Other than hosting the Calder Cup – which I haven’t done of course, but I can say would be a life highlight – I could not have had more fun since doing this job than I did at the 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts AHL All-Star Classic on Monday and Tuesday. To be called by the American Hockey League and be asked to assist in the international television broadcast of the events, which the League worked to get inside of 100 million homes, was the biggest honor I’ve ever received. MANY thanks to the entire AHL staff, from President/CEO Dave Andrews on down. I hope to help out again someday.
Looking at a picture of my post-game chat with Providence Bruins captain Trent Whitfield really made me reflect on how much fun that was for me. And it was a genuinely good time for the participants as well. Whitfield, who I had always heard was one of the greatest, friendliest and most kindhearted human beings, nearly made that entire weekend a storybook ending for his hometown fans. The last shot in the skills competition – the sixth chance in the breakaway relay, with the Eastern Conference trailing 12-11 – was Whitfield’s to take. And he drilled the crossbar behind Charlotte’s Justin Peters. Not to mention, the puck came straight down but didn’t go in. The very next night, with the East trailing 6-5 late in the third period, Syracuse defenseman Mark Barberio hit Whitfield with a breakaway pass, which Whitfield fired past Grand Rapids goaltender Petr Mrazek to tie the game with 2:30 left to play. If only Toronto Marlies forward Ryan Hamilton didn’t score with 11 seconds left on the clock to send the West to victory – and if only the goal didn’t complete a hat trick – Providence had its All-Star storybook closed.
But still, it was quite a display by Whitfield and all of the All-Stars.
And now, it’s time to get back to the grind. First and foremost, the BEARS did some shuffling to their lineup this week. Out go Mathieu Beaudoin and Zach Hamill, and in come Peter LeBlanc and Casey Wellman. For Beaudoin, he should now get even steadier time in the Rockford IceHogs lineup. He is a class act, and thanked everybody before he left. For Hamill, his contract gets picked up by the Florida Panthers and he will go to AHL San Antonio. He left as quietly as he came. I didn’t get a chance to see him before he walked out, but I know Hamill is all business. Like his demeanor, he came in and quietly rattled off 22 points, including 11 goals – which was third-best on the BEARS. He played key special teams roles. And he will be a great fit with the Rampage.
LeBlanc – who I found out is good buddies with former BEARS forward and current Hamilton Bulldogs front man Joey Tenute – brings a heck of a shot and a knack for scoring. Despite not finding his groove this season in Rockford, LeBlanc lit the lamp an impressive 24 times last year, and his offensive strength will be a welcome addition. Wellman isn’t a stranger to HERSHEY, either – as, upon being acquired by the New York Rangers last season – played his first game with the Connecticut Whale right here at GIANT Center. He brings very good speed and is a set-up man – something that the BEARS top guns will also welcome. Not to mention, he has played at one time with T.J. Syner, Jon DiSalvatore and Jeff Taffe. It won’t be too tough of an adjustment for him.
The difficult part for the two newcomers will be the amount of time they have to learn the BEARS’ ways. They arrived in the afternoon on Friday, so neither was able to practice with the team. And with today being a game day, their skate was 30 minutes long, their video session with assistant coach Troy Mann was about half as long, and their first game in the Chocolate and White is less than seven hours away.
We welcome Peter LeBlanc and Casey Wellman to HERSHEY, and I look forward to shouting their names on the scoring side of my game sheet frequently.
Speaking of tonight’s game, in game #44 for the BEARS, we see an opponent for the first time – and for the first of four meetings – in the Manchester Monarchs. This is a fast team, with a few tenured players helping out talented rookies. Marc-Andre Cliche has been a mainstay on Mark Morris’ top forward lines. Andre Loktionov has NHL experience with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. All-Star Tyler Toffoli has already sniped 20 goals. And rookie Tanner Pearson is in the top 15 among AHL rookies in scoring.
Philipp Grubauer is expected to draw the start in goal. Here’s hoping for a great start to the unofficial second half of the AHL season – and a good start to February here at home.
Game notes are all set here.