- On Sunday, the New York Night announced that D Ed Francis, who had been playing for their minor-league affiliate in Utah, will miss the rest of the season. The 30-year-old Francis suffered a severely broken leg during last Saturday’s game against Minnesota, an injury so severe that it required surgery to reconstruct the leg. In the wake of the injury, Francis announced that he would retire from hockey. (Story here.) To replace Francis on the roster, the Night signed D Gustaf Bergstrom for the rest of the season. Bergstrom recently played a 10-game stint in Halifax, where he recorded a goal and six assists.
- On Friday, the Washington Galaxy traded LW Casey Thurman to the Boston Badgers in exchange for LW Marty “Fish” Pescatelli, D Kermit Kaufman, and a first-round draft pick. (Story here.) In related moves, Boston demoted LW Norris Young to their CHL affiliate in Hartford and promoted D Jackson Creed from Hartford. They also signed D Gerry Michaud to a minor-league deal.
- On Friday, the Night demoted G Sherman Carter to their CHL affiliate in Utah and promoted G Corey Franklin-Lee from Utah. Carter, expected to be New York’s top starter in the next, has been atrocious so far this season. Despite compiling a 5-5-1 record, he has put up a 5.75 GAA and an .861 save percentage. The 20-year-old Franklin-Lee makes his first appearance on an SHL roster; with Utah this season, he has gone 9-4-2 with a 2.82 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
- On Saturday, the Quebec Tigres placed D Kevin Buchanan on the injured list. The veteran blueliner has been plagued by injuries this season; he missed 10 games with an upper-body injury earlier this season. It is unknown whether this latest setback, suffered in the second period of Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Hershey, is an aggravation of his prior injury or a new one. To replace Buchanan on the roster, Quebec recalled D Hampus Olsson from their CHL affiliate in Halifax. Olsson was sent down two weeks ago when Buchanan returned from his prior IL stint; he spent 9 games in the minors, recording 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists). To fill Olsson’s roster spot in Halifax, the Tigres signed veteran D Igor Shovshenkov.
- On Wednesday, the Hershey Bliss‘ CHL affiliate in Milwaukee activated G Hobie Sanford from the injured list. Sanford suffered a bruised collarbone in the first week of the season, and had been on the IL ever since. In order to make room for Sanford on the roster, the organization released G Toby Kemper. Kemper, who had served as Milwaukee’s reserve netminder during Sanford’s injury, went 1-2-0 with a 4.66 GAA and an .869 save percentage during his time with the club.
- On Friday, the Quebec Tigres activated D Kevin Buchanan from the injured list. Buchanan went down with an upper-body injury two and a half weeks ago. In order to allow Buchanan to return, the Tigres demoted D Hampus Olsson to their CHL affiliate in Halifax. This season, Olsson appeared in 15 games with Quebec, recording 3 assists and a -2 rating. To make room for Olsson on the Halifax roster, the team did not renew D Gustaf Bergstrom’s 10-game contract.
- On Saturday, the Tigres placed LW Stellan Fisker on the injured list. Fisker exited Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Portland after suffering an upper-body injury late in the second period. The team described him as “week-to-week” with the injury. To replace Fisker on the roster, the Tigres called up LW Carl Bleyer from their affiliate in Halifax. This is the 21-year-old Bleyer’s second stint with Quebec; he was called up for 10 games last season.
- Also on Saturday, the Hamilton Pistols recalled F Michael Jennings from their farm club in Oshawa and reassigned C Hilliard Macy to Oshawa. The team called Macy up last week when C Calvin Frye went down with an injury and appeared in five game, recording a goal and two assists Frye returned to the lineup in mid-week, but LW Steven Alexander was injured in Saturday’s 6-4 loss to Kansas City, and is expected to miss up to a week. With Frye back and Alexander out, the Pistols needed a winger instead of a center, so they brought Jennings back to the SHL.
- Finally, in another Saturday night move, the Kansas City Smoke demoted F David Facinelli to their affiliate in Omaha and called C Edz Zalmanis. Like Hamilton’s move, the transaction was driven be an injury. C Mike Rivera was hurt in Saturday’s tussle with Hamilton, and is expected to miss multiple games. With an opening at center, the Smoke took the opportunity to give a look to Zalmanis, who has been brilliant with Omaha (17 points and a +5 rating in 16 games). The 29-year-old Facinelli has appeared in 7 games with KC this second, registering a single point.
- On Monday, the Quebec Tigres placed D Kevin Buchanan on the injured list and called up D Serge Rimbaud from their CHL affiliate in Halifax. The 31-year-old Buchanan, who the Tigres acquired from Washington in the offseason, suffered an upper-body injury in the third period of Sunday’s 3-2 overtime win over Hershey. He is expected to miss about 3 weeks. The 19-year-old Rimbaud, Quebec’s top prospect, was off to a fine start in Halifax, recording two goals and an assist in the first week of the season. To replace Rimbaud on Halifax’s roster, the Tigres signed veteran blueliner Gustaf Bergstrom to a short-term contract.
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?”
The SHL’s trading deadline occurred this week, which meant that the league’s contenders were all looking for ways to shore up their squads for that playoff push down the stretch. By all accounts, no team was more active in seeking upgrades than the Hershey Bliss. Although the Bliss spent most of the first half out front in the East, the Washington Galaxy have caught fire the last couple of weeks, winning 9 of their last 10 and passing Hershey for first place.
Eager to avoid falling behind Washington, Hershey GM Scott Lawrence pursued numerous options for strengthening his roster. In the end, he made a single deal, acquiring LW Vonnie McLearen and D Gustaf Bergstrom from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Kelvin Starkey, minor-league D Alex Angelos, and a 2nd-round draft pick.
In McLearen, the Bliss add a rising star who will give their already-solid offense a boost. The 23-year-old winger was one of Dakota’s top scorers, putting up 12 goals and 20 assists on the season. Over the last couple of seasons, McLearen has risen from a lightly-used reserve to become a key offensive contributor. He has a reputation as a hard worker and a strong two-way player.
“Honestly, I was a little surprised to discover that Vonnie McLearen was available,” said Lawrence. “Great young guys like that are usually tough to come by. He’s a tremendous pickup for us. We’re really excited about the energy and spark he’s going to bring to our team.”
The Bliss also added a veteran grinder in Bergstrom. The 30-year-old blueliner will be the seventh defenseman for Hershey, replacing rookie Kermit Kaufman. He was a longtime starter for the Jackalopes before being demoted to reserve duty this year. He appeared in only 6 games with Dakota in the 2017 season, recording an assist.
“When you’re playing those tough games down the stretch and in the Finals, you could always use a little extra grit,” said Lawrence. “Bergstrom’s an old-fashioned banger, the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to scrap and does the dirty work. He gives us that quality depth, a guy we can count on when we need him.”
While the acquisition was welcomed by Bliss fans, the deal got a chilly reception in Dakota. McLearen has long been a favorite among Jackalopes rooters, who have enjoyed watching him blossom into a top-notch starter. The fans were heartbroken to see McLearen dealt, and they bombarded the front office with angry tweets and emails.
“This was a tough deal to make,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard. “Everyone around here loves Vonnie. Heck, I love Vonnie, and I hated to give him up. But sometimes you have to make tough deals in this business.”
According to team sources, the trade was financially motivated. The small-market Jackalopes spent freely this season in hopes of building a contender. Instead, the team has languished around the .500 mark, well behind Anchorage and Michigan. McLearen will be a free agent this offseason and is likely to command a significant raise. The strapped-for-cash Jackalopes are unlikely to be able to re-sign the young winger, and they wanted to get a return for him rather than see him walk away for nothing.
In exchange for McLearen, the Jackalopes received a pair of young prospects. The 24-year-old Starkey was signed by Hershey before last season, and displayed considerable promise. He had worked his way into a starting role for the Bliss prior to the trade. In 11 games with Hershey, Starkey scored 8 points (1 goal and 7 assists).
“We’re hoping that we got ourselves the next Vonnie McLearen in this deal,” said Mindegaard. “Kelvin is a guy who has worked his way up the hard way, and we think he’s got considerable room to grow with some additional playing time.”
The 20-year-old Angelos is an offensive-minded defenseman who flashed considerable promise with Hershey’s minor-league affiliate in Albuquerque. With the Screaming Eagles, Angelos put up 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in 44 games.
“Alex Angelos is a guy who fits well with our team concept,” said Mindegaard. “He’s a fast skater, and he’s shown that he can contribute in a high-tempo environment. He’s also a strong shooter and he has a great passing touch. He’s a player who has the potential to have a long and successful career here.”
While the Jackalopes are gearing up to get younger, the Bliss are hoping that the acquisition of McLearen will put them over the top. Each of the last two seasons, Hershey has come up short against the Galaxy, and the team and their fans are growing impatient for a shot at the title. “Everyone in this organization is hungry for a championship,” said Lawrence. “We believe that this trade puts us in position to make that run to the title.”