East Captures First All-Star Win

Traditionally, the West has been considered the stronger of the SHL’s two divisions.  In recent seasons, however, the East has been getting stronger.  They’ve won two of the last three Vandys.  During the most recent round of interdivisional play leading into the break, the Easthad a winning percentage above the .600 mark.  One thing the East had never done, however, was win an All-Star Game.  This year, they hoped to walk into the Kansas City Smoke‘s Heartland Telecom Center and skate away with the win.

Apparently, the fourth time was the charm.  Powered by a hat trick from Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart, the East dominated the first two periods and survived a late rally from the West to claim a 5-3 victory.

“Finally, victory is ours!” shouted Hamilton Pistols RW Claude Lafayette, who handed out celebratory cigars to his teammates after the game.  “We’ve been waiting a while for this one.”

As befits Kansas City’s reputation for music, the pregame skate was accompanied by a string of songs with ties to the city.  The tunes spanned the decades, from Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker to modern-day blues guitarist Samantha Fish.  During player introductions, the Western team skated out to Wilbert Harrison’s “Goin’ to Kansas City,” while the Eastern squad emerged to the theme from “Rawhide,” a nod to the city’s connections to the livestock industry.

Eastern coach Keith Shields was determined that his team get off to a strong start.  Last year, the West scored three times in as many minutes, essentially burying the East’s hope of victory.  “I wanted to do to [the West] what they did to us last time,” said Shields.  And that is essentially what his team did.

Hart opened the scoring just under two minutes into the game, streaking to the net and redirecting a shot from Pistols C Calvin Frye over sprawling Western goalie Ty Worthington.  Approximately one hundred seconds later, Frye got a goal of his own when Worthington allowed a juicy rebound on a shot by Hershey’s Lance Sweet and Frye stuffed it home on the short side.  Then around the six-minute mark, Hart and Sweet got loose on a breakaway, just as if they were on the Love Line back in Hershey.  Sweet faked a slapshot and passed it to Hart, who went top shelf to make it 3-0.

“The boys ran the game plan to perfection,” said Shields.  “I loved it!”

The West got one back on a strike from the slot by Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes, but they closed out the first period trailing by two.  But lest the three-time champs get any ideas about rallying, the East got back on the scoring train at the start of the second.  Pistols LW Steven Alexander got on the board on a thundering slapper from the left faceoff circle to restore the East’s three-goal lead.  Then two and a half minutes later, Hart struck again, this time on a power-play wraparound shot that slipped between Worthington’s pad and the pole.

Even though the home team now trailed 5-1, the fans tossed their hats onto the ice to honor Hart’s achievement.  One of them was a cowboy hat; Sweet picked that one up and slapped it on Hart’s head.  The Hershey wing let loose with a “Yeehaw!” and fired his invisible six-shooters into the air.

West coach Sam Castor wasn’t willing to give up, in spite of the sizable deficit, and he directed his team to play a more wide-open style in the third period.  The East responded in kind, and the result was a frantic frame in which the teams combined for 47 shots.  The West’s relief goalie, the Portland Bluebacks‘ Jesse Clarkson, turned aside all 27 Eastern shots.  The Western offense, on the other hand, had more success against the East’s backup netminder, Mike Ross of the New York Night.  Less than four minutes into the final period, the West narrowed the deficit to two with goals from D Sebastian Pomfret and C Tom Hoffman, teammates on Castor’s Anchorage Igloos.  But Ross stopped the West’s remaining shots, and the East kept the action in the other end for long stretches over the last ten minutes, sealing their victory.

Hart’s three-goal performance made him the unanimous choice for All-Star MVP honors.  As a reward for the selection, the Bliss star received a Kia Seltos SUV, along with a gift package of barbecue sauces from some of Kansas City’s best-known joints.  “The last time we were in KC, I tried burnt ends for the first time,” said Hart.  “I’m looking forward to making some ‘cue of my own at home.”

In the victorious Eastern locker room, the players smoked their cigars and doused each other with beer and hard seltzer.  “Don’t mess with the Beast Division, baby!” shouted Alexander.  “The world turned upside down!”

The East will try to make it two in a row next year on home ice, as next year’s game is north of the border at Quebec’s Centre Citadelle.

Continue reading “East Captures First All-Star Win”

2020 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2020 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at Kansas City’s Heartland Telecom Center, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

LW: Rod “Money” Argent, Portland.  The Bluebacks are hot, and they’re quickly building a strong and enthusiastic fan base.  The team’s fans showed their love in the All-Star voting, as they rivaled Hamilton in terms of the largest turnout.  Thanks to the strong support from the Rose City, the Bluebacks wound up with three starting slots.  Among those is Argent, who will appear in the All-Star game for the first time in his career.  The winger is fifth in the league in goals with 18, and has Portland’s second-highest point total with 34.  Argent is a strong two-way player, as reflected by the fact that he leads all Bluebacks forwards in blocks with 27.

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage.  This marks the first time that a non-Michigan defenseman made the West’s starting lineup.  The strong support of Igloos fans allowed Keefe to finish with the most votes among defensemen.  Although this is Keefe’s first All-Star start, it is the third time that he’ll make an appearance in the game.   Keefe is having a strong year offensively; he is tied for the lead among SHL defenseman in goals with 11.  But it’s defense that’s his primary calling card.  Any unlucky opponent that’s been the victim of his punishing hits can attest to that; his 50 blocks on the season tell the same story.

C: Eddie Costello, Portland.  Last year, the veteran center was traded to Hamilton at the deadline, and went on to play a leading role as the Pistols won their first Vandy.  In the offseason, he signed with Portland, and has led the team to its spot atop the standings at the midway mark.  Those fans returned the favor by making Costello the top overall vote-getter in the West.  (It’s likely that he got support from his former fans in Washington and Hamilton as well.)  Costello’s 36 points are tops on his new team, while his 25 assists land him among the SHL’s top ten.  He’s no slouch defensively, either, with 26 blocks so far this season.

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan.  Kronstein continues his streak of All-Star starts, finishing ahead of teammates “Mad Max” Madison (a three-time starter) and Brooks Zabielski, as well as Portland’s Benny Lambert.  This comes as no surprise, in spite of the Wolves’ disappointing first half; Kronstein has started in every All-Star Game to date.  Though Michigan is not performing up to its usual standards, the German-born blueliner continues to produce on both ends, leading the team’s defensive corps with 22 points (including 10 goals, second among Wolves defensemen) and tied for the lead with 59 blocks.

RW: Vince Mango, Portland.  The colorful, high-scoring Mango secures his third All-Star berth and his second start, finishing roughly 1,500 votes ahead of Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  (It’s sweet payback for Mango; last season, Ericsson nosed him out of a starting slot by less than 800 votes.)  Mango is often regarded around the league as a one-dimensional scorer.  While his 15 goals does place him among the SHL’s top ten, Mango’s game has matured as he and the team have grown.  He has recorded 11 assists so far on the year, and he has even blocked 17 shots.  “Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Vince blocked a shot on purpose,” said Castor.  “He’d be afraid of mussing his hair.  But he’s clearly changed, and good for him.”

 

Second Line

LW: Jerry Koons, Anchorage.  Last year’s starter makes it this year on the second line, one of four Igloos chosen for the team by their coach.  Koons has appeared in every All-Star Game so far and has started twice.  Among all Western left-wingers, Koons is the leader in both points (with 37) and assists (with 25).  “I’m sure some people will say I’m a big homer because there are so many of our guys on the team,” said Castor.  “But you tell me which guy didn’t deserve to go.  No question about it that Jerry deserves to be there.”

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan.  Barnes, who makes his fourth trip to the All-Star game, is the Shockers’ only representative at the All-Star game this season.  But he is no charity pick; arguably, he is the SHL’s best defenseman so far this half on both ends of the ice.  Only teammate Chris Oflyng has more points among the West’s blueliners than Barnes’ 29.  And no one in the league, in either division or at any position, has more blocks that he does, just one shy of the century mark.  “One of these days, the fans are going to wake up and realize that Barnesy should be starting in this thing,” said Oflyng.

C: Hunter Bailes, Michigan.  In spite of the Wolves’ underperformance so far this season, Castor couldn’t overlook Bailes’ solid campaign for Anchorage’s longtime rival.  Bailes is the Michigan leader in goals (with 14) and points (with 29), and his +14 rating places him within the league’s top ten.  Somewhat surprisingly for one of the league’s consistent stars, this is the first time that Bailes will be appearing in the midseason contest.  He was named to the team in 2017, but he missed the game due to injury; teammate Warren Marlow skated in his place.

D: Benny Lambert, Portland.  The Bluebacks aren’t solely represented by players who were voted in by their enthusiastic fans; Lambert is one of two Portland players chosen by Castor to accompany their starting colleagues.  This is not Lambert’s first All-Star appearance; he was Seattle’s lone representative back in the 2017 contest.  Lambert’s 71 blocks are tops on the Bluebacks, and his 16 assists are tied for second on the team among blueliners.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  After Ericsson narrowly lost the starting spot to Mango, there was little doubt that Castor would add his top-line right winger to the squad.  Ericsson is is one of five Western players who has been an All-Star every year.  He’s justifiably renowned for his skills as a passer, and he remains as sharp as ever: he’s tied for second in the league in assists with 31.  Somewhat more surprisingly, he also has more points than anyone else in the West, with 40.

 

Third Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, Dakota.  Airston, the Jackalopes’ only representative, appears in his third All-Star game.  The fan-favorite winger has been named in rumor after rumor over the last couple of seasons, always supposedly on the verge of being dealt for financial reasons, but he remains in Dakota for the time being, continuing to produce as usual.  Airston leads the Jackalopes in goals with 12, and is tied for the team lead in assists with 15.  “You have to tune all that stuff out and just play your game,” said Airston.  “I think I’ve done a good job with that.”

D: Gary Hermine, Kansas City.  In a surprising pick, Castor tabbed the 22-year-old Hermine as a first-time All-Star.  The Western coach acknowledged that he gave Hermine the nod in part to give the KC crowd another Smoke player to cheer for.  “The fans deserve to see a couple of their own,” Castor said.  But Hermine is also on the team on merit; he’s put together a strong first half with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) and 41 blocks.

C: Tom Hoffman, Anchorage.  This pick by Castor definitely raised eyebrows around the league.  How could the coach pass over his own top-line center, Jake Frost?  How could the star who has started each previous All-Star contest miss the cut entirely?  According to Castor, the move came at Frost’s request.  “He told me, ‘Hoff’s outplaying me so far.  He deserves to go, not me,” said the coach.  “Of course, Frosty might have just wanted a few days off for a change.”  When the Igloos acquired Hoffman from New York in the offseason, the move was regarded as a cheap flyer at a position of need.  To the degree that fans knew Hoffman at all, it was as a draft bust who hadn’t lived up to his potential.  But he’s undergone a career revival in baby.  He has indeed produced more goals (12) and assists (16) than Frost so far on the year.  In addition, he leads the team in plus-minus with a +14 rating.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  This spot originally belonged to Chris Oflyng of Saskatchewan, but the Shockers blueliner suffered an injury a couple games before the break.  To replace Oflyng, Castor went with a familiar face, tapping his own man Pomfret.  It’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the 25-year-old.  Pomfret is on track for a career-best season, putting up 19 points (5 goals, 14 assists) and blocking 61 shots to go with his +7 rating.

RW: Bengt Frederiksson, Kansas City.  The Swedish winger was the #1 pick in the draft, and he has completely lived up to the hype so far amid an otherwise forgettable year for the host city.  His 15 goals puts him among the league’s top ten and atop all rookies.  Similarly, his 36 points places him on the SHL leaderboard; no other freshman is within a dozen points of him.  “I am glad that I will have a chance to enjoy this honor among our fans,” said Frederiksson.

 

Goalies

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  For the first time, Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist is not the Western starter.  And it’s not a fluke driven by the voters; in fact, Worthington has outplayed the mighty Bear so far this season.  His 2.11 GAA is third in the SHL, and his .933 save percentage leads the league.  His underlying numbers belie a 13-10-1 record, which speaks more to a lack of offensive support than anything else.  “It’s nice to see Ty get the top slot for a change,” said Castor.  “He’s earned it.”

Jesse Clarkson, Portland.  In another eyebrow-raising move, Castor elected not to pick Lundquist as Worthington’s backup.  Instead, the Western coach turned to Clarkson, making him the fifth Blueback to appear on the roster.  Clarkson was voted in as the starter of the Eastern team last season, when he played for New York.  After signing with Portland in the offseason, Clarkson rebounded from a shaky start to post his typically solid numbers.  His 16 victories lead the SHL, and he’s backing them up with a skinny 2.68 GAA and a stout .919 save percentage.

Wolves Coach Wright Resigns

For the last four and a half seasons, Ron Wright has been the driving force behind the Michigan Gray Wolves.  He has pushed them hard in grueling practices, demanded a relentless commitment to excellence, and shaped the team’s selfless, hard-nosed identity.  It’s an approach that has yielded results, including a Vandy in 2016 and two playoff appearances.

Ron Wright

But Wright and his players have grown increasingly disenchanted with one another as the Wolves’ record has sunk.  They finished last season in a tailspin, ultimately finishing in fourth place.  And this season, Michigan has been battling with Dakota and Kansas City to stay out of the cellar.  This shocking performance led to an even more shocking development on Saturday, as Wright resigned as Wolves coach.

“Our performance this year has been a disappointment and an embarrassment,” said Wright.  “And the responsibility for that starts with me.  I have failed to motivate this team, and our performance has not been up to our standards.  So the only responsible thing for me to do is to step aside and let the team find a new leader.”

To say that the move was a surprise would be an understatement.  “I think you could sum up the mood in the locker room as stunned,” said C Hunter Bailes.  “Coach Wright always talked about the importance of commitment and being all in, and for him to walk away in the middle of a season is – well, it’s unexpected.”

According to sources close to the team, Wright’s intense, hard-driving personality was embraced by the players when the team was winning.  But as the team’s fortunes have declined, the grumbling about the coach’s demands and brutal practices have grown louder.

“Most of the guys in here are veterans, and we’ve been working in this system for years,” said one player.  “For [Wright] to still be yelling at us like we’re raw rookies, it doesn’t sit right.”

Several players also cited the departure of assistant coach Morris Thompson as a key factor in the decline of Wright’s relationship with his team.  Thompson left to become the head coach of the Saskatchewan Shockers for the 2019 season.  According to several players, Thompson served as a vital buffer between Wright and the players.

“Morris knew how to get [Wright] to tone it down a notch, cool out when needed,” said one player.  “And the players knew that if they had a problem, they could go to Morris and he’d smooth it over.  When he left, the emergency brake was gone.”

One theory is that Wright chose a midseason departure in order to control the terms of his exit.  Many on the team believed that, barring a second-half turnaround to claim a playoff spot, Wright was going to be fired at season’s end.  Rather than wait for the ax to fall, Wright could depart on his own terms.

The team announced that assistant coach Roger Stackledge will take over as interim head coach for the rest of the season.  Barring an unexpected turnaround, GM Tim Carrier will face some interesting decisions at the trading deadline and in the coming offseason.  The Wolves are the league’s oldest team, and while they arguably have too much talent (starting with G Dirk Lundquist and including a stellar defensive corps) to be torn apart, they do not have enough offensive firepower to be a top-tier contender.

“I was not expecting to be holding this press conference in the middle of the season,” said Carrier.  “But I am confident that this team is still capable of being a strong contender.  I am confident in Roger’s ability to lead this team.  We’ll re-group over the All Star break and come back strong.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 1

Hunter Bailes

The SHL selected Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes as its Player of the Week.  The Wolves got their season off to a strong start this week, going 3-1-0 to tie with Kansas City for the Western Division lead.  Unusually for the Wolves, their offense is leading the way, and Bailes is leading their offensive attack.

The 34-year-old center leads the league with 8 points and is tied with teammate Warren Marlow for the league lead in goals with 5.  Bailes’ +8 rating is tied with linemates LW Misha Petronov and RW Gordon Lunsford for the best mark in the SHL.  Bailes came up especially big in a pair of games against Portland.  On Tuesday, he scored and recorded two assists in a 5-2 Wolves win.  On Saturday, he scored twice and added an assist in a 7-1 rout of the Bluebacks.

“I know after the way last season ended, a lot of folks were ready to write us off,” said Bailes.  “They thought we will too old, over the hill.  We might be old, but we sure as hell aren’t dead.  If you think we’re going to fade as the season goes on… well, keep on doubting us.  All the doubters give us fuel.”