The Anchorage Igloos were the first team to win the Vandenberg Trophy back in 2015. They’ll now have a chance to win it for the second time in three seasons after outlasting the Michigan Gray Wolves to claim the SHL’s Western Division title.
“Going up against a team like Michigan, that’s really getting forged in the fire,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor. “You have to be a special and very strong team to survive that kind of test. We not only survived, we passed with flying colors. Our guys really earned their stripes.”
Anchorage came into the final week of the season with a six-point lead over Michigan. “Just take care of your own business,” Castor told his players, “and we’ll get this done. We don’t have to worry about what they do.”
Following the plan, the Igloos swept their way through the weekend, knocking off Quebec 4-2 on Saturday and downing Seattle 3-1 on Sunday. The Wolves matched the Igloos stride-for-stride, winning both of their weekend contests. Anchorage came into Tuesday’s game against Saskatchewan needing only a win or a Michigan loss to clinch the title.
The Igloos took care of business in decisive fashion, drubbing the Shockers 9-1 to finish their quest with a bang. The impressive victory was even more so given the performance of their top line. C Jake Frost scored four goals and added four assists, while LW Jerry Koons put up a hat trick to go with three assists. RW Nicklas Ericsson contributed five assists along with a goal of his own.
“We were just out there fast and loose and having a great time, just like playing shinny on the pond back home,” said Frost. “The fans were rocking the house, and we were right there with there, riding that wave of pure joy.”
After the victory, the Igloos went up into the stands to celebrate with their fans, sharing hugs and high-fives and giving some rooters the selfie of a lifetime. “There was one lady who was so excited that she just kept shrieking,” said Koons. “She just kept screaming in my ear, ‘It’s you! Oh my God, I’m here with you!’ So I might be half-deaf for a few days, but it was worth it.” The Igloos signed their jerseys and gave them to the fans, and tossed a few signed pucks into the crowd as well.
In the locker room, the Igloos doused each other with champagne and took a moment to reflect after a hard-fought campaign and prepare themselves for what’s next. “It feels great tonight,” said Frost. “But after we clean up and wash the champagne out of our hair, it’ll be time to focus on the Finals. Hershey’s a tough team, and I know they’ll give us a good fight.”
Wolves coach Ron Wright tipped his cap to his rivals. “All credit to the Igloos,” said Wright. “They’re a really damn good club, and they earned this. It was a battle well fought.”
Still, Wright couldn’t help pointing out that the trajectory of the race changed when Michigan C Hunter Bailes, one of the team’s top scorers, suffered an upper-body injury that caused him to miss a quarter of the season. “Would things be different if we hadn’t lost Hunter for as long as we did?” said Wright. “Hard to say. But injuries are a part of the game, and that’s how it goes sometimes. We’ll be ready to come back next year and try to take the title back.”
Next year, the race won’t be quite so pre. With the league expanding to 12 teams, the SHL will be instituting four-team playoffs next season. Barring a major change in the balance of power during the offseason, the Igloos and Wolves will be the overwhelming favorites to face each other in the division round next season. Will that dim the fires of competition between the clubs? “I don’t think so,” said Frost. “We’re both hyper-competitive teams, and we don’t like each other that much. And there’s the blood feud between Petey and Wally. The war will still be fierce.”