On the Topic Of European/North American Hockey Relations

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Photo from @OntarioReign

Did you know that there as an international friendly that happened on Tuesday in Ontario?? More likely not, as there wasn’t much pomp and circumstance on the grand scheme of things, but the Ontario Reign took on Eisbaren Berlin on Tuesday, with Ontario cruising to a 6-3 win in front of  over 8,700 fans– according to the Ontario Reign.

Looking at the highlights from their Twitter, the Berlin fans who were in attendance really made it for a European feel of chanting and constant energy throughout the game. However, it didn’t seem to get much of a ground swell outside of the Ontario and Berlin community. Hell, this is the first time since 2014 when Farjestad took on the AHL All-Stars and then the Toronto Marlies that international teams took on North American teams during the regular season– as far as I know, that is.

There’s something to be said about the idea of international teams coming to North America to play against AHL teams, something more to be said when it has to deal with the AHL squads beating those international teams. Sure, the teams coming over may not bring their best line-up, especially since those teams are also in season. However– wouldn’t it be something to see more of these international friendlies and actually have them promoted by outside media sources in order to garner a little more appeal?? Of course it would, we all love hockey and getting to know more teams outside of the North American bubble would be a nice change of pace for some people.

When it comes to something like this, there’s two ways to go about it. First, get more teams active in forming a sister cities approach to international teams. Have each AHL or ECHL team adopt a European team and keep track that way. While it would be much harder to get the ECHL team to agree to it since they often have players defect to Europe to play, the idea could be there for the AHL by the parent organizations to almost compare ideas of coaching and playing styles and all that fun crap. It may be a hard-sell, but something that could be done. Ontario and Berlin came together if only because The Anschutz Group owns both teams.

The second way to go about it is to find a way to have more international tournaments for the minor league teams to participate in. While the Spengler Cup is a tournament that once in a blue moon invites AHL teams to their party (mainly the Rochester Americans), there needs to be more ideas.

One could be the idea of putting the Calder Cup champions in the Champions Hockey League. Yes, it could create havoc on scheduling, but to have a North American representation would be a big boost for the North American game and get people more invested in the European side of things. But, like I said, the schedule in Europe allows a lot more leeway for the teams to play in their country league and the Champions’ league– so many North American leagues would be pretty hard pressed to have involvement, but at the same time– one can dream about it.

There’s untapped potential when it comes to having European teams come over to North America more frequently and vice versa. The hardest point is to actually find a way to make it happen logistically and not just force down people’s throat like an outdoor game we’ve seen time and time again. You need to have it frequent enough to make people want to see it, but infrequent enough that you don’t over-saturate the marketplace.

Sadly, hockey marketing teams everywhere have yet to figure out that balance. So it goes. The dream is alive, but sleep hard before it becomes a reality.

McKenna’s Departure Leaves Wide-Open Field for ECHL…and Maybe Me Taking Over

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On Wednesday, the ECHL announced that commissioner Brian McKenna was stepping down from his post following the 2017-18 season. McKenna has been in that spot for 16 years and has seen the growth of the ECHL from a league where it was very few prospects and many guys on their last legs to a legit developmental league where many NHL teams place their young guns when the AHL is too full or they feel the player would be better served in a league that helps adjust to the pro game.

McKenna has seen some ups and downs, sure, but it’s been a very net gain for what McKenna has grown. The league absorbed the WCHL and CHL in his tenure, while also seeing steady growth amongst stable membership and making head-way from the West Coast to the Northeast corridor in the last couple seasons after the AHL went to their West Coast footprint. His ability to help the league geographically has been a solid work, too. Kudos for what he has done.

There has been no replacement as of yet, but I’m going to suggest one person who I think would be great for this job.

Scotty Wazz.

That’s right, I’m officially throwing my hat in the ring for the ECHL Board of Governors to look at when it comes to hiring their new commissioner. I know that I may not have the qualifications a normal applicant would have, but my knowledge of hockey and the business of minor league hockey could be something that should be looked at. Add that to actually seeing the fan reaction and taking those into account when talking and posting about what the league could/should/would do in different situations.

Now, let’s be honest, I’m not even in the running. The idea of a blogger/podcaster to be in such a high position is more a publicity gimmick and for a league as legitimate as the ECHL wouldn’t stoop to something so silly. Yet…there’s always a chance until there isn’t one.

I dealt first with the ECHL when the Chesapeake Icebreakers were a thing in the late 1990s, being the stickboy and around the team for a while– I saw the passion these guys had for the league and saw a lot of people outside of the players doing as much as they can in order to get to that next level. Hell, Dana Heinze is a guy I remember unloading the Johnstown Chiefs’ bus and now he’s got a couple Stanley Cup rings in Tampa and Pittsburgh.

While the business on the ice is at its top point, there’s still room to figure out what’s going to happen off the ice is still there and how to make all the teams successful. Not just the team they ice, but what they actually have in terms of other entertainment to help the fans during the stoppages in play. When I spoke with Brampton Beast President and General Manager Cary Kaplan, he said that the team didn’t market hockey, they marketed entertainment. I’d suggest going to all the member teams rinks, holding a “town hall” of sort for the boosters, fans, season ticket members– whomever– and see what’s working and what’s not working off the ice. From the in-arena promotions to what’s happening (or not happening) outside of the arena and into the cities. Adjust and adapting marketing projects could be integral to a team surviving and folding.

The ECHL is grass-roots hockey with a little bit of corporate flare. While you need the corporate side of things to keep the lights on, you also need the community support. In fact, the community support could be the biggest thing needed because sure– a team could have top of the line facilities, but if they don’t have a solid base for a support staff around them…they aren’t going to make it anywhere.

Granted, there’s some other ideas I have, but I haven’t really planned it all out. It’s a work in progress as we push towards Scotty Wazz as commissioner for the ECHL after the 2017-18 season.

….and if not commissioner, some kind of fan relations liaison to present to the Board every now and again to see what is working and what isn’t.

Minor League Weekly: Puempel Powering Griffins, LaValle-Smotherman on Fire, SPHL MVP Contenders

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Photo by Icon Sportswire

-It’s taken the Grand Rapids Griffins a while to get going, but with points in eight of their last ten games– they’ve regained their championship form. A lot of that success is due in part to the play of Matt Puempel, who’s in the midst of a nine-game point-streak (6g 7a), while having 40 points in 35 games with the Griffins and putting Puempel fourth in the AHL in scoring. This season is looking to be Puempel’s best in the AHL. With 43 points (19g, 24a) already this season, Puempel is only five points away from tying his AHL high, which he set in his rookie season of 2013-14 with the Binghamton Senators.

-When it comes to Thatcher Demko, it’s a matter of when he’ll get the full-time call-up to the Vancouver Canucks. His play this season has been stellar (17-7-5, 2.27 GAA, .929 Sv%) and will give the Canucks an interesting move late in their season– whether to call him up to get some NHL playing time, as he’ll luckily move into that role next season– or will they allow him to stay with Utica for the rest of the season and get a taste of a playoff run??

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-Since the turning of the calendar, Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman has turned on his game big time with 11g, 12a in 14 games in 2018. The Monarchs forward has been on quite the roll with multi-point games in six of his last season, which has quietly put him in second spot for league leaders in points (52) and second in the league in goals (26). Not bad for a guy getting back into the North American game full-time after traveling around Europe from 2011 until towards the end of the 2016-17 season.

-There might be a chip in Joe Cannata’s shoulder because his play right now is really telling the Colorado Avalanche he wants to be promoted. The minor-league vet is 16-2-1 with a 2.13 GAA and .934 Sv%, which puts him 2nd and 1st respectively in the league. After years of being in the AHL– whether it being the veteran back-up or the stop-gap veteran– he’s in the ECHL full-time for the first time since 2014-15. With a championship team in front of him, he could be marking his way for when the Eagles move up to the AHL next season.

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-While Jake Hauswirth has had a great season– it’s going to be hard-pressed for him to go ahead and win the MVP on a non-playoff team. For me, Berkley Scott could be the front-runner, especially with the month he just had in January (9g, 7a)–which earned him Player of the Month honors. Tomas Shall should also get some kind of recognition for the year he’s had with Evansville thus far with a 14-2-2 record, while ranking top-five in GAA and save percentage.

Minor League Weekly: Utica Heating Up, Joe Cox Making His Mark, Final SPHL Spot Shuffling

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Photo by Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets Facebook

-Heading into hosting the All-Star Game, the Utica Comets are amongst one of the hottest teams in the league with points in nine of their last 10 games (7-1-1-1) and four-straight wins. Even with leading scorer Reid Boucher (20g, 17a) on the shuttle from Utica to Vancouver, the Comets are still fighting in the playoff hunt. Thatcher Demko has continued to improve in the system with the Comets (16-7-5, 2.28 GAA, .929Sv%), but will need a lot of goal support to help. Despite Boucher’s 20, no other comment is in double-digits for goals. To keep their hot streak alive and hope to get a playoff berth, something will need to be done offensively to help Utica out.

-While things aren’t going great in Glendale, the Tucson Roadrunners are giving Coyotes’ fans some hope of what’s to come, mostly due to rookies Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley, who have commanded the offense for the Roadrunners in the first half of the season. While veterans Michael Bunting and Mike Sislo have helped out, the youth is being quite served– especially with Hunter Miska leading the team in wins (12-3-0), but his GAA (2.98) and save percentage (.898) leave much to be desired.

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Photo by Florida Everblades Facebook

-One player that could be lost in the Florida Everblades season could be the second-half play, thus far, of rookie Joe Cox. The Michigan State product is on a seven-game point streak (3g, 10a) and has provided a much needed punch for the secondary scoring for the Everblades already dynamic offense. It just goes to show the time it takes players to develop, as Cox’s best season before this was in the USHL when he had 20 goals and 20 assists for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, while his junior year at MSU was his most productive with 11 goals and 23 points in 35 games. Around an All-Star line-up as he is, the protection could allow Cox to flourish throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

-At the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Wheeling Nailers have gotten a lot of their offensive from their first-year players. While Cody Wydo continues to be a constant, the emergence of Reid Gardner has been a welcome for the Nailers. Gardner leads the teams in goals with 21 and power-play goals with six. Couple that with another rookie in Cam Brown leading the team with 39 points (12g, 27a), the Nailers continue to churn out talent for the Penguins organization. The offensive will need to be strong, as the by-committee goaltending has a combined 3.14 GAA on the year.

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-The race for the eighth-seed is still hot and heavy between a second-year Roanoke team who changed coaches to change fortune, the rebranded Fayetteville Marksman with one of the top players in the league in Jake Hauswirth on the team, while the expansion Birmingham Bulls are only three points out and have Mavric Parks being second in the league in minutes played and 7th in the league in save percentage (.911) despite a 3.32 GAA. When it comes to this playoff format, too, it should be interesting to see if the traditional 1st vs. 8th seed get picked because who knows how the top seed will look at these teams, who are already in playoff mode as it is.

ECHL Reveal 2019 All-Star Classic Format and It’s….Something

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A day after they held their 2018 All-Star Classic, the ECHL went ahead and revamped their All-Star Classic for 2019, showing that they’re wasting not time whatsoever to get the hype train going for Toledo next year, despite other markets not being keen on hosting an All-Star Classic due to the painstaking hours off-ice that need to be done in order to put one of those things on.

In any case, the ECHL has revealed that the All-Star Classic will continue to be 3-on-3, but instead of having all four divisions represented– the Eastern and Western conference will have a team of All-Stars, while the Toledo Walleye will have two teams in the All-Star Classic competing against each other. It’s basically the dream that a lot of Canadian hockey fans have when it comes to having two Canadian National teams in the Olympics or World Juniors.

Firstly, to announce this more than 365 days before the event happens seems a little….odd?? You’re just coming off an All-Star Classic and you’re already forgetting about that event and just pushing forward with the plans for next year?? You’d think that they’d want to announce it during the off-season when there is no news and actually have people talk a little bit about this during the dog days of the off-season.

Secondly, what sense does it make to make to kill more roster spots for All-Stars by taking away two whole division spots?? Is it because of the call-ups?? Is it because some guys didn’t want to go?? It just seems silly for a situation like this to happen when you’re trying to display the entire league’s stars– but you end up showing off one team and a select amount of stars on the world stage. It was one thing when the ECHL had the host team play against the full amount of All-Stars, but this seems very odd to split one of those teams up and then have them play against each other.

More over, you just had a game where because of call-ups and some oversight, a lot of the top scorers in the league weren’t in attendance. Call-ups are the nature of the business, but from the on-set– when seven of the top-10 scorers are missing from the game; that’s problematic for an All-Star Classic.

Yes, I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to this because it’s not geared towards me, it’s geared toward the appeal of the community. That said, I would want this to be more entertaining than it is. The ideal of the All-Star Game is really a passe thing because we have an overabundance of access to leagues and games and everything these days– it’s not that big a necessity to have All-Star Games in any sport. I’ve always heldfast in the belief that you do a Comic-Con type of event with players available for signings and a lot more interactive festivities for the fans rather than just a game.

However, I’m just one voice in a crowd of differing opinion. And the opinion seems to be the same old song keeps works, so play on.

Minor League Weekly: Ontario Reigning Point-Streaks, Dupont Guiding Norfolk, Parks is Peoria New Hope

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-While all the Pacific teams are over .500, the Ontario Reign will need to keep digging deeper in order to keep up with the rest of the division. Lucky for them, however, they have two of the hottest scorers in the league right now. Both Mike Amadio and Jonny Brodzinski are on big points streak that rank in the top-10 for the season, with Amadio’s 16-game point streak (8g, 19a) being the longest in the AHL so far. Brodzinski isn’t a slouch, however, with a nine-game streak (6g, 8a) which is tied for 7th longest this season going into Monday’s games.

-If they’re not careful, the Springfield Thunderbirds could be a dark horse to climb up the standings and snag one of the final playoff spot in the Atlantic. The Thunderbirds are winners of seven of their last 11, including three straight heading into the new week. With their goaltending being somewhat shaky on the year, they’ll need to get a lot more support for Samuel Montembeault. While Curtis Valk is ahead in the team points, the real test will be to see how the likes of Dryden Hunt and Anthony Greco respond to a possible late-season push for the team to help support Valk and Alexandre Grenier.

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-Despite being on a bad team, Brodie Dupont is making the most of his time in Norfolk. With 39 points in 37 games, the former New York Rangers’ prospect leads the team in points and is quietly 8th in the league. While the Admirals could make a late-season push for the playoffs, you have to wonder if someone like Dupont will be dangled out there at the trade deadline to get some prospects back and build into the future with that team. Dupont was traded last year to Greenville, only to return in the off-season.

-Since returning to Reading on December 28th, John Muse has continued his solid play for the Royals. Muse is 7-1-0 since returning, pushing his record to 13-4-1 on the season, while also ranking second amongst goalies in GAA and save percentage. The 2012 Kelly Cup Playoff MVP is coming back to the ECHL full-time for the first time since the 2012-13 campaign in Florida.

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-It was a helluva holiday season for the Peoria Rivermen, who lost both goalies– Eric Levine and Storm Phaneuf to season-ending injuries over the holidays. Because of that, Tyler Parks has been thrown into the starting role, which has led him to an 8-2-0 record on the season and winning six of his last seven. Luckily, the Rivermen do have a solid goalie pipeline at their fingertips, which has come in handy in a situation like this. They continue to be four points behind Pensacola for top spot in the league with two games in hand.

REPORT: ECHL Tabs St. John’s as Latest Market

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According to David Salter, the former Director of Communications for the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL, there’s going to be an ECHL team coming to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador in the near future. Salter said that a source from outside the area was the one who told him that it will be happening. Salter also stated that the franchise will be affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens, while trying to use the IceCaps name.

Of course, this brings up a host of other questions. With the Canadiens going to this new St. John’s team, who would the Brampton Beast turn to in order to be an affiliate?? There are two options– one of which being the Toronto Maple Leafs– who have the Marlies feet away from their doorstep, why not have their ECHL team there rather than in Orlando?? Of course, Orlando runs a nice little ship there and the Leafs may like that a little better. The other option is the Ottawa Senators, who moved their AHL team to Belleville, which is two hours west of Brampton. Currently, the Senators are without an ECHL affiliate and it would make sense to keep the teams in Ontario if you’re going to go that route.

Another question is what to do with travel. Even with the Northeast expansion, St. John’s would be 1,200 miles away from their nearest rival in Portland, which is something I wrote about a month ago when this idea first started to get legs. According to Salter, Dean MacDonald is in fact the man who will own the team, so you can bet that he or his group will have to find a way to off-set costs for teams to travel there. It would most likey follow the Alaska Aces method of having three-game weekend sets up there and then they tour around the Northeast and what-have-you.

While nothing has been set in stone, the fact that sources outside of the local area are reporting it should give it plenty of legs to make it happen. The domino effect could be something that could become very interesting down the line, especially for teams who are already involved with ECHL franchises and the possibility for flipping affiliations.

ECHL Playing Games During All-Star Game is Absurd

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While there are people getting all hyped about the ECHL All-Star Game that is going to happen in Indianapolis January 15th; there’s an interesting turn that Justin Cohn of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette brought up in the midst of talking about guys who may have gotten snubbed for this honor of going to the game.

And lo and behold, Atlanta hosts Florida, Tulsa is in Allen, and Rapid City heads to Utah for three games. Florida will be without goalie Martin Ouellette, Atlanta without high-scoring forward Phil Lane, Allen’s top offensive-defenseman David Makowski, Tulsa’s Conner Bleackley, Rapid City’s top offensive threat Dante Salituro, and Utah’s rookie defensmen Cliff Watson will all be out of the line-up as they take part in the 3-on-3 tournament that the ECHL is putting on.

What professional league does something so silly to have one of their marquee events, which is put on the NHL Network, while regular season DIVISIONAL GAMES are taking place??

Sure, Rapid City is way out of the playoffs and Florida is having a helluva season, but everyone else is in the thick of the playoff race. As Cohn mentioned, what if you’re playing a rival where one of your top guys is out for an exhibition game like this and you lose two big points because of something like this??

To play the Devil’s advocate, though– this could happen if the top guy was called up to the AHL on a PTO or whatever, so it’s a situation that could happen and teams have to have adapt as they need to in order to succeed. Yet, it’s not an AHL or NHL team that moving the guys away from the line-up. The league itself, the play you pay your franchise fee to is pulling some of your best players out of the line-up of a regular season game for an exhibition.

AND THAT’S NOT ALL– by my count– seven of the top-10 in league scoring are not going to be appearing at the game. Why would you have that many top scorers out of that line-up?? Sure, you want to have every team represented and there’s a lot of guys on the same team that are in the top scoring list (Cincinnati, Greenville, Fort Wayne), but to have your best players not playing is a disservice to your league, to your fans, and to the NHL Network– who would want the best of the best to show off the ECHL.

There’s better ways to show off the league– like a Game of the Week that’s not on Facebook or on the so-so ECHL.TV broadcasts they have now. The league should lobby the NHL Network to put on a highly produced game twice a month or so. But to have the league still going on while the rest of the league is trying to sell a premier event is the biggest head-scratcher of them all.

Minor League Weekly: Anas Going Wild, Wings Sneaky Good, Defiel Stepping In Solidly

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Via Iowa Wild Trading Card Set

-I’ve barked a lot about Sam Anas in the past and now he’s really showing the AHL what he’s made of. The Bethesda, Maryland product hold the longest goal-scoring streak of the season with seven goals in six straight games, while on top of that, setting a franchise record with points in the last nine games (8g, 5a). Anas currently leads the team in points with 23, while he’s only five points away from surpassing his points total from his rookie season.

-With four-straight wins and points in nine of their last 10, the Rochester Americans are hitting their groove in the mid-point of the season. Being led by rookie CJ Smith, the Amerks are right behind the Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference and North Division in points percentage. The Amerks have also gotten plenty out of their veteran defensemen in Zach Redmond and Stuart Percy, who are not only putting up points offensively, but also protecting Linus Ullmark defensively. Ullmark, also, is posting the seventh best save percentage in the AHL with a .924 mark.

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Photo from Kalamazoo Wings Facebook

-Keep an eye out on the Kalamazoo Wings in the new year. They’re an interesting team with both goalies having an above 3.00 GAA, but still ninth in the ECHL for total goals-against on the season. Their offense isn’t that grand either, ranking 19th of the 27 teams in the league for goals for, but somehow they’re still two points back of fourth in the Central with six games in hand. Veteran Justin Taylor is on a pace to break his career-highs in goals, assists, and points– all of which he set last year, while second-year Wing Tyler Biggs has been a solid compliment offensively to Taylor.

-It seems that if the Norfolk Admirals wanted to win, they need to play the Orlando Solar Bears almost every game. The two teams have faced off for their past five games with Norfolk coming out on top in four of the five. The Admirals have also won six of their last 10, which coincides with the announcement that the Nashville Predators terminated their affiliation. They’ve seen to temporarily leveled out the uneasy ship, but they’ll need just a bit more help to get back into playoff contention, though there’s plenty of time left.

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Photo from Pensacola Ice Flyers Facebook

-After Sean Bonar signed in the ECHL and Greg Dodds bad luck in net, Gordon Defiel has stepped in to help out the Pensacola Ice Flyers between the pipes and keep their top standing in the SPHL. Defiel hasn’t lost in regulation in seven games and ranks second in the league in GAA and save percentage behind his teammate Dodds. With a solid two-goalie system in waiting, the Ice Flyers are set-up nicely to keep their top spot in the SPHL.

Minor League (Not) Monday: Zykov on Fire, Another Brodeur Netminder, Shake-up in Roanoke

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-If you haven’t already, you have to start to keep an eye out for Valentin Zykov in Charlotte. With 17 goals already this season, he’s tied with Lehigh Valley’s Danick Martel with most goals in the league. In fact, Zykov is on a five-game goal-scoring streak, where he has tallied seven goals in that span. Zykov also has topped his goal output form last season in 40 less games. A former 2nd Round pick by the LA Kings, Zykov was a throw-in by LA for Kris Versteeg at the 2016 Trade Deadline; to which the Carolina Hurricanes organization is reaping the benefits.

-I know I’ve mentioned how great the Manitoba Moose turnaround has been, but it keeps on going for them. They haven’t lost in regulation in 14 games with the shootout loss happening between a nine-game and currently a four-game winning streak. They are 13 points up on 2nd place Rockford while boasting two players in the top-10 in scoring in Jack Roslovic (14g, 16a) and Mason Appleton (9g, 18a). Add that to the superb goaltending of Michael Hutchinson (11-1-2, 1.71, .950) and you have a team with the right chemistry for this revitalization for the Moose.

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-Say what you will about goaltending being in the family, but Jeremy Brodeur has been making quite the name for himself in his early going with the Allen Americans this season. In 13 games this season, one-half of Martin Brodeur’s twin boys is 6-2-1 while being top-five in save percentage at .930 in this early season. Brodeur has been taking the reins from Stephon Williams in net with Riley Gill being injured, which could be a nice little changing of the guard for the Americans if Brodeur can keep this going.

-There’s not much to cheer about for the Jacksonville IceMen, who have only five wins on the season, but Emerson Clark has provided a solid stat-line for the fans. Tied for the team lead in points with Alexandre Goulet, Clark’s 113 PIMs in only 19 games is possibly the most impressive of any hockey player. Bringing the old school toughness back with the playmaking and scoring ability to keep him relevant in the ECHL.

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-It will be interesting to see how the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs will respond to Sam Ftorek getting fired for Dan Bremner. It hasn’t been easy for Roanoke, but at the same time– maybe a shake-up for the team will do them well. With the SPHL having such a short season, the need to right the season early on is crucial. You almost have to wonder if it could be too late to turn the season around, though they are only two points away from a playoff spot. Of course, with the new “Pick Your Poison” playoff format, the team would want to improve their spot and actually be a threat, rather than a one-and-done team. Time will tell, but maybe getting a coaching change will be a wake-up call to the players. Plus, with Bremner’s experience playing in the SPHL, it’ll help the players realize the urgency to get back on the winning track.