The Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl arrives Saturday, and the Connecticut Whale and Providence Bruins are more than a little enthused about participating in the second AHL outdoor game before what will be a record AHL crowd at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
“Excitement is probably the best way to describe our mindset,” said Whale left wing Brodie Dupont, who grew up playing outdoors in the town of St. Lazare, Manitoba, population 265, where his father is mayor. “Guys are excited about something different, and a lot of them haven’t played outdoors for a while. Going there for practice (on Tuesday morning) was kind of cool, and I didn’t think the wind made that big of a difference, though you could feel it out there.
“But the guys have talked about the game for a while. It’s not often you get to do something on a stage like this. We’ve all played outdoors, but not on this kind of a stage. The boys obviously watch all the outdoor games, whether it’s the NHL Classics or college, because it’s usually a pretty big event. Playing before so many people is probably going to be a record for everyone, and looking at the weather forecast, it’s going to be nice, so the crowd is going to have fun.
“It’s all part of the atmosphere. I think people coming to watch will be there more for the atmosphere than to watch a good, high-quality hockey game. The fans will be excited, so I’m sure both teams will be able to build off of it. It’s going to be cool for both teams.”
Cool, indeed, though not as cool as much of this often gruesome winter during which there was record snowfall in January. Three weeks ago, it would have been hard to fathom that there would be a concern about rain and the weather being too warm, but with temperatures forecast for the mid-30s to 40 Saturday, it should be a grand day to play six – games, that is – starting at 7:30 a.m. with the Avon Youth Peewees against the Springfield Pics 99 EHF.
Farmington High faces the Newington/Berlin co-op team at 10 a.m., and then Army plays American International College at 1 p.m. Those games precede the Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl – a group of celebrities mixing in with Hartford Whalers and Boston Bruins legends teams at 4 p.m., followed by the Whale and P-Bruins at 7 p.m. A cthockeyleague.com game scheduled to start at 10:15 p.m. caps the day’s activities. With 28,500 tickets having been sold by early Friday afternoon, the crowd will shatter the AHL record of 21,508 that watched the host Syracuse Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators 2-1 at the New York State Fairgrounds on Feb. 20, 2010.
The practice Tuesday really got a buzz running through the Whale players and staff.
“Since we skated the other day, talk about the game picked up a little more,” Whale right wing Dale Weise said. “We kind of got a feel for what it was like and the lay of the land, so it’s pretty exciting. Everyone knows it’s going to be the biggest crowd any of us has ever played in front of.
“We (had) a game Friday night (in Glens Falls, N.Y.), but we’re not afraid to say we’re pumped up (for Saturday). Nobody here has played outdoors in years and definitely not at the pro level.”
The Whale prepped for the game against the resurgent Adirondack Phantoms, then bused home and waited to be one of the featured attractions in the historic 12-day Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011. The largest event in Connecticut hockey history was the brainchild of Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin, who has begun to revive hockey interest in the area with the long-range goal of bringing the NHL back to Hartford.
Baldwin’s wishes got a shot in the arm in August, when WSE hosted the Whalers Reunion and Fan Fest that included a golf tournament, a dinner to benefit the Arthritis Foundation and a Fan Fest at Rentschler Field. Baldwin hoped 1,500 to 2,000 would show for the Fan Fest, but the number was about 5,000, many of whom waited as long as three hours to get autographs from 22 former Whalers.
Since the Hartford Wolf Pack was renamed and rebranded as the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27, attendance at the XL Center has nearly doubled, and Baldwin hopes the Hockey Fest continues to build interest and enthusiasm.
Whale coach Ken Gernander said he noticed an increased vigor in everyone after the practice at Rentschler.
“I think the guys enjoyed it and worked hard,” he said. “We had a good practice; nothing by any means that was a ‘muffin’ or ‘friends and giggles.’ It was a good day, but I think the guys enjoyed being outside and a change of scenery, and I’m sure they’re looking forward to the game.”
The P-Bruins had scheduled a practice at Rentschler Field on Monday night, but coach Rob Murray canceled it because the team played three games in three days last weekend and then had to travel to Portland on Tuesday, when they lost their seventh consecutive game 7-0, their largest margin of defeat this season. Instead of The Rent, they practiced on the Bank of America outdoor skating rink in downtown Providence, a few strides from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
“This is going to be cool, it’s going to be fun, there’s supposed to be a big crowd,” Bruins right wing Kirk MacDonald told the Attleboro (Mass.) Sun Chronicle. “Growing up in Victoria (British Columbia), we didn’t have any outdoor rinks. This is going to be a lot different than from a normal game. To get to experience something that not too many other people get a chance to do is going to be cool. Of course, it’ll be more fun if we win.”
The Whale is 4-2-0-0 against the Bruins (23-28-3-1), who hosted Portland on Friday night. They were outscored 34-10 in the seven consecutive losses but should be helped by the return of forwards Zach Hamill and Jordan Caron from the parent Boston Bruins. But center Joe Colborne, the Bruins’ first-round pick in 2008 and the P-Bruins’ third-leading scorer (12 goals, 14 assists), was part of a trade Friday in which the parent club acquired defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The P-Bruins’ leading scorers are All-Star center Jamie Arniel (15, 17), Hamill (3, 25), MacDonald (11, 15) and center Maxime Sauve (13, 6), who had two goals in each of the Bruins’ two wins over the Whale. Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has four goals, seven assists and 117 penalty minutes. Michael Hutchinson (7-7-0, 3.11, .898, no shutouts) rejoined the Bruins on Thursday, switching places with fellow rookie Matt Dalton (7-9-0, 3.20, .894, two shutouts), who was returned to Reading of the ECHL after allowing seven goals Tuesday. Hutchinson was the P-Bruins’ Player of the Month in November thanks largely to a seven-game unbeaten streak from Oct. 31 to Nov. 24 before losing five of six starts and being sent to Reading. He was 9-5-3 with a 2.85 GAA and .917 save percentage with his first pro shutout with Reading. Hutchinson and Dalton originally swapped places on Dec. 29. Veteran Nolan Schaefer is 9-15-1, 3.14, .897, no shutouts.
Goalie Cam Talbot (high ankle sprain), center Todd White (concussion), wings Chad Kolarik (hamstring) and Chris McKelvie (foot surgery) and defenseman Tomas Kundratek (flu) missed the Phantoms game, but Kundratek could return against the Bruins. Center Kris Newbury, the Whalers’ second-leading scorer (8, 33) to All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams (24, 19), was called up by the Rangers on Wednesday as a possible replacement for Wojtek Wolski (rib cage) but was a healthy scratch for a 4-3 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night. Newbury rejoined the Whale on Friday.
Despite the AHL attendance record assured of being broken, officials of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which runs the Whale’s business operations and is handling the event, hopes to sell out the 38,000 seats to keep intact all the outdoor NHL and college games having sellouts. The only day that tickets are not general admission is Saturday.
There were two high school games Friday night, and Enfield native Craig Janney, who is playing for the Boston Bruins legends, dropped the ceremonial first puck before the game between Enfield High, his alma mater, and Northwest Catholic-West Hartford. A reception for the legends and celebrities in the Whale Bowl opener was held at The Rent as the Enfield-Northwest Catholic game wound down and the Wethersfield High-East Catholic-Manchester game was played.
Tickets ($20 to $85) for Saturday can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com, online and printed immediately at Ticketmaster.com, or by calling the Whale at 860-728-3366.
Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team. Other commitments are Janney, former captain Rick Middleton, Reggie Lemelin, Don Marcotte, Rick Smith, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, Cleon Daskalakis, Jay Miller, Bob Miller (no relation), Bruce Shoebottom, Tom Songin and Ken “The Rat” Linseman, a member of the Whalers for a few moments as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Derek Sanderson, Ken Hodge and Gary Doak will coach the Bruins team.
Commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer and all-time leading scorer Andre Lacroix, Blaine Stoughton, Pat Verbeek, John Anderson, Garry Swain, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens, Bill Bennett, Jeff Brubaker, Fred O’Donnell, Terry Yake, Scott Daniels, Ed Hospodar, Yvon Corriveau, the brother tandems of Dave and Wayne Babych and Doug and Gordie Roberts, and former Wolf Pack player Todd Hall of Hamden. John McKenzie, whose retired No. 19 hangs in the XL Center rafters, former captain Russ Anderson, Norm Barnes and Paul MacDermid will coach the Whalers team.
Celebrities Cameron Bancroft, Michael Buie and Neal McDonough will play with the Bruins team, while the Whalers side will include Bobby Farrelly, David Henrie and the Hanson brothers – Steve, Jeff and Dave – who were the comedic linchpins of the iconic movie “Slap Shot.”
Paul Stewart, a Boston native and the only American to referee more than 1,000 NHL games in a 13-year career, will officiate the game. He also officiated at the Canada Cup in 1987 and 1991 after an eight-year playing career with teams in the NAHL, AHL, NEHL, CHL, WHA and NHL.
“The Zambonis,” the most popular sports-rock band in North America from Bridgeport, will perform at the Rentschler Field entrance before the legends and AHL games. The 100 percent hockey-rock band performed two big shows at the recent NHL All-Star Game, the latest triumph in a career that dates to being formed by “defenseman/guitarist/singer” Dave Schneider in 1991.
The official charity of the Hockey Fest is “Sam’s Race for a Place,” a fund-raising effort spearheaded by West Hartford resident Samantha Udolf that benefits the Ronald McDonald House. Since Udolf, a successful competitive skier, founded Sam’s Race for a Place in June of 2008, it has generated donations of more than $43,500.
The Ronald McDonald House is a non-profit charity operating since 1991 that helps hundreds of families and children enjoy the comforts of home while they await treatment at area medical facilities. Udolf became familiar with Ronald McDonald House and its good works while volunteering there, and she conceived Sam’s Race for a Place after learning it is independently-funded and depends on grass-roots campaigns for nearly all of its support.
For more information about Sam’s Race for a Place, visit www.samsraceforaplace.com, where donations can be made. Besides the games, the Hockey Fest will include “Whale Town” featuring exhibitors, games and the Whalers Mobile Hall of Fame.
The schedule of games can be found at www.ctwhale.com. There will be a public skate on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with eight one-hour sessions for the public and one from 7 to 9 p.m. for Whale season ticket holders and Hockey Fest ticket holders. Tickets ($10) are available at the Rentschler Field and Bushnell box offices. Participants must bring their own skates, and sessions will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Season ticket holders and Hockey Fest ticket holders are encouraged to RSVP by calling Whalers Sports and Entertainment at 860-728-3366.
WHALE CONTINUES TO BE ROAD WARRIORS NEXT WEEK
The Whale is back on the road at Portland on Monday at 1 p.m. and then will play their first two games in Charlotte, N.C., against the Checkers, their former ECHL affiliate, on Thursday and Saturday. They finally return to the XL Center on March 2 to face the Springfield Falcons. Their ensuing home game is March 11 against the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, ending a brutal stretch of 10 road games in 12.
Entering Friday night’s game against Providence, the Pirates (33-15-4-1) had won four in a row and 15 of 19, including a 3-2 victory over the Whale at the XL Center on Feb. 6 that tied the season series at 3 in the teams’ fifth one-goal game. The Pirates are led by 2010 All-Star right wing Mark Mancari, who leads the AHL in goals (30) and is third in points (58). He’s followed by defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani (9, 28), left wing Derek Whitmore (20, 13), 2011 All-Star center Luke Adam (15, 17) and left wing Colin Stuart (10, 22). Center Paul Byron (14, 17) is on recall to the parent Buffalo Sabres. David Leggio (15-4-0, 2.49, .919) has been tough on the Whale, including his first of two shutouts, 3-0 in Portland on Jan. 14. Jhonas Enroth is 18-14-1, 2.83, .910, no shutouts.
The Checkers (30-19-2-4), the new AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, were on a five-game points streak (4-0-1-0) before a 3-0 loss to the Albany Devils on Tuesday night. Entering a game at Binghamton on Friday night, their leading scorer, All-Star right wing Jerome Samson (26, 28), was on recall to the Hurricanes. The top remaining scorers are left wings Jacob Micflikier (21, 22), Oskar Osala (13, 28) and Chris Terry (20, 20) and center Zach Boychuk (15, 25), who was reassigned to the Checkers on Sunday. The Checkers have gone all season with only two goalies, Mike Murphy (15-9-2, 2.95, .907, no shutouts) and Justin Pogge (15-12-2, 3.04, .908, no shutouts). … The Whale’s intrastate rival, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, finally earned a point Wednesday night in a 4-3 shootout loss at Springfield, ending a nine-game losing streak in regulation. But they still have only one win in 2011 (1-14-2-2), and it won’t get any easier this weekend as they visit Hershey on Saturday night and host the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs on Sunday afternoon.
THREE WHALE PLAYERS AMONG PROSPECTS TRADING CARDS
Two Whale players, goalie Chad Johnson and forward Evgeny Grachev, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, now on recall to the Rangers, are in the 150-card Heroes and Prospects trading card set by In the Game. The three have all played with the Rangers, though Johnson’s five-game stint was last season. They are pictured on those cards in Wolf Pack uniforms.
In the Game has been making its Heroes and Prospects hockey set for several years, and it’s become a must-have for many hockey fans. This year’s 150-card set includes seven Hockey Hero cards, three international prospects, 90 Canadian major junior hockey league players and 50 AHL players. Many of the players have already been drafted, while others are expected to be early picks in upcoming NHL drafts.
There are a lot of memorabilia, autograph, jersey, game-used emblem and AHL 75th Anniversary cards, including the one of AHL Hall of Famer John Paddock, who coached the Wolf Pack to their only Calder Cup title in his first of three seasons, 1999-2000.
Other notable player cards are Logan Couture and Alex Stalock (San Jose-Worcester), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens-Hamilton Bulldogs), Tyler Ennis (Buffalo Sabres-Portland Pirates), John Carlson (Washington Capitals-Hershey Bears), John Moore (Columbus Blue Jackets-Springfield Falcons), Blake Geoffrion (Nashville Predators-Milwaukee Admirals), Jared Staal (Carolina Hurricanes-Charlotte Checkers) and Linus Omark (Edmonton Oilers-Oklahoma City Barons), as well as Calder Cup champion cards Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin, Andrew Gordon and Mathieu Perreault; non-memorabilia insert cards such as Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler and Eric Wellwood; and 75th Anniversary cards Billy Smith, Brett Hull, Bruce Boudreau, Doug Harvey, Eddie Shore, Emile Francis, Gerry Cheevers, John Slaney, Carey Price, Jason Spezza, Larry Robinson, Les Cunningham, Martin Brodeur, Milt Schmidt, Patrick Roy, Pelle Lindbergh, Terry Sawchuk, Mitch Lamoureux, Willie Marshall and Zdeno Chara.
The card sets cost $94.99 and are available at www.theahl.com. All-Star Game jerseys and merchandise are also available.
ZUCCARELLO, CHRISTENSEN A DYNAMIC DUO
Erik Christensen and former Whale wing Mats Zuccarello have become a dynamic opening combo in shootouts for the Rangers. In fact, they’ve been an almost perfect 9-for-10, usually from the leadoff spots. They were again Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Bernier, enabling the Rangers to get a much-needed 4-3 victory and helping give goalie Henrik Lundqvist his 200th career win.
Zuccarello, the “Norwegian Hobbit” with the terrific hands, usually skates in at 33 rpm and then makes a quick shifty move at the end, leaving him an almost open net to deposit the puck.
“Sometimes you don’t play that much, but you still have to be focused and be positive if you get the chance to take it,” Zuccarello, who played a team-low 8:24, told reporters after the game. “You keep wanting to be the guy, so you’re nervous, but what’s the worst thing that can happen – you miss a penalty shot?”
Zuccarello has always been successful with the same move. He failed against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 1, switching because he thought he had become too predictable.
“Eventually, it will be (too predictable) and I will have to change, but for now I’m staying,” Zuccarello said. “Maybe you shouldn’t put that in the newspapers. Maybe there shouldn’t be any video.”
Christensen improved to 4-for-4 this season and 22-for-39 in his career with a nifty forehand-backhand move. He started on the fourth line and was bumped to the first line in place of Vinny Prospal, getting 4:52 of his 10:11 in the third period.
“I have a lot of experience in (shootouts), starting with the minors,” said Christensen, who has used a variety of moves. “I always know what I’m going to do when I pick up the puck. There’s less chance of screwing up that way.
“I’ve had times where I played five minutes in a game and scored, so that’s not an issue for me. It’s not like your skill goes away.”
No, fortunately for the Rangers, the skills of Christensen and Zuccarello have come to the forefront at the most critical time.
And as usually is the case, Zuccarello wasn’t the only former Wolf Pack/Whale player to make a major contribution for the Rangers. Right wing Ryan Callahan, seemingly destined to succeed Trumbull native Chris Drury as team captain, had a goal and an assist, giving him five goals and two assists in seven games since missing six weeks with a broken hand.
Former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov scored the Rangers’ third goal with 3:08 left in regulation when he deflected Dubinsky’s shot past Bernier, but he was deprived of the game-winner when Dustin Brown, always a thorn in the Wolf Pack’s side while playing for the Manchester Monarchs and the game’s No. 3 star, scored his second goal of the game on a bank shot off Lundqvist’s head only 47 seconds later. Former Wolf Pack Dan Girardi and All-Star Marc Staal continue to be the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive duo, and the rookie pairing of Ryan McDonagh and former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer was plus-3. Sauer also had an assist on Marian Gaborik’s goal when he poked the puck along the boards to send the speedy wing racing down the right side for a knuckle ball from the circle that beat Bernier to the far side.
The Kings, meanwhile, extended their points streak to 11 games (8-0-3) a night after winning a shootout at Columbus behind Milford native Jonathan Quick, who stopped all three shots in a 4-3 victory to improve to 7-0 in the skills competition. Thursday night was the Kings’ eighth game on a 10-game road trip and continued a dramatic improvement from a 2-10-0 stretch last season from Dec. 29 to Jan. 20 as they try to secure a playoff spot in a wacky Western Conference race.
“You knew they weren’t going to give up or let up,” said Callahan, the game’s No. 1 star. “It’s a good team over there. They’ve got a lot of speed, they work hard and it’s really tough to get through the neutral zone on them. But we kept at it, kept with the game plan and it paid off in the end. It’s really big. We showed some character through it.”
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