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Californians to shine at annual AHL All-Star Classic

 

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The American Hockey League’s (AHL) annual All-Star Classic features some of the best young talent in the 30-team playing circuit, which serves as the top developmental league for the National Hockey League.

Since 1995, more than 93 percent of All-Star Classic participants have gone on to compete in the NHL.

Two California natives will represent their respective AHL teams at this year’s event, slated Jan. 28-29 in Utica, N.Y.

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Rossmoor’s Rocco Grimaldi will represent the San Antonio Rampage on the Pacific Division roster, while San Diego’s Thatcher Demko will represent the hometown Utica Comets on the North Division roster.

This is the first all-star selection for both players.

Grimaldi, a 24-year-old forward, recently became the 11th player in Rampage franchise history to record 100 points. He called it an honor to be selected for the mid-season event.

“There are a lot of our guys that could’ve been picked, so it’s nice to be picked,” Grimaldi, a fourth-year pro, told KSAT television station in San Antonio.

Originally a second-round pick (33rd overall) of the Florida Panthers in the 2011 NHL Draft, Grimaldi ranked second in team scoring in 2017-18 for the Rampage, the AHL affiliate for the NHL Colorado Avalanche, after collecting 13 goals and 23 points in 33 games.

The diminutive five-foot-six, 180-pound forward has 37 career NHL games to his credit with five goals and five assists.

He appeared in four games with the Avalanche in 2016-17, netting one assist. He’s played in six games with the Avs this season, recording one goal and three points.

He made his NHL debut during the 2014-15 season with the Panthers.

“It was awesome,” Grimaldi related of the personal milestone. “It’s obviously a dream come true, to have my family there, including my girlfriend and future wife, was definitely a special night. To get a win and be able to celebrate and have the next day off to spend with my family was special.”

Grimaldi’s credits speed and work ethic as his top playing attributes.

“I obviously like to be quick but I also like to get in there and be hard to play against,” he said. “I want defensemen to think that every night, every game, that I’m hard to play against.

“I know I’m small, so I’m not going to out-muscle guys. That’s not my game. I want to out-smart them, be quick and hard to play against, kind of being a little rat out there.

“My role on this team is to be offensive, to be smart with the puck and be creative.”

Demko, who earned honors as the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for October, is in his second year in the league. He posted a 22-17-1 record, 2.68 goals-against average, two shutouts and .907 save percentage in 45 game appearances in 2016-17.

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In 28 games this season, the 22-year-old six-foot-four, 195-pound netminder had posted a 16-7-3 record with a 2.28 GAA, one shutout and .929 save percentage.

Demko posted a 4-1-0 record with a .950 save percentage, 1.61 GAA and a 33-save shutout against Rochester to earn the league’s goaltender of the month award.

He said he is excited to showcase his talent in front of the hometown fans.

“I’m thrilled. It’s going to be a ton of fun,” Demko told the Observer-Dispatch newspaper, which serves the Utica-Rome metropolitan area in Central New York. “It’s a really cool opportunity.”

Demko said he is trying to make the most of his opportunities this season as his game continues to grow and develop. He’s already had one call-up this season to the NHL parent Vancouver Canucks.

All-Star Weekend

The 2018 AHL All-Star Classic will feature two separate events. The 2018 AHL All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 28 ( 5 p.m. Pacific Time) will pit the All-Stars from the two Eastern Conference divisions (Atlantic and North) against those from the two Western Conference divisions (Pacific and Central) in seven skills events.

Those events include puck control relay, fastest skater, rapid fire, hardest shot, accuracy shooting, pass and score and breakaway relay.

The AHL’s All-Stars will be divided into four teams, one representing each of the league’s four divisions, for the 2018 AHL All-Star Challenge on Jan. 29 (4 p.m. PT). The teams will participate in a round-robin tournament featuring six games of 10 minutes each, played entirely three-on-three. The two teams with the best records at the end of the round robin will face off for the championship in a six-minute game also played three-on-three.

This year’s event will be televised to national audiences on the NHL Network in the United States and Sportsnet across Canada.

Stars in their eyes

Grimaldi is among 12 players named to the Pacific Division all-star team that also includes San Diego defenseman Andy Welinski, goaltender Cal Petersen and forward Brett Sutter from the Ontario Reign, Stockton Heat defenseman Rasmus Andersson, Bakersfield Condors forward Ty Rattie, and goaltender Antoine Bibeau and forward Rudolfs Balcers from the San Jose Barracuda.

Three rookies will represent the Tucson Roadrunners: center Dylan Strome, forward Nick Merkley and defenseman Kyle Capobianco. Forward Curtis McKenzie from the Texas Stars rounds out the Pacific Division roster.

Sutter will serve as the team captain for the Western Conference all-stars.

A third round pick (83rd overall) by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2011 NHL Draft, Welinski, 24, played four seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before joining the Gulls for five games at the tail end of the 2015-16 AHL season.

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He appeared in 63 games for the Gulls his rookie season in 2016-17 with six goals and 29 points to his credit to go with 16 penalty minutes. In 32 games this season, he has collected six goals and 22 points and is on pace to set a single-season record for offensive production.

He has appeared in four games with the Ducks this this season, registering a pair of assists.

“It’s exciting,” Welinksi said about his upcoming appearance in the AHL All-Star Classic. “It’s something you don’t set your standards for each year because so few make it. You want to go out and be successful every day. I owe a lot to my teammates.”

The second-year defenseman said confidence and poise were two key elements he learned to integrate into his game his rookie season.

Welinski made his NHL debut in a Dec. 11 game this season against the Carolina Hurricanes.

“It was exciting,” the Gulls blueliner related. “The first game was in Anaheim, so it was intense. But it definitely was busy. We went out on a 10- or 11-day road trip (after that). It was busy but it definitely was exciting.”

Pacific Division rookies have posted some impressive numbers this season.

Strome, 20, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft by the Arizona Coyotes, led AHL rookies in scoring with 39 points (17 goals, 22 assists) in 28 games, while Tucson teammate Merkley, 20, a first-round pick (30th overall) in the 2015 draft by the Coyotes, ranked fourth on the list with 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists) in 28 games.

Petersen, 23, ranked third among the league’s rookie goaltenders with a 2.58 GAA, 10-9-0 record, two shutouts and .913 save percentage in 20 game appearances.

Balcers, who impressed in the San Jose Sharks’ rookie camp, has proven to be the real deal in his first pro season while leading the Barracuda in season scoring in 2017-18 with 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists) in 39 games.

San Jose head coach and Oakland native Roy Sommer has coached Balcers from rookie camp onward.

“He’s fast, he’s fast with the puck and without the puck,” Sommer assessed. “He has a good release. He has played every position for us, from the power play to penalty-killing, and found success.”

Andersson, a second-year pro from Sweden, ranks among the league’s top scoring defensemen this season with 23 points (4 goals, 19 assists) in 34 games.

A fourth-year pro, Bibeau, 23, has posted a 12-8-0 record in 23 game appearances with a 2.25 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

Rattie, a fifth-year pro with 35 NHL games to his credit with the St. Louis Blues and Hurricanes, topped Bakersfield in season scoring with 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 40 games. He led the Condors with seven power play goals.

Sutter, 30, originally taken in the 2005 draft by the Calgary Flames, has played the last three seasons for the Reign. He has collected seven goals and 17 points in 39 games this season.

He is the son of former L.A. Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, who guided the Kings to Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014.

Tucson’s Mike Van Ryn will serve as one of four coaches for the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic. Coaching positions were determined by which teams led their respective divisions on Dec. 31.

Van Ryn will coach the Pacific Division team while Manitoba coach Pascal Vincent will coach the Central Division team. Jay Leach of the Providence Bruins will coach the Atlantic Division team while Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Marlies will coach the North Division team.

Van Ryan said he was obviously honored by the selection but referred to it as a “team thing.”

“I’m just going as basically a representative for the team; it’s all about the work the guys have put in,” he told the TucsonRoadrunners.com website. “It’s an organizational thing, really; the drafting, the development in the summer, and the stuff our strength coaches have done with our guys. This is an organizational thing, not a personal achievement.

“The guys are the ones who have done the work, they’re the ones who are performing on the ice. It’s great to go, it’s an honor to go, but it is an organization thing more than it is individual.”

Former Tucson team captain Craig Cunningham was previously announced as one of two honorary captains for the event.

The recipient of the 2016-17 Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the AHL player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey, continues to be an inspiration to the entire hockey community through his recovery and rehabilitation following a career-ending and life-threatening medical emergency.

Cunningham, an apparently healthy 26-year-old man, suffered an acute cardiac arrest on the ice prior to the face-off of a regularly scheduled game against Manitoba on Nov. 19, 2016. Emergency CPR on the ice and additional emergency life-saving techniques were performed once he was transported to a nearby hospital.

Cunningham survived an experimental technique called ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). However, because of an infection that developed following the procedure, doctors had to amputate part of Cunningham’s left leg, which ended his playing career.

The Roadrunners formally retired Cunningham’s No. 14 jersey this season during a ceremony on Oct. 27 at Tucson Arena.

Add NHL

The 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game is scheduled Sunday, Jan. 28 (12:30 p.m. PT, NBC-TV), in Tampa, Fla. Four players from the Pacific Division’s three California teams are slated to participate: forward Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty from the Kings, forward Rickard Rakell from the Ducks and defenseman Brent Burns from the Sharks.

Two players will represent the first-year Vegas Golden Knights: forward James Neal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick was originally named to the Pacific Division all-star team, but will miss the event due to injury.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant will coach the Pacific Division team. The Golden Knights have continued to set records for an expansion team, compiling a 32-12-4 record to top the Pacific Division standings through 48 games. The point mark ranked second in the 31-team league to the Tampa Bay Lightning (34-12-3, 71 points).

Arizona product Auston Matthews, the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, will represent the Atlantic Division all-stars. In 41 games this season, the 20-year-old six-foot-three, 216-pound forward had collected 22 goals and 37 points to go with three game-winning goals and a plus-16 plus-minus rating.

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Matthews, a San Ramon native whose family moved to Scottsdale when he was an infant, received the 2016-17 Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player judged as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL. Matthews collected 40 goals and 69 points in 82 games his rookie season with the Maple Leafs.

The NHL all-star skills competition is scheduled Saturday, Jan. 27 (4 p.m. PT, NBCSN). The competition will include six events: fastest skater, passing challenge, save streak, puck control relay, hardest shot and accuracy shooting.

The NHL All-Star Game will feature a three-game tournament, played in a three-on-three format, showcasing teams from each NHL division competing for a $1 million winner-take-all prize pool.

Compete rosters for the 2018 NHL All-Star Game are available at www.thenhl.com,

Winter Olympics

While NHL players will not be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, scheduled Feb. 9-25 in PyeongChang, South Korea, two players from AHL Pacific Division teams will represent their respective teams.

Barracuda team captain John McCarthy will represent Team USA while Stockton defenseman Cody Goloubef will represent Team Canada.

McCarthy, a veteran winger, has been with the Sharks organization for nine years, including all three seasons since the AHL club relocated to the West Coast from Worcester, Mass. During that span, the 31-year-old Boston native has appeared in a total of 88 NHL games.

While he has logged plenty of professional experience, the upcoming stint with Team USA will be his first international experience.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said McCarthy, won won an NCAA Division I championship with the Boston University Terriers in 2009. “There’s no NHL players, but I think it still’s going to be a really competitive tournament. I’m excited to kind get over there and get things started, and see what kind of team we have.”

McCarthy’s leadership skills, especially in regard to imparting what it means to be a professional player to younger teammates, and his ability to play what many refer to as “the 200-foot game” obviously stood out during the selection process by USA Hockey. The 25-man American roster was formally announced Jan. 1.

McCarthy is one of three AHL players named to Team USA. He joins forward Chris Bourque of the Hershey Bears and forward Bobby Butler of the Milwaukee Admirals.

Two other AHL players are joining Goloubef on Team Canada: Belleville forward Chris Kelly and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Christian Thomas.

Goloubef, 28, is no stranger to international competition after helping Team Canada win its third consecutive Spengler Cup championship Dec. 31 in Davos, Switzerland. The Canadians defeated the Swiss national team, 3-0, in the championship game to cap the 91st annual tournament. Team Canada has won 15 titles in the event’s history.

San Diego Gulls defenseman Jeff Schultz, 31, also was a part of Team Canada’s 2017 Spengler Cup championship team.

The Spengler Cup was the last of five Olympic tune-up events for Team Canada.

Hometown hero

Rancho Cucamonga native Collin Delia, 23, stopped 33 of 35 shots to lead the Rockford IceHogs to a 5-2 win over the host Ontario Reign in an AHL inter-divisional contest on Jan. 10. Despite being the local boy who beat the local pro team, Delia was snubbed in the three star selection voting, however.

An undrafted free agent out of Merrimack College, Delia signed a two-year entry-level contract with the NHL Chicago Blackhawks last July and was assigned to the ECHL’s Indy Fuel. Delia was 1-7-0 with the Fuel before being called up to the IceHogs on Dec. 1.

Delia is 5-4-1 with a 2.89 GAA and .887 save percentage in 10 games with Rockford.

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Delia who is transitioning between the ECHL and AHL levels as the Blackhawks attempt to balance development with game experience, is sharing the Rockford goaltending duties with fellow first-year pro Matt Tomkins. The IceHogs are 5-2-12 in their last 10 games as they battle for playoff positioning in the AHL’s Central Division.

Delia made his NHL preseason debut with Chicago on Sept. 21. He stopped all eight shots he faced in the third period to help guide the Blackhawks to a 6-1 win over Detroit.

Prior to attending Merrimack College, Delia played two seasons for the Amarillo Bulls in the North American Hockey League (NAHL). While with the Bulls, he received the NAHL Community Service Award in 2014.

Player of the Month

Ontario forward Mike Amadio earned honors as the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for the month of December after leading all AHL skaters with 16 assists and 21 points in 14 games during the month. Amadio took an 11-game assist streak into the new year, tied for the longest in the AHL since 2014.

He recorded eight multiple-point games over a span of nine games.

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A third-round pick (90th overall) by Los Angeles in the 2014 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, has tallied 11 goals and 34 points in 30 games with Ontario this season. He made his NHL debut with the Kings on Oct. 26. In 13 games with the Kings this season, he has collected two goals and three points.

Amadio recorded 41 points as a rookie in 2016-17, and has 27 goals and 48 assists in 98 career AHL games.

Player of the Week

San Diego forward Kalle Kossila earned honors as CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors for the period ending Jan. 7 after recording seven points (one goal, six assists) in three games — all Gulls victories.

Six of Kossila’s seven points during the three games came on the power play as the Gulls went 9-for-12 with the man advantage (75.0 percent) in the three games.

A second-year pro out of St. Cloud State University, Kossila leads the Gulls in scoring with 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) in 26 contests this season, while adding one goal and one assist in 10 appearances with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.

He notched an assist in a 3-2 win over visiting San Jose on Jan. 6 — the 100th win in franchise history.

The Gulls honored Kossila with his own Bobblehead Night on Jan. 19. The game attracted a sellout crowd of 12,920 fans.

The Gulls continue to lead the 30-team AHL with a 9,344 attendance average.

What’s trending

Stockton attracted a crowd of 6,421 fans to the 13th annual Teddy Bear Toss on Jan. 20. Brett Findlay set a Teddy Bear Toss Night record by scoring just 19 seconds into the contest against the visiting Ontario.

The event collected 8,880 bears for charity. The stuffed animals will be distributed within the local community through the United Way of San Joaquin County.

Tucson sped toward the All-Star break still leading the Pacific Division standings with a 22-12-2-1 record and .635 winning percentage. The Roadrunners carried a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games into their two-game set Jan. 26-27 against the Chicago Wolves at Tucson Arena.

Newport Beach’s Eric Comrie had compiled a 12-7-1 record, 2.69 GAA, one shutout and .912 save percentage in 20 game appearances for the Central Division leading Manitoba Moose (27-10-3-2, .702 winning percentage). La Mirada’s Chase De Leo had tallied eight goals and 23 points in 40 games for the Moose, which boasts the top record among the 15 Western Conference teams.

Manitoba had its 16-game points streak (15-0-1) snapped in a 3-2 loss to visiting San Jose on Dec. 30. Manuel Wiederer scored the game-winning goal for the victorious Barracuda.

Matthews photo/Eric J. Fowler
Demko photo/Utica Comets
Delia photo/Rockford IceHogs
Additional photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(Jan. 26, 2018)