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AHL Man of the Year winners impact local communities

 

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Prior to the start of the Calder Cup playoffs, the American Hockey League announced the individual team winners of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year awards. These players were selected by their respective clubs for their outstanding contributions to the local community and charitable organizations during the 2015-16 season.

From this list of 30 finalists, representatives from IOA and American Specialty, together with the AHL, selected the winner for the 2015-16 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, emblematic of the AHL’s Man of the Year.

This award, which has been presented since 1998, is named after Dupre, who died in 1997 at the age of 24 following a 16-month battle with leukemia. Dupre, an AHL All-Star in 1995, played four seasons with the Hershey Bears and also appeared in 35 National Hockey League games with the Philadelphia Flyers.

The award-winners on the AHL’s five California-based teams included San Jose forward Ryan Carpenter, Ontario forward Sean Backman, San Diego defenseman Joe Piskula, Bakersfield forward Matt Ford and Stockton forward Bryce Van Brabant.

Each of the five players recognized were lauded for their exemplary work within their specific communities, for their community service and outreach to those in need. Besides excelling on the ice, these players took the initiative to star off it as well to make a difference.

All five team award-winners called it an honor to be nominated for the award by their respective teams. Carpenter earned the coveted honor as the recipient of the league-wide award as the 2015-16 AHL Man of the Year.

That’s a big deal.

“I feel pretty humble,” explained Carpenter, 25, a native of Oviedo, Fla., who draws on his faith for inspiration. “I am the man I am today because of my relationship with God and what He’s done in my life and how He’s redeemed me. There’s plenty of great guys on our team who I feel are worthy of the award, so it’s an honor.”

Carpenter has played in the San Jose Sharks system the last three years after graduating from Bowling Green State University. He enjoyed his best season to date in the AHL this season with 18 goals and 55 points in 66 games to lead the Barracuda in regular season scoring and help push the Sharks’ AHL affiliate into the Calder Cup playoffs with a win in the league’s final regular season game.

He received a one game call-up to the NHL parent club this season on Dec. 12. He also represented the Barracuda at the AHL All-Star Classic.

His focus has been on ensuring his team’s positive and productive presence in the community. A finance major during his time in college, Carpenter taught several classes as part of the Barracuda Math Class program, which has reached 2,500 students in area schools to combine math skills with learning about hockey.

Carpenter also helped run practices for the Jr. Sharks youth program and made multiple hospital visits, including one after the team’s Teddy Beat Toss to deliver donated toys to pediatric patients. He also played a major role in the Gifts and Goals holiday toy drive, leading his teammates in purchasing toys and donating them to children at School Health Clinics of Santa Clara County.

Carpenter also forged a friendship with 12-year-old Marlon Stewart, the Barracuda’s “first fan,” who suffers from Saethre-Chotzen syndrome, a very rare genetic disorder that affects cranial structure. Carpenter brought Stewart to the Barracuda locker room prior to one of his surgeries, visited him at home during recovery and later invited him to watch a Barracuda practice from the team’s bench.

Carpenter also serves the Bay Area Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as a community leader, speaking to groups and meeting with individuals to share his own stories of faith and experience as a collegiate athlete.

“My faith got me involved with FCA San Jose State,” Carpenter explained. “It really impacted my life. I love to be there to help other people and their walk, and teach them about Jesus.

“It’s also fun to go to the schools. My wife teaches. Naturally, my heart goes out to the kids. A lot of guys on our team will get with the kids during school visits and help out the community.”

Carpenter has played ice hockey since he was 7 and knows firsthand the experience of growing up with a dream while searching for appropriate role models.

“There was a minor league team, the Orlando Solar Bears, in the International Hockey League,” Carpenter recalled from his youth in Florida. “I grew up really watching those guys, probably the same level were at (in the AHL), so I was one of those kids who was a huge fan, trying to imitate them as minor league players. It’s been a weird journey –somehow I’m playing in the AHL. But it’s been fun so far.”

Backman, 30, a native of Cos Cob, Conn., said the award means “a lot” to him.

“I try to be the best person I can be on and off the ice,” said Backman, who led the Reign in regular season scoring this season with 55 points (21 goals, 34 assists) in 68 regular season games. “For my team to recognize me and for the league to recognize me like that is a huge honor.”

Backman’s contributions to the Inland Empire community during the team’s first season in the AHL included active volunteer work at several events such as the team’s annual visit to the Danbury Special Education School in Claremont, Reign Day at Citizens Business Bank Arena, Pink in the Rink campaign to fight breast cancer, Loma Linda Children’s Hospital Night, Military Appreciation Night and Reign Gala to support the Be Perfect Foundation.

He also provided emotional aid for individuals living with paralysis. His outgoing and caring personality has made him one of the team’s fan favorites and has helped provide fans with a personal connection to the organization.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Backman explained of his community involvement. “If you are in the position to give help to others, I just feel you should do that.”

Ford, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, made his California homecoming this season with the Condors. He proved to be a leader in he Condorstown community.

It is the second Man of the Year award for the 31-year-old California native, who previously won the award in 2014-15 as a member of the Oklahoma City Barons, the Condors’ AHL forerunner.

Ford led Bakersfield with 27 goals in 64 games during the regular season (a single-season career high) and ranked first in team scoring with 51 points. He was one of the leaders of the Condors Comrades program that pairs Condors players with athletes from the Special Olympics of Kern County through various events.

He also organized regular visits to the pediatric wing of Bakersfield Memorial Hospital for himself and teammates to spend time with children in need. He also was a driving force behind the “Cookin’ with the Condors” cookbook for sale at home games featuring team recipes with proceeds benefitting the Condors Community Foundation and Condors Comrades partnership with the Special Olympics of Kern County.

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Ford also assisted in the Salvation Army’s bell-ringing efforts during the Christmas season and was one of the celebrity waiters during the team’s annual Tip-A-Condor event that benefitted the Kern County Shrine Club for children.

He and his wife Cassie are expecting their first child in July.

“It is bittersweet that we’re not going to (be in) the playoffs but it was an exciting first year in Bakersfield,” Ford explained. “But there was a lot of other successes, seeing guys develop in the NHL. I think it’s pretty cool for fans to see guys play here one day and in the NHL the next, and see that development. Some guys took pretty bug strides that way.

“Opening night was pretty special. I don’t know if any of the guys knew what to expect to come out here pretty much all new faces here in Bakersfield and be accepted by the community right away … and just down the stretch, the unwavering support by the fans made myself, my family and my teammates feel at home.”

That sense of community helped drive Ford through the season both on and off the ice.

“Bakersfield has been unbelievable to me and I can’t thank them enough,” he said.

Piskula, a native of Antigo, Wis., who played three seasons at the University of Wisconsin and has made cameo appearances with the Kings, Flames and Predators in the NHL, called it a “huge honor” to be recognized as the winner of the Gulls’ Man of the Year award.

Piskula partnered with the Gulls front office and two external organizations – the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Neurosurgery and the City of Hope locally — to organize and host Hockey4Hope, an event designed to raise funds and awareness for brain cancer research and support.

In planning the event, Piskula, 31, reached out to friends, teammates and other contacts across the hockey community to gather auction items, which include memorabilia from former University of Wisconsin hockey players (including 1980 U.S. Olympian Mark Johnson), as well as experiential opportunities such as private hockey lessons with Piskula or dinner with his Gulls teammates.

Piskula said he was motivated to plan the event after learning that his friend and former youth coach Dom Hilger had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Hilger, who subsequently underwent brain surgery, made the trip to San Diego with his family to attend the Gulls’ April 2 home game.

The family of five participated in a pre-game ceremonial puck drop and other ceremonies during their stay in America’s Finest City. The Gulls donated $2,500 while a Go Fund Me account started by Piskula raised $4,275 to help cover the family’s trip here. During their stay, the family visited SeaWorld and also took in a Padres game.

“There’s a lot of guys who do a lot of things around the community,” said the veteran defenseman (6-3, 205), who recorded five assists in 43 games this season with San Diego. “The Gulls were great in supporting us. On events like Brain Cancer Awareness Night with the family from my hometown, I can’t thank the Gulls enough for all the hard work they’ve done to help me to put this on. It a huge honor to be recognized for that but it goes organization wide.

“When I heard that my friend and youth coach was diagnosed with brain cancer, I brought that to the Gulls attention and president Ari Segal told me I could run with it –help the family in my hometown out and help Dom fight his battle as well as raise money for brain cancer and all kinds of cancer.

“Everybody’s been touched by cancer. It’s cool to help people out.”

Van Brabant, 24, of Morinville, Alberta, consistently signed up as the first player on the Heat roster for community appearances. He visited local restaurants and businesses, helped prepare food for customers and helped brighten the day for homeless children during teddy bear distribution at the United Way of San Joaquin County.

He also helped the team’s youngest fans learn how to skate.

Who is your hero?

Carpenter photo/Phillip Brents; Ford photo/Bakersfield Condors

— Phillip Brents