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.