Several New Faces Among SHL Annual Awards

At the SHL’s fourth 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 also took a moment to reflect on how the league has grown and changed over the five seasons under his leadership.  “The SHL has proven itself over the last five years,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “We’ve had our challenges and bumps in the road, but we’re established now and we’re here to stay. And we’ve got a lot of exciting young players coming along the way.” As if to underline Mitchell’s words, this year’s crop included a number of first-time winners.

The 2019 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols

There was little question who would receive the MVP honor for 2019.  Alexander and the Pistols went on a remarkable journey this season.  Early in the season, the star winger spent a night in jail with several teammates after his 26th birthday celebration ended in a barfight.  Alexander wound up stumbling through an underwhelming first half.

Just before the All-Star break, though, he got married in a ceremony at the Pistols’ arena.  Married life seemed to spark a change in Alexander; he scored 38 of his 52 goals and recorded 70 of his 100 points in a record-setting second half.  With their star leading the way, Hamilton surged to their second playoff berth.  They ultimately capped off their run by winning their first championship.

“Alex is a heart-and-soul player,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “He plays every game like it could be his last, and he always wants to be the first one over the wall when we need a hero.  We never would have won this championship without him leading the way.”

Other MVP finalists included Alexander’s teammate Calvin Frye, Seattle’s Vince Mango, and Hershey’s Justin Valentine.

Rookie of the Year: D Bastien Chouinard, Kansas City Smoke

In a surprising upset, Chouinard received the Rookie of the Year nod over C Alain Beauchesne of the Boston Badgers.  Ironically, the two of them have been competing for a long time: the 20-year-old Chouinard and the 21-year-old Beauchesne both grew up near Montreal, and they often played against each other in youth leagues around Quebec.

“I think this is the first team I ever beat him at anything,” quipped Chouinard.

The young blueliner was chosen third overall by the Smoke in this year’s draft, and he proved to be one of the few bright spots in a tough year in KC.  Chouinard had a better-than-expected year offensively, notching 38 points (5 goals, 33 assists).  But it was his ferocious, hard-hitting defensive work that earned the most notice.  Chouinard, nicknamed “Bastard” for his relentless and unforgiving style, led all SHL players with 119 penalty minutes on the season.

“We didn’t have a lot to feel good about this season,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner, “but watching Bastien thrive has been a real treat.  If he can build on what he showed us this season, and some of the other guys can do the same, I might not need to chug Pepto-Bismol every night next season.”

Chouinard got the nod over Beauchesne, Anchorage’s Rudolf Kerasov, Saskatchewan’s Blake Blacklett, and Dakota’s Calle Markstrom.

Coach of the Year: Harold Engellund, Seattle Sailors

2019 marked the Sailors’ final season in Seattle, but they went out on a high note: they were the most improved team since 2018 (going from 58 points to 80) despite featuring a roster little different from the previous year, and securing their first-ever trip to the postseason.  The voters honored the Sailors’ improvement by selecting Engellund as Coach of the Year.  For the veteran bench boss, who endured a rocky tenure in Dakota before coming to the Pacific Northwest, the award represents sweet redemption.

“Coach Engellund deserves this award more than anyone,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “He’s taken a ragtag group of individual talents and molded us into a team.  He even got me to start passing, which is an accomplishment all its own.”

Engellund was chosen over Hamilton’s Keith Shields, Hershey’s Chip Barber, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to receive the award.

Sharp Shooter Award: RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York Night

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.  This year, the award went to Nelson, who finished the 2019 season with 54 goals, placing him two ahead of Hamilton’s Alexander and Frye.

It’s the first time that the high-scoring winger has captured the award, and the second time that a Night player has won (C Brock Manning earned the honor in 2016).  This award received a tepid reaction, as Nelson is not widely popular in league circles.

“I know nobody wanted me to win, because they can’t acknowledge my greatness,” said Nelson.  “But the numbers don’t lie.  And they can boo me all they want, but they can’t deny that I’m an award winner, yo. Call me whatever you want, but you got to bend the knee.”

Commissioner’s Trophy: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols and LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

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 ever, this award was split between two players.

Alexander, whose eventful season was detailed above, finished with a career high in assists (48), which allowed him to reach the century mark in points for the first time his career.  The Commissioner’s Trophy joins the MVP and the Vandy on Alexander’s suddenly crowded award shelf.

“I love the fact that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves,” said Pistols RW Claude Lafayette of his teammate and longtime friend.  “He never stops working, and he earned this.”

Winchester, meanwhile, remains one of the league’s top passers.  Thanks to a strong offensive year from linemates Nelson and Brock Manning, Winchester managed to record a league-leading 86 assists, which made up the bulk of his 100 points on the season.  This is his second Commissioner’s Trophy; he also won it three years ago.

“Chase doesn’t get a lot of play when we’re talking about the top players in the league, and that’s not fair,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “Maybe when we win the Vandy next year, he’ll finally get the respect he deserves.  Probably not, though.”

Goalie of the Year: Dirk Lundquist, Michigan Gray Wolves

Last season, this award went to Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen in a stunning upset.  This time, however, the award went to the only other person ever to win it: Lundquist.  The Wolves had a very disappointing season, finishing fourth in the West, but Lundquist put up his usual excellent numbers.  The goalie known as “The Bear” went 29-19-6 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.  Despite Michigan’s subpar performance, Lundquist tied for the league lead in wins, and as usual he led in GAA and save percentage.

“We’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do after the season we had,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “But that’s not true for The Bear.  He’s been Mr. Reliable time and again, and he saved our bacon in plenty of games we didn’t deserve to win.”

Other finalists for the award included Tiktuunen, Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, and Anchorage’s Ty Worthington.

Defenseman of the Year: Clayton Risch, Hamilton Pistols

Voting for this award was surprisingly scattered.  Michigan’s top defensemen, Fritz Kronstein and Max Madison, have won the last two times, but the Wolves’ disappointing season knocked them out of contention.  Some thought that Hershey’s Reese Milton – a regular runner-up for this award – might finally break through.

Instead, the award went to Hamilton’s Risch, who beat Milton in a close contest.  The voting took place before the playoffs, so the Pistols’ title was not taken into consideration.  It’s believed that Risch struck voters as a balanced two-way player, providing offense (7 goals, 34 assists) and defense (72 penalty minutes, +20 rating, and a highlight reel full of devastating checks) in equal measure.

“It’s nice to see Crusher get some love,” said Shields, using Risch’s nickname.  “He’s a real quality two-way player, and he’s been an underrated factor in our success.”

In addition to Milton, other finalists included Seattle’s Benny Lambert, Saskatchewan’s Wyatt Barnes, and Chouinard.

CHL Update: Spuds Stop Rhinos in 6 to Claim Title

The Idaho Spuds were an unlikely contender in the CHL.  Last season, playing as the Muncie Squirrels, they finished fourth in their division.  Their rebuilding parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, called up several of the best prospects from that squad.  The Spuds received a warm reception in their new home, regularly selling out Treasure Valley Arena.  But the idea that they’d finish above .500, much less make the playoffs, seemed far-fetched to most observers.

However, coach Gilbert McCoyne wasn’t interested in what most observers thought.  “I wasn’t about to put any limits on what we could achieve,” McCoyne said.  “I just told my guys, ‘Why not us?’”

McCoyne’s power-of-positive-thinking approach paid dividends.  Idaho not only made the playoffs, they dismissed the heavily-favored division-winning Omaha Ashcats in a stunning sweep.  Then in the Finals, they dethroned the defending champion Virginia Rhinos in six games to win their first-ever Howard Trophy.

“This season has been one wild ride!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox.  “We never gave up and never stopped believing, and now we’re the champs!”

The series opened in Boise in front of another pair of sellout crowds, and the Spuds gave their fans plenty to cheer about.  In Game 1, fueled by the energy of their fans, a fired-up Idaho team outshot the Rhinos 32-20.  The Spuds capitalized on their power play opportunities, going 3-for-4 in man-advantage situations, and goalie Kelvin White registered a shutout in a 3-0 Idaho win.  In Game 2, the Spuds once again had a huge advantage in shots, outshooting Virginia 43-23, but White wasn’t quite as sharp.  Idaho squandered a 4-2 lead in the third period when Rhinos LW Yuri Laronov and LW Errol Garner scored 90 seconds apart, but RW Britt Cadmium came through with what proved to be the game-winning goal in a 5-4 triumph.

The Rhinos regained their footing a bit in the middle three games, which took place on their ice.  In Game 3, Virginia got a pair of second-period goals from Laronov and D Gustaf Bergstrom, and goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 30 Idaho shots for a 2-0 win.  In Game 4, Virginia got the early edge, only to see Idaho seize control of the game in the second on the way to a 6-2 blowout that included three third-period goals.  Staring at elimination, the Rhinos pushed back in Game 5, building a 3-0 lead through the first forty minutes.  The Spuds pushed back in the third, putting up another three-goal frame, but Virginia held on for a 5-3 win.  C Trent Harlow scored two goals in a winning effort for the defending champs.

With the action shifting back to Treasure Valley Arena for Game 6, the Spuds were looking for the quick kill, while the Rhinos were looking to prove that they could be competitive away from home.  Idaho controlled the play once again, outshooting Virginia 38-26, but Chislic kept the Rhinos in the game.  LW Van Dyke Browning scored in the opening minute to give Idaho a quick edge, but Rhinos D Gunther Stephens answered less than four minutes later to tie things up.  The Spuds got back in front in the second on a score by D Brett Stolte, and D Georg Ochre made it 3-1 early in the third with a blast from the top of the faceoff circle.  Idaho then endangered their lead with a string of minor penalties, and Bergstrom finally converted with just over five minutes remaining to pull Virginia within one.  The Spuds managed to stay out of the penalty box after that, though, and the Rhinos couldn’t come up with an equalizer in the time remaining.

Ochre, who led all Idaho scorers with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists), earned the Finals MVP honors.  His teammates mobbed the quiet, rugged defenseman they fondly call “The Ogre.”  As Wilcox quipped, “I can’t wait to hear the Ogre’s acceptance speech, ‘cause it’ll be the first time he’s said more than two words in a row.”

For many of the Spuds, their next challenge will come in the SHL, as they’re called up and tasked with reviving the Jackalopes’ sagging fortunes.  “Making it in the SHL is a different kind of challenge,” admitted Wilcox.  “But we’ve gotten this far by believing in ourselves, so why not keep going?”

Igloos Prepare for Change After Finals Loss

As the final seconds ticked away in the deciding Game 6 of the 2019 SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos hung their heads.  Playing in front of their home fans at Arctic Circle Arena, the Igloos had allowed four third-period goals to turn a 3-1 lead into a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Hamilton Pistols.  It had been a tense, close series, with all the previous games decided by one goal and two of them going to overtime.  But the series was ending with a clunker, a shocking embarrassment for the defending champions.

In the locker room after the game, the Igloos sat quietly and contemplated an uncertain future.  Ten of the twenty players on Anchorage’s roster are pending free agents, and salary-cap constraints mean that several of them won’t be back.  The roster is likely to look a lot different next season.

“This definitely isn’t the ending we wanted,” said C Jake Frost.  “Especially knowing that this is the last ride for some of our guys, that’s tough.”

LW Les Collins, one of those free-agents-to-be, shared Frost’s sense of disappointment.  “There’s a definite sense of unfinished business here,” Collins said.  “Ending like this, it’s shocking.  But I want to come back and help us get back on top next season.”

Some of the Igloos acknowledged that the balance of power was shifting within the league.  For years, Anchorage and the Michigan Gray Wolves were the unquestioned class of the SHL.  Recently, though, the Igloos and Wolves have been challenged within their division by the Seattle Sailors (who made the playoffs for the first time this season) and Saskatchewan Shockers, as well as by the Pistols and other teams in the rising East.

“For so long, we’ve been the favorites,” said LW Jerry Koons.  “But now, there are other teams just as good as us.  We can’t take it for granted anymore that we’ll be the best.  The Pistols are a really good, really tough club.  I don’t think this is the last time we’ll be facing them in the Finals.”

Coach Sam Castor struggled to reckon with his team’s collapse in Game 6.  “This series was so close for so much of the way,” Castor said.  “A couple bounces here or there and it’s a totally different conversation.  But for us to fall apart like that in a must-win game, especially on home ice… that’s not like us at all.  But Hamilton won this series, no question about it.  They deserve to be the champions.  For us, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

Asked whether the team had lost its hunger for victory after its previous wins, Castor demurred.  “I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Castor.  “I didn’t see anyone here resting on their laurels.  We came up against a very good team, and they came through when it counted.”

While some of the Igloos struggled with the outcome and contemplating the next chapter, co-owner Leslie Mills took a philosophical approach.  “We gave it our all, and that’s all that you can ask,” she said.

Patterson Named Finals MVP

It’s been a long and winding road for Hamilton Pistols RW Kenny Patterson.  The 33-year-old winger has nearly walked away from the game more than once.

He began his SHL career with the New York Night.  Frustrated by the boobirds in the stands and the toxic culture in the locker room, he was so unhappy that he contemplated retirement.  Then he was traded to the Pistols, a move that allowed the Toronto native to rediscover his love for the game.  The veteran spent the next couple seasons as a mentor to the young team.

Kenny Patterson

After last season, Patterson entered free agency, but attracted little interest.  He considered hanging it up again.  Finally, as training camp neared, Hamilton found themselves with a hole on their second line and settled on a reunion with Patterson.  The winger repaid them with a strong season, culminating in his selection as the 2019 SHL Finals MVP.

“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person or a more professional player,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Everyone in this locker room looks up to Kenny.”

Patterson’s primary offensive contribution came in Game 6, which Hamilton won to clinch its first-ever title.  The Pistols rallied from a 3-1 deficit with four unanswered goals in the third period to claim the victory, and Patterson scored both the tying and winning goals.  He also had an assist on Hamilton’s first goal of the game.

For his part, Patterson felt the MVP honors should have gone to teammate Steven Alexander, who led the team in scoring for the series with 3 goals and 5 assists.  “I mean, I’m flattered and honored to get it,” said Patterson.  “But really, we would never have gotten this far without Alex.  He’s our MVP, every day.”

Along with the MVP award, Patterson received a year’s supply of peameal bacon and a brand-new Kia Telluride SUV.  “My kids play hockey, so this is perfect for hauling them to road games,” said Patterson.  “And as a TO boy, I love my peameal bacon sandwiches.  Yum!”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 6

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton wins, 4-2)

In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team.  After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1.  The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow.  The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.

“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields.  “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”

And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath.  “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said.  “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath.  Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy?  If that’s you, step forward like David did.”

One by one, the Pistols stepped forward.  Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.

The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander.  The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season.  He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.

“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “And of course it was Alex.  That guy knows no fear.”

Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero.  Up stepped one of their oldest players.  33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line.  And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.

The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping.  Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders.  And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.

The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one.  This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot.  The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington.  The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck.  Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal.  The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said.  “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”

RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star.  So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started.  The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.

The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them.  Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining.  A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.

“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons.  “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”

As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate.  They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won!  We won!”  When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.

“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head.  “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high.  When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers.  “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down.  All hail the heroes!”

A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols.  “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor.  “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end.  They deserve this.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 6”

2019 SHL Finals – Game 5

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, HAMILTON PISTOLS 1

(Hamilton leads, 3-2)

After yesterday’s 3-2 loss, the Anchorage Igloos found themselves just one game away from defeat in the SHL Finals, facing a must-win Game 5 in enemy territory.  But the Igloos didn’t get to be two-time SHL champions without learning to overcome adversity.  So before the game, coach Sam Castor delivered a simple message to his players: “You can’t lose this one,” Castor said.  “So don’t.”

The Igloos heeded their coach’s words, seizing the lead early and hanging on for a 2-1 win over the Hamilton Pistols, keeping their Vandy hopes alive.

“We knew we weren’t going down without a fight,” said C Jake Frost.  “We’re too good a team to lose in five, so we weren’t about to let that happen.”

In Game 4, Anchorage allowed Hamilton to get out to a 3-0 lead before mounting a rally that wound up falling short.  With that in mind, the Igloos were determined to score first this time.  “If you get the first goal, especially if you get it early, you can dictate the terms of the game,” said D Ted Keefe.  “And that’s what we wanted to do.”

The boys in baby blue pulled that off a little over three minutes into the game when C Florian Theroux, who was scratched from Game 4 due to illness, deflected a shot from Keefe over the catching glove of Pistols goalie Lasse Koskinen.

“This was a happy day for me,” said Theroux.  “Yesterday, I was throwing up my guts.  Today, I was a hero.”

Anchorage may have struck first, but their advantage was short-lived.  Less than two minutes after taking the lead, the Igloos went a man down when D Dave Frederick received a minor for holding the stick.  On the ensuing power play, D Albie Glasco tied it up on a severe-angle shot that banked off the shoulder of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington.

“I was just trying to see if I could get a juicy rebound,” Glasco said.  “I didn’t think there was any chance it was going to go in.”

The Igloos were eager to retake the lead before the end of the first.  They did, but only by the skin of their teeth.  In the waning seconds of the periods, Anchorage carried the puck into the offensive zone.  It seemed to disappear in a mass of bodies in front of Hamilton’s net.  Finally, the puck wound up in the net, seemingly at the same time at the horn ending the period.  After review, it was determined that the puck crossed the line before the horn, giving Anchorage its sought-after lead.  The goal was credited to D Olaf Martinsson.

“Going into the locker room with the lead, that was huge,” said Frost.  “Our confidence was through the roof.”

In the second period, Anchorage borrowed a page from Hamilton’s Game 4 playbook, slowing the pace and bogging down the Pistols’ drives in the neutral zone.  It wasn’t the prettiest twenty minutes of hockey, but it was effective, as Hamilton couldn’t mount any serious scoring threats.  The Igloos missed a chance to add to their lead in the closing minutes of the period when Frost fired a shot that beat Koskinen but hit the right post.

Going into the third period, the Pistols were determined to break the Igloos’ press and turn up the pace.  “We weren’t going to let them rock us to sleep for forty minutes with a one-goal lead,” said D Raymond Smyth.

The Pistols succeeded in generating some offensive pressure with more aggressive breakouts and long passes designed to break the Anchorage neutral-zone trap.  But they ran into one big problem: Worthington.  The Anchorage goalie was at his best, his razor-sharp reflexes anticipating the Pistols’ every move.  He gobbled up one puck after another, snapping them out of the air with his glove or smothering them beneath his pads.

Hamilton’s best chance came in the middle of the period, when Igloos D Willy Calligan was sent off for slashing.  The Pistols got into their power-play setup, and LW Steven Alexander wound up for a slapshot.  Instead of shooting, he fired a pass to RW Claude Lafayette, catching Worthington out of position.  Lafayette shot at what he thought was a wide-open net… only for the Igloos netminder to come flying over and deflect the shot with his stick.

“I have no idea how he got over so fast,” said Lafayette.  “He must have a time machine.”

The Pistols had a couple more quality chances after that, but Worthington held his ground and preserved the win.  The series now shifts back to Arctic Circle Arena in Anchorage, where the champs need to win both games to defend their title. “We’ll have our fans and we have the experience,” said Frost.  “I like our chances.”

Alexander, for his part, seems unconcerned about the shift in venue.  “We already beat them once in their barn,” the feisty winger said.  “We can do it again.”

Continue reading “2019 SHL Finals – Game 5”