooter Award: C Brock Manning, New York Night

This award was not determined through voting; rather, it was awarded to the player who finished with the highest goal total.  This season, that was Manning.  He finished the year with 55 goals, 10 ahead of second-place Steven Alexander of Hamilton.

“This isn’t the trophy I really wanted to win,” admitted Manning.  “I mean, I’m glad to be recognized, and I’m definitely proud of the season that I had.  But this sport is all about championships, and we didn’t come close to that.  I’d totally trade this award for a shot at the Vandy.  Maybe we’ll get there next year.”

Chase WinchesterCommissioner’s Trophy: 
LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

Like the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy isn’t awarded based on voting; instead, it’s given to the player who finishes with the highest season point total.  Winchester earned this year’s award with an incredible offensive season, shattering the SHL record with 104 points, six ahead of his teammate Manning.  Winchester’s point total was largely driven by assists; he recorded an incredible 88 this season, 25 more than his nearest competitor.

Despite having the league’s two best offensive producers in Manning and Winchester, along with other quality scorers including RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson and Ds Dominic Sanchez and Tuomas Nurmi, New York finished with a sub-.500 record thanks to so-so goaltending, abysmal defense, and volatile team chemistry.  Coach Preston Rivers was fired at the end of the season.

“I feel optimistic about where we’re headed,” said Winchester.  “We’ve got the best offense in the league, bar none.  If we can strengthen the blue line a little bit and smooth out some of the problems in the clubhouse, I think we can make some real noise next season.”

Dirk LundquistGoalie of the Year: 
Dirk Lundquist, Michigan Gray Wolves

This award came as no surprise.  In fact, Lundquist was the only unanimous award winner this season.  There wasn’t any serious room for debate, either; the Michigan netminder posted a 39-10-2 record with a 1.57 GAA and a .941 save percentage.  He led the league in wins, GAA, and save percentage by a comfortable margin.

“There’s no one better than The Bear,” said Wright.  “He’s got incredible reflexes and top-notch instincts.  But best of all, he just doesn’t get rattled out there.  Nothing fazes him.  Forget about ice water in his veins; he’s got solid ice in there.  He’s got that kind of calm under pressure.  He’d make a hell of a soldier; the heat of battle doesn’t get to him at all.  They should just name the award after him now and save time.”

raymond-smythDefenseman of the Year: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton Pistols

Despite finishing fourth in the East, the Pistols can take solace in capturing a pair of awards: the Rookie of the Year nod for Frye, and an award for their blue-chip defender, Smyth.  The 26-year-old Manitoba native was brilliant on both ends of the ice this season; he produced 49 assists, the highest total in the league among defensemen, and provided lock-down brilliance in his own end.  Smyth was anmong the league leaders in blocked shots, and played fierce defense while racking up only 51 total penalty minutes.

“There’s a reason why Raymond is our team captain,” said Shields.  “He’s a tremendous leader for us.  He always plays heads-up hockey, doesn’t take shifts off, plays through pain, and he plays at a really high level.  He doesn’t neglect any aspect of his game.  He just radiates strength in everything he does.”

Smyth got the nod over Hershey’s Reese Milton, New York’s Nurmi, Washington’s Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom, and his Pistols teammate Dmitri Kalashnikov.


Galaxy Absorb A Tough Loss, Look to Next Year

Washington SmallYou can’t blame the Washington Galaxy if they’re feeling a sense of déjà vu.  They end the SHL’s second season in a very similar position to the way they ended the first.  Just like last season, the Galaxy won the Eastern division.  Just like last season, they headed into the Finals as a heavy underdog against a powerful Western champion.  Just like last season, they played a strong series and made things much closer than anyone expected.  But just like last season, they came up on the short end of a close series.

“I used to like the movie Groundhog Day, before I started living it,” said C Eddie Costello.

This year, a last-minute goal in Game 6 propelled the Michigan Gray Wolves to the championship and sent Washington packing.  Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle praised his team for their valiant fight, especially given the rough beginning to the series.

“A lot of teams would have rolled over and given up after those games,” said Reagle, referring to Games 1 and 2, which Washington lost by a combined 6-0 score.  “It would be easy to say, ‘Well, it’s not our year, they’re way better than us.’  But our guys didn’t do that.  They gave it their all, and it was nothing but one-goal games after that.  That was the most inspirational thing I’ve seen since the end of the Muppet Movie.”

But after a second straight narrow loss, the Galaxy find themselves facing key questions headed into the offseason.  Do their two division titles and competitive showings in the Finals indicate a team that is good enough as is, and should return intact?  Or do those two straight Finals losses indicate a team that needs to get better if they’re going to have a shot at beating out the Western heavyweights?

“I wouldn’t go crazy talking about changes,” said Reagle.  “I mean, you flip a coin twice and it comes up tails both times, do you go get a new coin, or do you keep flipping?  This is a strong team, and I wouldn’t expect us to blow anything up.”

Star RW Jefferson McNeely said that the experience of losing in the Finals will only make Washington better.  “When you lose like this, it stings,” said McNeely.  “But it’s the kind of pain that inspires you to work harder, so you won’t have to feel it again next time.  And playing against teams like Michigan and Anchorage, it gives you a real measuring stick about where you are as a team.  I think that will help us next season.”

But it’s not just the Western powers that the Galaxy have to worry about.  They barely beat the Hershey Bliss to win the East this season, and the Bliss are likely to look aggressively at upgrades for next year.  The New York Night fired coach Preston Rivers and are eagerly planning to be more competitive next season.  Even youth-oriented Hamilton and Quebec are likely to come back stronger next season.

“We can’t take it for granted that we’re going back to the Finals next year,” said Costello.  “It’ll be a dogfight even within the division.  But that should help make us stronger.”

Overall, it sounds like the Galaxy are largely content to let it ride for next season.  But Reagle raised an important caveat.  “Now, it’s not like [GM] Ace [Adams] is going to be hibernating until next season,” said the coach.  “And if he sees a way to make us better, he’s not going to be dumb enough to say no.  So could there be a change, even a big one?  Like Paul Harvey says, you’ll have to come back next year to get the rest of the story.”

Bailes Named Finals MVP

Hunter Bailes

The SHL selected Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes as its 2016 SHL Finals MVP.  Bailes was the primary offensive engine for the Wolves all season, leading the team with 36 goals and 59 points.  He kept up that reputation in the Finals, leading all scorers with 5 goals.  In the deciding Game 6, Bailes scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner in the final minute.

“Hunter’s a hockey player’s hockey player,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “He’s the kind of guy who’s not flashy or showy, but he knows how to get the job done.  He’s more at home on the ice than on the red carpet, and he lives for the game.  He’s a real professional and a true leader, and everyone on the team looks up to him.”

Bailes’ game-winner propelled him to the narrowest of MVP wins over goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  Lundquist opened the Finals with back-to-back shutouts, the first goalie in SHL history to do so, and finished the Finals with  a 1.49 GAA and a .946 save percentage.  “Honestly, I think they should have given it to Dirk,” said Bailes.  “He’s the backbone of everything we do.”

As part of the MVP honor, Bailes received a 25-foot Chirs Craft powerboat.  “This is cool!” exclaimed Bailes.  “I’m going to take this back home and cruise around Lake Simcoe all summer and land some stripers.”

Finals Interview: Dirk Lundquist

Michigan SmallWe caught up with Michigan Gray Wolves G Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist shortly after his team claimed the 2016 SHL championship.

SHL Digest: We’re here with Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist of the newly crowned SHL champion Gray Wolves.  Dirk, how does it feel to win the Vandy?

Dirk Lundquist
Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist

Dirk Lundquist: Whooooeeee!  Let me tell you, it feels really great.  The Vandy’s a shiny, shiny trophy, and getting to hold it, it’s like when I held my daughter for the first time.  So beautiful!

SHLD: If you had to pick one thing that propelled you to the championship, what was it?

DL: Our team spirit.  We’re a tough bunch of guys, no question.  The NHL passed us all over, and that gave us a little extra motivation to show what we can accomplish.  And we’re a blue-collar team.  We’re not in it for glory, we’re in it for hard work and getting the job done.

SHLD: In the first two games of this series, you posted back-to-back shutouts.  That’s the first time any SHL goalie has ever done that, and you did it in the Finals.  Does that show that you’re at your best when the stakes are highest?

DL: It shows that we all are, as a team.  I wouldn’t be nearly so successful as a goalie if I didn’t have a great defense in front of me.  They sacrifice their bodies to block shots, they throw themselves into the wall work, they work hard to deny the other team good looks at the net.  I wouldn’t be here without them.  This is a whole-team effort.

SHLD: We heard that your famous beard might undergo some changes now that you’ve won.  Care to comment?

DL: Well, my daughter Lindsey, she keeps telling me she wants to braid my beard.  So I told her that if we won the championship, I’d let her do it.  Now we’ve won, so I guess I’ve got to do it.  She’s 5, so I don’t know what kind of job she’s going to do.  It should be interesting!

SHLD: Good luck with that!  Now, you mentioned the NHL before, and getting passed over.  After the kind of job you’ve done the last couple seasons, I imagine some NHL teams might come calling.  Is that something you’d consider?

DL: Hell no!  I’m right where I belong.  The only place I want to be next year is back here in Michigan with my friends, defending our title.

SHLD: One last question: Now that you’ve won the title, what are you going to do next?

DL: Well, first I plan to drink all the beer I can find.  Then I’m going to sleep for about a month.

SHLD: Sounds good!  Well, congratulations, Dirk.  Go celebrate with your teammates!

DL: Thanks.  Wolves forever!