Californians making the grade in AHL
Turn the clock back a generation and few Californians would grace the lineups of professional ice hockey teams in North America.
There has been a major turnaround today.
A clear example, two dozen Californians – whether native sons or those who grew up in the Golden State – were showcased on the rosters of 16 of the 30 teams in the American Hockey League (AHL) to start the 2017-18 season.
The AHL — the top developmental league of the National Hockey League (NHL) — faced off its 82nd season the weekend of Oct. 6-8.
The arrival of Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings in 1988 served as the flash point for ice hockey’s seemingly exponential growth throughout the Sun Belt. It was a monumental trade that forever changed the face of the hockey world, particularly in California.
“It obviously started with No. 99 (Gretzky) coming to California a number of years ago,” explained San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins, whose team has had at least two Californians on its roster in each of the past three seasons. “That obviously started the boom in minor hockey and I think you’re going to keep seeing more and more.
“I’m quite surprised by the number of kids playing hockey in Southern California. When you have kids playing, there’s going to be some who eventually develop into like the players we have here.
“Just having a pro team here in San Diego gets more kids interested and now they have somebody to emulate.”
It’s resulted in a Golden State bonanza of talent. And those California players aren’t just taking up roster spots — they’re contributing.
Gardena’s Beau Bennett, currently under contract to the NHL St. Louis Blues, is the highest California-born-and-trained player in NHL history.
Drafted in the first round (20th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bennett, a former member of the L.A. Jr. Kings Midget AAA team, became the first California born-and-trained player to win a Stanley Cup championship as a member of the Penguins in 2016.
The 25-year-old right wing is currently showcasing his talent as a member of the AHL Chicago Wolves.
Bennett’s NHL totals include 194 career regular season games with 24 goals and 64 points. He’s appeared in 21 career Stanley Cup playoff games. He played in 33 regular season games for the Pens during their 2015-16 Stanley Cup season, collecting six goals and 12 points. Injuries, however, limited him to just one playoff game.
He chalked up a goal and assist in his debut with Chicago during opening weekend.
The Wolves, who date their genesis to the International Hockey League, actually feature a total of three Californian-born players on their 2017-18 roster.
Plascentia’s Scooter Vaughan and Pasadena’s Brett Sterling join Bennett for a rather unique Golden State homecoming.
All three were roller hockey stars growing up in Southern California.
Vaughan, a 28-yar-old defenseman, is playing his third season in Chicago after collecting nine goals and 26 points in 128 regular season games the previous two seasons.
This is Sterling’s seventh season with the Wolves.
A fifth-round pick by the then-Atlanta Thrashers in the 2003 draft (145th overall), Sterling has appeared in a total of 30 NHL games with the Thrashers, Penguins and Blues during his 12-year pro career, collecting five goals and nine points.
It is with Chicago, however, that he has left his mark as one of that AHL franchise’s greatest players. He is the club’s No. 1 all-time goal-scorer and No. 3 all-time point-scorer with 179 goals and 337 points in 363 games.
He remains a contributor at age 33, collecting 11 goals and 29 points in 61 regular season games last season.
He won a Calder Cup championship with the Wolves in 2008.
Bennett didn’t fully transition from roller hockey to ice hockey until 15, which has made his pro ice hockey career even more amazing.
Stefan Matteau, a 23-year-old native of Chicago and a former San Jose Jr. Shark, is the team’s honorary Californian.
Barring call-ups, the quartert is scheduled to make a Southern California road swing with Chicago with stops in San Diego (Jan. 10), Bakersfield (Jan. 12) and Ontario (Jan. 13).
In the spotlight
Bakersfield right wing Mitch Callahan, with a pair of Calder Cup championships to his credit with the Grand Rapids Griffins (2013, 2017), is another high profile Californian currently playing in the AHL. The 26-year-old Whittier native signed with the Edmonton Oilers during the offseason following six years in the Detroit Red Wings organization.
He appeared in five NHL games for Detroit during his career there — he’ll be looking to log more time with the Oilers as well as helping the Condors secure their first-ever Calder Cup playoff berth.
Callahan collected 16 goals and 43 points in 66 regular season games with Grand Rapids last season, adding six goals and 16 points in 19 playoff games.
Right wing Rocco Grimaldi, 24, a second-round draft pick (33rd overall) in 2011 by the Florida Panthers but now under contract to the Colorado Avalanche, is another highly-decorated Southern California youth roller hockey player who has tasted success at the pro ice level.
A rare three-time NARCh champion, Grimaldi is entering his third season with the San Antonio Rampage and his fourth in the AHL.
The diminutive forward (5-6, 180) led the Rampage last season in scoring with 31 goals and 55 points in 72 games. He has appeared in 31 NHL career games with the Panthers and Avs, totaling four goals and seven points.
The Rampage plays its five California Pacific Division rivals 24 times this season, with 12 games in the Golden State.
Still the ones
West Hills native Matt Ford remains with defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids. The 32-year-old right wing, originally an eighth-round (256th overall) draft pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2004, was a key contributor to Grand Rapids’ championship run last season with eight goals and 12 points in 19 playoff games.
Long Beach native Emerson Etem, originally a first-round draft pick (29th overall) by the Anaheim Ducks in 2010, signed with the Arizona Coyotes during the offseason. He had an immediate impact on a young Tucson Roadrunners team by picking up a goal and assist in the season opener.
The 25-year-old forward brings plenty of experience to the AHL with196 career NHL games under his skates (to go with 28 goals and 54 points). His NHL career doesn’t appear to be over after he received a call-up to the Coyotes on Oct. 11.
Hayward native Sena Acolatse is playing for the Providence Bruins this season. It’s his eighth season overall in the AHL after spending four years with the Worcester Sharks (2010-14) and succeeding seasons with the Adirondack Flames, Portland Pirates and Springfield Thunderbirds.
The 26-year-old defenseman has logged 328 AHL games with 37 goals and 114 points along with 570 penalty minutes.
The Manitoba Moose boasts a pair of Californians on their roster: goaltender Eric Comrie (Newport Beach) and left wing Chase De Leo (La Mirada). Both are entering their third season with the AHL team.
De Leo, 21, a fourth-round pick (99th overall) in the 2014 draft by the parent Winnipeg Jetgs, chipped in with 14 goals and 32 points in 69 regular season games with the Moose in 2016-17.
Comrie, 22, a second-round pick (59th overall) in the 2013 draft by the Jets, was born in Edmonton but moved with his family to Southern California when he was nine. He received a coveted one game call-up to the Jets last season, making 35 saves against the Columbus Blue Jackets to win his first NHL start.
A member of an extensive hockey-playing family, Comrie appeared in 46 games with Manitoba in 2015-16 and 51 games with the Moose in 2016-17. He posted 19 wins and registered a 2.96 GAA and .906 save percentage for a team that finished next to last in its division last season.
A tireless worker in the team’s community-related functions, Comrtie earned the Moose’s AHL Man of the Year award in 2016-17.
Manitoba plays six games in California early in the season: Nov. 1 and 3 in Bakersfield, Nov. 3 and 8 in Stockton and Nov. 11-12 in San Jose.
Irvine’s Nic Kerdiles (pictured at top), a second-round pick (33rd overall) in the 2012 draft by Anaheim, is playing in his third season with the San Diego Gulls. The 23-year-old forward became the first player raised in Orange County to play for the NHL Ducks last season on call-up from the Gulls.
He appeared in 45 games with 15 goals and 27 points in 2015-16 for San Diego and 35 games with 11 goals and 23 points last season while battling injuries. When healthy, he was a major contributor, leading the Gulls in playoff scoring last season with eight points in eight games.
Add rookie forward Austin Ortega, 23, an Escondido native, to the Gulls roster this season. He made an impression with four goals in six games after making his pro debut with the AHL team following a record-setting career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Another pair of San Diego natives – goaltender Thatcher Demko and right wing Tyler Moy – are entering their second year at the pro level.
Demko, a second-round pick (36th) overall in 2014 by the Vancouver Canucks, made the jump from Boston College to the AHL by appearing in 45 games with the Utica Comets in 2016-17. A big-framed netminder (6-4, 204), Demko, 21, posted a 22-17-1 record with a 2.68 and .907 save percentage.
The Nashville Predators drafted Moy, 22, in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, but the talented right wing elected to finish his career at Harvard University before turning pro. He joined the Milwaukee Admirals at the tail end of last season, appearing in three regular season AHL games with a goal and four points and then in two Calder Cup playoff games.
Fullerton’s Chase Balisy is playing this season for the Springfield Thunderbirds. The 25-year-old forward was drafted in the sixth round (170th overall) of the 2011 draft by Nashville. After four years at Western Michigan University he made the jump to the AHL with the St. Johns Ice Caps in 2014-15 where he tallied 21 goals and 44 points in his professional debut.
He bettered that last season with 45 points in his first season for the Thunderbirds.
The Cleveland Monsters have a pair of Californians on their roster: center Miles Koules (Los Angeles) and defenseman Scott Savage (San Clemente).
Koules, 23, appeared in two games for the AHL Ontario Reign last season.
Savage, 22, joined the Monsters for three games at the tail end of last season.
The Toronto Marlies have a pair of Californians on their roster: left wings Trevor Moore (Thousand Oaks) and Kerby Rychel (Torrance).
Moore, 22, is in his second season with the Marlies after collecting 13 goals and 33 points in 57 regular season games last season. He added two goals and four points in 11 playoff games.
Rychel, 23, tabbed in the first round of the 2011 draft (19th overall) by Columbus, has yet to make an apperance in the NHL, but will be looking to impress in his fourth AHL campaign, his second in Toronto. Last season, Rychel accumuled 19 goals and 52 points in 73 regular season games, tacking on two goals and five points in 11 playoff games.
Long Beach native Darren Nowick gets to play pro hockey in his home state this season with the Stockton Heat. Nowick, 25, appeared in 13 AHL games with the Connecticut-based Bridgeport Sound Tigers last season.
Coto de Caza native Matt Caito is playing in his second AHL season — his first with the Iowa Wild. The 24-year-old defenseman appeared in 13 games with Grand Rapids last season and a total of 31 regular season and 23 playoff games the last two seasons with the ECHL Toledo Walleye.
•Hershey goaltender Pheonix Copley, 25, a native Alaskan, has an AHL California connection as a former California Titan youth player. He is currently under contract to the NHL Washington Capitals.
•Whittier’s Matt White, 28, who played the past two seasons for Milwaukee, is playing in Europe this season for Germany’s Augsburg Panthers.
•Pleasanton’s Matt Tennyson, 27, who played last season for the AHL Charlotte Checkers, faced off the opening three games of the 2017-18 season with the NHL Buffalo Sabres.
•Former San Jose Jr. Shark Gustav Olofsson, 22, a native of Sweden, has made the jump from Iowa in the AHL to the NHL Minnesota Wild this season.
•Former L.A. Jr. King and Las Vegas native Zach Pochiro, 23, is now playing with the ECHL Allen Americans after appearing in four games in the AHL with Bakersfield last season.
•Walnut’s Kyle MacKinnon, who appeared in 41 games with San Diego the past two seasons, is now playing in Germany with the Straubing Tigers.
•Pleasanton’s Taylor Aronson, who played for Milwaukee from 2011-16, is now playing in Germany for the Nuremberg Thomas Ice Tigers.
The future looks bright for Californians making the jump to pro hockey. This season’s NHL season opening rosters boasted 640 AHL graduates — more than 82 percent of the player pool on the 31 teams. The Ducks led the NHL with 24 AHL alumni.
More than 94 percent of the players rostered on last season’s NHL Stanley Cup Finalists were AHL graduates.
The San Jose Barracuda opened defense of its AHL Pacific Division championship with a come-from-behind 6-4 win at Stockton on Oct. 7.
Daniel O’Regan, the 2016-17 AHL Rookie of the Year, led Barracuda with two goals and one assist, while Manuel Wiederer’s shorthanded goal late in the third peiod proved to be the game-winning goal.
San Jose hosts defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids in its home opener on Oct. 13. It’s a high profile rematch of last season’s Western Conference Finals. Among the festivities planned is the raising of the Barracuda’s Pacific Division championship banner prior to the puck drop.
The Cuda set club records for most regular season wins (43), standings points (95) and winning percentage (.699) during its run to the Pacific Division championship. The team wasn’t finished and tacked on seven more games while advancing to the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
Duel in the desert
The Gulls captured a high-scoring 7-6 shootout in Tucson on Oct. 7 as both teams faced off the 2017-18 AHL season.
Sophomore forward Kevin Roy set a career high with three points (two goals, one assist), while Kerdiles pitched in with a goal and two assists as the Gulls rallied from an early 2-1 deficit with five unanswered goals. Rookie goaltender Kevin Boyle (30 saves) got the win between the pipes.
San Diego will host its home opening weekend Oct. 13-14 against the Texas Stars.
•Stockton faced off the season with a 4-1 win over visiting Bakersfield on Oct. 6. Mark Jankowski, a member of last season’s AHL All-Rookie Team, earned first star with two goals, while goaltender Jon Gillies was named second star after stopping 41 of 42 shots. The Heat swept the three star selections. Third star Andrew Mangiapane scored Stockton’s first goal of the season.
•Bakersfield will host San Antonio in its home opener on Oct. 12 and continue its home opening weekend with a game Oct. 14 against Tucson.
•Ontario will host Bakersfield in its home opening weekend Oct. 20-21.
New kids on the block
The AHL has accepted the membership application by the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL to become the AHL’s 31st franchise beginning with the 2018-19 season. The Eagles will serve as the AHL affiliate of the NHL Colorado Avalanche. The San Antonio Rampage, which currently serves as the Avs’ AHL affiliate, will become the AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, beginning in 2018-19.
Beau Bennett photo/Getty Images
Mitch Callahan and Matt Ford photos/Grand Rapids Griffins
Nic Kerdiles, Rocco Grimaldi and Eric Comrie photos/Phillip Brents
— Phillip Brents
(Oct. 13, 2017)