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Newport Beach’s Comrie making his mark in AHL

 

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Newport Beach’s Eric Comrie appears to have a promising career ahead of him in the National Hockey League.

He’s already made his mark in the American Hockey League, the second best pro hockey league in the world.

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An Edmontonian by birth but a Californian by choice, the 21-year-old goaltender for the Manitoba Moose recently was selected as one of 30 players nominated by their respective teams for the AHL’s annual IOC/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award.

Named in honor of Yanick Dupre, a former Hershey Bears forward and AHL All-Star who died in 1997 following a 16-month battle with leukemia, the prestigious memorial award honors players who have made outstanding contributions in their communities

This year’s league-wide winner will be announced at a later date. Ryan Carpenter of the San Jose Barracuda won last year’s national award.

Comrie earned honors as the Moose’s Man of the Year after becoming involved in discussing mental health awareness in schools as part of the Project 11 program. He said it is a topic that many people are “too scared to talk about” sometimes.

Project 11, inspired and created in honor of Rick Rypien (who wore No. 11), former player of the Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose, is an engaging cross-curricular prevention program targeting Manitoba’s English Language Arts and Physical Education/Health Education programs.

Rypien, who was plagued with personal issues (clinical depression) during his six-year NHL hockey career, passed away tragically in 2011. His death was ruled a suicide.

Comrie is the most active of any Moose player in terms of community involvement. Moose community relations manager Michelle Gazze said Comrie is “very committed to investing his time and energy into the community.”

Gazze said Comrie displays an incredible dedication to the community and a willingness to give his time away from the rink.

He’s become a community ambassador for the Moose. He keeps on giving, whether it is in the classroom talking to students about stress, friendship, body image, relationships and self-esteem or just making public appearances with teammates.

He’s held post-game meet-and-greets with Project 11 students at selected home games throughout the season.

In essence, he’s become a fan of his own fans.

During the month of March, Comrie was a featured player in the Manitoba Moose Autism Awareness campaign and participated in a community practice on March 19 where the Moose scrimmaged with a minor hockey team and visited with fans.

Gazze said there is such a “maturity and focus” about him.

A second-round pick (59th overall) in the 2013 Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, Comrie comes from an extended hockey family.

He is the son of The Brick furniture company co-founder Bill Comrie.

He is the half-brother of former NHL players Paul and Mike Comrie, both of whom played for the Edmonton Oilers. He has a younger brother, Ty Comrie. Eric and Ty were teammates for two seasons in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Tri-City Americans.

His cousins Dan, Brian, Rick and Matt Comrie played roller hockey for Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego; Dan went on to play 23 games with the Lincoln Stars in the United States Hockey League (USHL) from 2003-07.

His uncle Fred – Dan, Brian, Rick and Matt’s father — owned the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League (later Long Beach Ice Dogs) along with brothers Bill and John. The furniture company magnates were also involved with the San Diego Barracudas of Roller Hockey International.

Eric, who moved with his family to California when he was nine, appears to be carving out his own niche in the hockey world.

He spent four seasons (2011-15) with Tri-City in the WHL. He was amazingly consistent with annual 2.67, 2.62, 2.57 and 2.87 goals-against averages. His save percentages during those seasons were also dreamlike: .900, .915, .925 and .914.

He posted 10 shutouts in 168 career regular season WHL games.

At the end of the 2012-13season he was ranked second among North American goaltenders by the NHL Central Scouting Service. He led the WHL in save percentage in 2013-14.

He signed a three-year entry level contract with the Jets in December 2013.

Comrie has already turned in a star-studded career at the international level after helping Team Canada win gold medals at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and U20 2015 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.

Jimmy Roy, who serves as director of player development for the Jets, has worked with Comrie over the last four years since he was drafted by the NHL team. Much of that came while Comrie was still playing junior hockey. Roy said his job was not so much about teaching but “understanding the person and player.”

“We have goalie coaches who work on specifics,” Roy said.

Roy gives Comrie very high marks at the personal level.

“He has a tremendous work ethic,” Roy said in regard to Comrie. “Mentally he understands what he needs to do off the rink to be a professional hockey player. He was fortunate to grow up in a hockey family. He knows what he wants to do. He’s a lifer.”

As a member of the Moose for the past two seasons, Comrie has had a chance for numerous California homecomings as the AHL Central Division team crosses over to play teams from the Pacific Division.

Last year, Manitoba visited Ontario, Stockton and Bakersfield during a six-game road trip from Canada. Stops this season’s were spread around in San Diego, Bakersfield and San Jose.

Comrie has had the opportunity to face San Jose stellar goaltender Troy Grosenick twice this season. Many consider Grosenick to be the top goaltender in the AHL in 2016-17.

In their latest matchup March 31 in San Jose, Grosenick out-dueled Comrie in a 3-0 win. Comrie came up short in the first pairing by a score of 4-1 in Winnipeg in early February.

Comrie led the Moose to a 5-2 win in Bakersfield on March 28 to start Manitoba’s latest California road swing. Comrie stopped 26 of the 28 shots fired at him by the Condors.

Comrie said it’s always nice to return to the Golden State. Friends and family make the pilgrimage wherever to watch him play.

“It’s always awesome coming back to California,” Comrie explained. “It’s now my home. With my family being in the building, it makes for more of an exciting time.”

The Comries have a full-scale roller hockey rink laid out on their expansive Newport Coast estate. It’s used mostly for fun by family members. Hockey, in its various forms, seems to be ever-present in the Comrie home.

Eric admits to playing some competitive roller hockey while growing up, including NARCh.

“It was mostly for fun, I just had a lot of fun, nothing serious,” he said. “It’s been mostly ice hockey for me.”

Comrie is having a slightly better season with the Moose in 2016-17 than his rookie season in 2015-16 . Last season, he appeared in 46 games with a 13-25-7 record, 3.12 goals-against average, one shutout and .907 save percentage.

Despite playing for one of the worst teams in the league, he led the AHL in saves and played more minutes than any rookie goaltender.

In 47 games this season, he has compiled a 16-25-2 record, 3.02 GAA and .904 save percentage.

Comrie called the Moose’s losing record “unfortunate” but said he’s benefited from the generous amount of playing time in the net. He said being exposed to all situations in a game has allowed him to gain knowledge and insight in being able to adjust to the pro level and ultimately to become a better player.

Manitoba did not qualify for last season’s Calder Cup playoffs nor will the Moose do so this year as the team sits at the bottom of the Central Division standings.

He said the biggest adjustment on his part in making the jump from the WHL to the AHL was not necessarily the mechanics part.

“It was getting used to the different lifestyle of being a pro hockey player,” he said. “It’s a little different from being a junior player. For me, it was a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed it.”

What has he taken from his rookie season into his sophomore season?

“Just improving my game as a whole and becoming a better goalie altogether,” he answered. “It wasn’t one glaring issue that I had, it was just improving everything as a whole.”

With the Comrie family hockey background, playing in the NHL is always a family goal, he said.

“When you get put into a hockey family, your goals are to play in the National Hockey League,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have two older brothers who played in the National Hockey League. They really helped me set my goals and set my dreams toward the NHL.”

Eric also enjoyed playing alongside his younger brother in the WHL, calling it an “unbelievable” experience.

“When you play with your family members, it’s a whole new experience,” the Moose goaltender said. “He’s one of my best friends and I had a lot of fun playing with him.”

California Dreamin’

Comrie doesn’t have too far to go to reminisce about golden California sunsets.

All he has to do is talk to teammate Chase De Leo, who grew up in La Mirada. Both were teammates on the prestigious L.A. Selects program growing up.

De Leo, a second-year pro drafted by the Jets in the fourth round in 2014, wasted no time in establishing himself with the Moose last season by ranking second on the team in points (40 in 73 games) and tying for the team lead with 19 goals.

He earned Manitoba’s Rookie of the Year award last season.

He made his NHL debut with the Jets on March 20, 2016, against the Anaheim Ducks.

Chase De Leo

De Leo arrived in Winnipeg after four years with the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL where he scored 251 points in 279 games. He showed consistent improvement each season in the WHL. His best seasons in Portland were his last two when he racked up 81 points 2013-14 and 84 points in 2014-15, tallying back-to-back 39-goals seasons.

He also made an appearance for Team USA in the 2015 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, scoring one goal in five games. Ironically, he faced off against his friend and future Manitoba teammate Comrie in the 2015 tournament (a 5-3 win for Canada).

De Leo has collected 30 points in 63 games thus far in 2016-17 to rank fourth on the teams in points.

After become acclimated to the Great White North, the Moose’s California road trips have thrown him a curve.

“Weird to be headed to California for some hockey,” he posted on his Twitter account. “Excited to finally get to play at home in front of family and friends.”

In his off-ice time, De Leo supports the Winnipeg Humane Society adoption program.

Role models

AHL Man of the Year selections from the Pacific Division’s five California teams include Troy Grosenick (San Jose Barracuda), center Mark Jankowski (Stockton Heat), defenseman Vincent LoVerde (Ontario Reign), left wing Jordan Samuels-Thomas (San Diego Gulls) and defenseman Bryce Aneloski (Bakersfield Condors).

Grosenick, 27, is in the race to claim top goaltending honors in the AHL this season with a 28-9-2 record, 2.03 GAA, 10 shutouts and .929 save percentage, has become one of the Barracuda’s more popular players off the ice.

His biggest contributions this season came after the Cuda’s participation in one of the NHL parent Sharks’ biggest charitable events of the season, the annual “Sharks and Strikes” charity bowling event. Grosenick befriended staff from Cake4Kids, a non-profit organization that bakes and delivers custom birthday cakes to underprivileged children around Northern California.

During rehab from an injury in early December, the Brookfield, Wisc., native took time to assist Cake4Kids at a local bakery in decorating holiday themed cupcakes. Additionally, in an effort to make sure that every child feels special for at least one day each year, Grosenick has teamed up with Cake4Kids to bring children and their families to Barracuda home games to celebrate their birthdays in style

Jankowski, a center who has tabulated 51 points (26 goals, 25 assists) in 59 games this season with Stockton to lead all rookies in the league, has helped grow the game of hockey through, in his words, “bettering out community.”

Mark_Jankowski

The 22-year-old native of St. Catharines, Ont., has been one of the team leaders in community appearances, including leading the Heat in school appearances throughout the Central Valley.

A Frozen Four NCAA Division I champion with Providence College, Jankowski has been praised by educators for his ability to communicate with students.

“I spent four years in college and obviously started my professional career afterwards, so I wanted to use my experience and relay it to the kids in school that hard work and effort can translate to success,” said Jankowski, who has played one game this season with the Calgary Flames, Stockton’s NHL affiliate.

“Whether it be school, sports, music or anything else that you’re interested in pursuing, having a strong work ethic pays off, and that’s the message I try to convey to the kids.”

Jankowksi also helped out at youth hockey practices and donated his time to events and functions conducted by he Stockton Hockey Booster Club and Heat season ticket members.

He earned honors as the as the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for March after notching nine goals and seven assists for 16 points while recording a plus-12 rating in 13 games during the month.

“Mark has been a guy who’s been at the top of our chance list while also not being on the ice for chances against which is a pretty impressive stat when you look at the line and players he has to play against,” Stockton head coach Ryan Huska said. “He’s done an excellent job for us this month and it’s great that he’s being honored for it.”

A first-round choice (21st overall) by the Flames in the 2012 NHL Draft, Jankowski represented the Heat at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic and made his NHL debut with Calgary on Nov. 28 of this season in a game against the New York Islanders.

He became the first player in Heat history to score a hat trick in a Jan. 20 game.

LoVerde, the Reign captain who has notched seven goals and 32 points in 57 games this season, has striven to set an example for the team’s younger players on the ice and has also embraced the vision of Ontario’s Hope Reigns Foundation community relations efforts.

The 27-year-old Illinois native has participated in 10 Reign jersey auctions to benefit various area non-profit organizations and volunteered for all community functions. In visits to elementary schools and local hospitals, LoVerde has read to and played games with children with disabilities.

Vincent_LoVerde

Last month, LoVerde, who was injured at the time, spent time with a six-year-old boy with a rare form of cancer who was being treated to a special night at a Reign game. He watched part of the game with the child, exemplifying true leadership and understanding of the importance of caring for the community.

Samuels-Thomas, who has recorded 12 goals and 22 points in 51 games in his first season with the Gulls, has volunteered and participated in a number of charitable endeavors this season, including serving food to the homeless at the San Diego Salvation Army, visiting Rady Children’s Hospital to help improve the health of young patients and visiting the Wounded Warrior Project during the holiday season.

The 26-year-old native of Hartford, Conn., has volunteered his time to participate in grassroots efforts to promote health and wellness in the community and teach the sport of hockey during street hockey gym classes at local elementary schools affiliated with the YMCA. He has also helped coach youth hockey at the San Diego Salvation Army Kroc Center, a non-profit community center, as part of a skills clinic for children ages six to 14 to help develop young hockey players in the region.

Aneloski, a first-year Condor who has collected one goal and five points in 35 games, has always been among the first on the team to volunteer for community involvement. He has helped deliver teddy bears to area children in need as well as participating in the Condors Comrades program that connects athletes with local athletes from the Special Olympics at selected events throughout the year.

Aneloski also worked with Dignity Health to take part in the annual Bakersfield Christmas parade; he organized teammates for the float and participation.

The 26-year-old Illinois native also supported youth hockey, including the Jr. Condors program, to help coach and mentor young players.

Protect the nest

San Diego became the second team in the AHL to clinch a Calder Cup playoff berth following Pacific Division leader San Jose. It marks the second consecutive year that both Gulls and Barracuda will be in postseason competition.

San Diego set franchise records with its 40th win of the season and 85th standings point in a 4-1 victory in Tucson on April 1. The Gulls finished 39 wins with 84 points in their inaugural season in 2015-16.

San Diego also set a club record for most wins and points in a season series by going 10-1-0-1 (21 points) in the team’s 12 games against Tucson. The Gulls swept all six games in Tucson.

San Diego has won a Pacific Division-high 79 games dating back to last season, co-leads the division in win percentage (.650) with Ontario and ranks third among AHL teams in winning percentage the past two seasons with a 79-40-7-4 record.

The Gulls have won 12 of their past 16 games (12-3-0-1), 16 of their last 21 games (16-4-1-0) and have earned standings points in 33 of 39 contests since Dec. 26 (29-6-2-2). The San Diego team has earned standings points in 18 of its last 21 road games overall (16-3-1-1).

The Gulls also set several club records in its 8-2 win over the host Roadrunners on March 31. Among them were most goals (6) in the first period, earliest three goals in a game (4:03), earliest four goals to start a game (6:16). San Diego also tied the club record for most goals (8) in a single game. All eight goals came at even-strength.

On an individual note, rookie Andy Welinski recorded the first hat trick in Gulls history in the 129th game since the team’s launch in San Diego last season. Welinski set a new career high with four points (three goals, one assist) in the game.

Fifteen of the Gulls’ 18 skaters recorded a point in the win, including six multi-point efforts.

Goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who recently was re-assigned to the Gulls by Anaheim, earned victories in the two-game sweep in Tucson. He stopped 24 of 26 shots on March 31 and turned aside 30 of 31 shots on April 1 over the host Roadrunners.

The veteran Swedish netminder has posted a 12-2 mark with two shutouts, a 1.43 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in 14 games since joining the AHL team on Jan. 10.

The Gulls set a club record with their seventh consecutive home ice victory after defeating division-leader San Jose on March 22. The win pulled the hosts to within one point of the Barracuda for the division lead with 10 regular season games remaining.

The game saw five fights – four simultaneously – break out in the final 1:06 of the contest. Altogether, both teams were assessed with 119 minutes in penalties. The league later handed down one-game suspensions to San Diego defenseman Stu Bickel and San Jose forward Alex Gallant as a consequence of their actions in the game.

San Diego is 27-0-1-0 when leading after the first period, 29-1-2-0 when leading after the second period and 25-2-2-1 when scoring the first goal (.883 percentage).

Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins said his team owes a lot of its success at the Valley View Casino Center to its large and vocal fan base.

“Our fans have been just fantastic and we owe a lot of our success to their support,” Eakins said. “They really make a difference for us.”

Making waves

The Barracuda continues to lead the league with its 41-14-2-5 record and .718 winning percentage. The Cuda has smashed club records this season for wins (41) and standings points (89) after recording 26 wins and 73 standings points in their inaugural season in the Bay Area in 2015-16.

The Barracuda continues to be powered by Grosenick and rookie center Daniel O’Regan.

Grosenick leads the league with 28 wins (28-9-3) and 10 shutouts and ranks second among AHL goaltenders with a 2.03 GAA and .929 save percentage.

O’Regan leads all AHL rookie with 54 points (21 goals, 33 assists) in 58 games. He ranks second in the league with nine power play goals.

Among defensemen, Tim Heed is fourth in the AHL with 51 points and third with 38 assists.

On another individual note, winger Barclay Goodrow has set a new Barracuda single-season high for goals (24) and hat tricks (two).

San Jose has built its lead in the Pacific Division on the strength of several streaks including a 14-game winning streak, 15-game points streak, 14-game home winning streak and 10-game road winning streak.

The Barracuda is currently on a 3-0-0-1 steak and is 7-2-0-1 in its last 10 games as it battles to hold onto the top spot in the division against the Gulls, who sit four points back in the standings.

Each team has six regular season games left on its schedule, so there’s still room for movement.

San Jose has the best home record in the AHL at 22-5-1-2 (.767 winning percentage) and are 19-9-1-3 (.640) winning percentage) on the road.

The ‘Cuda is 21-1-1-1 when leading after the first period, 30-0-1-0 when leading after the second period and 33-4-1-2 (.863 percentage) when scoring the first goal.

San Jose ranks first in the AHL in power play percentage (25.5) and sixth in penalty kill percentage (84.0). The Barracuda is tied with the Texas Stars for most shorthanded goals (14) in the league this season.

The ‘Cuda leads the AHL with 11 shutouts this season and owns a +57 goal-differential.

What’s trending

Ontario’s magic number to clinch a berth in the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs is now down to five. The Reign sits in third place in the division standings nine points behind the second place Gulls and eight points ahead of the Condors and Heat, both of which are tied for fourth place in the division standings.

Bakersfield and Stockton’s magic number to clinch a playoff berth is 13. With six games remaining in regular season play, it will be a race to the finish for both teams.

Is there an advantage for either? Stockton plays five of its final six games at home while Bakersfield plays five of its last six games on the road.

Should the teams tie, the Condors own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Heat takes some momentum into this week’s home slate after completing a 4-0-0-1 on its latest five-game road swing to set a new team record with points in six straight road games and tie a club record with its five-game points streak.

Stockton has set a new team record this season with 13 road wins.

“You want to win your games on the road, but the ones at home are the ones that you absolutely need,” Heat forward Morgan Klimchuk explained. “They’re going to be really important games in front of our fans and we’re really excited to get back (home).”

San Antonio has been eliminated from the playoff race while Tucson is hanging on by a thread. Another loss by the Roadrunners or a win by either Bakersfield or Stockton eliminates the Arizona team from postseason play.

Trading places

Former Stockton goaltender Tom McCollum earned honors as the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for March with the Charlotte Checkers after posting a 7-1-1 record in nine appearances while allowing 17 goals on 260 shots for a 1.88 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.

Acquired in a trade with the Heat at the AHL trading deadline, McCollum had appeared in just one game this season in Stockton with a 1.50 GAA and .950 save percentage.

The 27-year-old Amherst, N.Y. native got his first AHL start of the season on Mar. 10 and turned aside 49 shots in the Checkers’ 4-1 victory at Manitoba.

McCollum signed as a free agent with Calgary last October after seven seasons in the Detroit Red Wings organization that included a Calder Cup championship with Grand Rapids in 2013.

Despite the change in uniforms, McCollum remains property of the NHL Flames.

By the numbers

San Diego, buoyed by several recent crowds of 12,000-plus, has raised its attendance average to 8,694 per game (third in the league). Ontario is also having another robust season at the gate with its 7,979 attendance average (second best in the division and sixth best in the league).

Bakersfield (5,044), Stockton (4,473) and San Jose (4,321) follow among the five California teams in the division. Tucson averaged 4,054 fans per game in its inaugural season in the Grand Canyon State.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents