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.”
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.