Monday, December 31, 2007

Whalers host top-ranked Rangers today

The Plymouth Whalers close out 2007 with a New Year’s Eve date at 4 p.m. at Compuware Arena against the Kitchener Rangers. The Rangers (28-4-1-2) are the top team in the Ontario Hockey League and the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.

Monday’s game is the first time the Whalers have ever played at home on New Year’s Eve. In 1993, the Whalers (then known as Detroit Jr. Red Wings) defeated Kingston, 7-4, at the Kingston Memorial Centre in the only other game that Plymouth has played on New Year’s Eve.

The Whalers are offering an added bonus for fans purchasing a $14 or $10 ticket. Fans will be allowed to skate free of charge on the Compuware Arena ice from 2-3:30 p.m.

The Whalers (19-11-2-2) come into Monday’s game winless over their last four games. Kitchener has defeated Plymouth twice in Kitchener – 1-0 in overtime on Sept. 29 and 3-1 on Oct. 30.

Both teams are missing players at the 2008 World Junior Championship currently being played in the Czech Republic. Plymouth goaltender Jeremy Smith is backstopping the United States to a 3-0 record through Sunday and defenseman Michal Jordan (Czech Republic) is one of the youngest players in this year’s tournament. Kitchener is missing Yannick Weber (Switzerland), Matt Halischuk (Canada) and Mikkel Boedker (Denmark).

Both teams have plenty of firepower available for Monday’s game. The Whalers are led offensively by Carolina draft pick Chris Terry (25-37-62), veteran Andrew Fournier (21-23-44) and Wolverine Lake native AJ Jenks (20-12-32). Kitchener features Justin Azevedo (19-46-65), Nazem Kadri (10-21-31) and Mike Duco (13-13-26). Josh Unice – passed over by Team USA for the World Junior Championship in favor of Smith – has a 2.21 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 26 games this season.

After today's game, the Whalers hit the road on Thursday in Windsor and Friday at Sault Ste. Marie before returning home Saturday against Guelph.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

'Diggers host North Stars tomorrow night

With only one day remaining in 2007, the Alpena IceDiggers will play host to the Traverse City North Stars one last time during the calendar year. Faceoff is set for 7:00 p.m. inside Northern Lights Arena tomorrow night.

The IceDiggers are coming off a much-needed seven-day break where most, if not all, the players returned to their hometowns to celebrate the holidays with their families.

Traverse City has played three games since Christmas Day and dropped all three to the Marquette Rangers.

"We are going to have to jump on them early as they have not had much success the last few games," Alpena coach-GM Kenny Miller said. "But they will come ready to play, so we will have to be ready."

In Alpena's last game before the break, the IceDiggers recorded a 3-2 shootout loss at Traverse City. It was the IceDiggers' first shootout of the year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Fischer to make appearance in Saginaw

Former Detroit Red Wings defenseman and CHL alumnus Jiri Fischer will make a celebrity appearance at the Saginaw Spirit home game this Saturday when Spirit take on the Plymouth Whalers at 7:11 p.m. at TheDow Event Center in Saginaw. The former Stanley Cup winner will be at the game to participate in a ceremonial puck drop and sign autographs for fans in the Bud Light Blue Line Club.

The Saginaw Spirit Charitable Foundation will be selling photo and puck packages for Fischer to sign, with the proceeds going to benefit the Jiri Fischer Healthy Hope Foundation. Fans can purchase a Red Wings puck and 8x10 photo package for $10 or a Red Wings puck and 11x14 photo package for $20 - limited quantities of 11x14 photos available. Fans can also get one additional item signed with the purchase of a puck and photo package.

“We are thrilled to have Jiri Fischer as our celebrity guest,” stated Spirit president and managing partner Craig Goslin. “He has been an inspiration to many people, including those with heart conditions. Ours fans will have a great opportunity to get up close and personal with a great athlete who is a Stanley Cup champion both on and off the ice.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ex-Whaler signs NHL deal with Flames

The Peterborough Petes announced that captain John Armstrong has signed a three-year entry-level contract with the NHL’s Calgary Flames.

Armstrong, the Flames' third draft pick at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, joined the Petes in January after being acquired from the Plymouth Whalers in the Daniel Ryder deal. He immediately showed leadership abilities on a young Petes team and this year was rewarded with the captaincy.

Currently leading the Petes in scoring with seven goals and 27 points in 31 games this season, Armstrong is obviously elated at signing an NHL contract.

“This is a dream come true," said Armstrong. "It is the best Christmas present I have received.

“I would really like to thank the Petes and general manager Jeff Twohey for bringing me in at the trade deadline last season. It is nice to get this out of the way so I don’t have to worry about it the rest of the season and I can just concentrate on helping our team.”

Armstrong was the first-round pick (13th overall) of the Whalers at the 2004 OHL Priority Selection.

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

Three Challenge Cup games on tap

Following the North American Hockey League holiday break, the Marquette Rangers resume their schedule with three games against Traverse City this weekend. The North Stars come to Lakeview Arena Thursday and Friday before hosting the Rangers Saturday night at Centre Ice Arena.

The two teams will face-off Thursday and Friday in Marquette at 7:30 p.m.

Marquette is currently in a third-place tie with Alpena in the NAHL North Division with 34 points (16-10-2) while the North Stars are in sixth place in the division with a record of 11-11-5 (27 points).

The weekend will also be key games towards determining who wins the Smith Barney Challenge Cup that the two teams are fighting for this year. The winner of the cup, donated by Smith Barney offices in both Marquette and Traverse City, will be determined by head-to-head competition between the two clubs. So far, Traverse City holds a 2-1 edge after three games.

“We feel pretty good about where we are right now,” said Rangers head coach Randy Enders. “It was obvious we all needed a break and needed to get away from hockey for awhile. Now that we’ve had a chance to rest our bodies and our minds, I’m confident our guys will return to Marquette with a new hunger and desire to get back at it.

“The goal now is to come back and really be focused on these three games this weekend because it’s our last series at Lakeview for quite awhile, so taking advantage of home ice is the number one priority. If we can get a good start against a quality division rival like Traverse City, it’ll help set the stage for the second half of the year.”

Following this weekend, the Rangers won’t play a game at Lakeview Arena until Jan. 24-25 against Traverse City and Alpena.

According to Enders, being on the road is just part of the junior hockey experience and it’s something the team will play through.

“It’s going to be a long month, no doubt about it, but like we always tell the guys, it will help them be better players in the long-run,” said Enders. “Junior hockey is all about challenges like this and facing them head-on. I think it will help our young guys the most and we’ll come out of the month on the road more mature and battle-tested.

“We’re fortunate in the sense that we do have a number of guys who have been through a year or two at this level. This is a great opportunity for our veterans to really take-charge and lead this team. So as much as it is a tough part of our schedule, I’m looking forward to it because there are so many good things that can come from this challenge.”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Plymouth hosts Saginaw Thursday

The Plymouth Whalers (19-9-2-2) start the second half of the season Thursday at 2 p.m. against the Saginaw Spirit in the Annual Kid’s Day celebration at Compuware Arena. With all kinds of activities for kids as a pleasant backdrop, Plymouth and Saginaw (14-14-3-1) meet in the second of eight meetings over the course of the season. The Whalers and Spirit also meet in Saginaw next Saturday at the Dow Event Center.

Plymouth defeated Saginaw, 4-1, at Compuware Arena on Nov. 21.

Plymouth goaltender Jeremy Smith and defenseman Michal Jordan are playing in the World Junior Championship which starts Wednesday. Smith is with Team USA and Jordan (just 17 years old and joining Canada’s Steven Stamkos and John Tavares as the youngest players in the tournament) is playing for the Czech Republic.

Smith and Jordan are expected to be with their respective teams through Jan. 6.

With Smith away, backup Matt Hackett is expected to carry to load over the next two weeks. With Jordan away, the Whalers called rookie defenseman Anthony Donati on Dec. 11 and he’s played in three games. The Whalers should also get Andrew Fournier (21-20--41) back from injury and perhaps Joe McCann (8-7--15 in 20 games) as well. Fournier and McCann have missed three games with nagging injuries, but should be back on Thursday. Chris Terry (24-35--59) continues to lead the Whalers in scoring and is fourth overall in the OHL.

Saginaw general manager Don Edwards seemed to energize the Spirit when he traded three veterans - right wing Jan Mursak, defenseman Nigel Williams and goaltender Parker Van Buskirk - to Belleville on Dec. 9 in exchange for goaltender Edward Pasquale, forward Brendan Taylor and a pair of third-round draft choices. Saginaw won all three games directly after the trade to climb back to the .500 mark. Veterans Jack Combs (22-28--50), Ryan McDonough (22-19--41) and Tomas Zaborsky (18-17--35) lead the Spirit in scoring.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Canton's Underwood dealt to Saginaw

The Saginaw Spirit completed a trade with the Guelph Storm yesterday, acquiring defenseman Joe Underwood, a Canton native.

Guelph received Saginaw's 15th-round pick in the 2009 OHL Priority Selection as well as a conditional sixth-round pick in the 2009 selection.

“This is the 1990-born right-handed defenseman that the Spirit were looking for,” stated Spirit GM Don Edwards. “He is a steady, stay-at-home defenseman that will greatly compliment our defensive corps.”

Underwood played with the Detroit Compuware program during the 2005-06 season and during the 2006 OHL Cup he tallied two points in three games. The Storm selected Underwood in the seventh round of the 2006 draft and during his rookie season with the Storm, he notched a goal, three assists, 18 penalty minutes and was plus-9 in 60 games. He tallied his first OHL goal last Dec. 16 against the London Knights.

Underwood has played 19 games with the Storm this season, posting two assists, six PIMs and a plus-3 rating.

“As an organization, we welcome Joe Underwood to the Saginaw Spirit family,” stated Spirit president and managing partner Craig Goslin. “Attracting top-tier players with Michigan roots is always an additional benefit."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Team USA travels to Traverse City

Each year, the U.S. National Team Development Program harvests some of the top under-17 talent in the country. After a year of contests against North American Hockey League and international tournament action, most of the players graduate to the under-18 squad, from which the National Hockey League has stuffed its personnel coffers over the past few years.

This year’s Under-17 crop is every bit as talented as those that have seen almost 50 players plucked in recent NHL Drafts, and the team is presently situated in the fourth and final postseason slot in the NAHL North Division, five points ahead of Traverse City. The North Stars host the U-17s this weekend at Centre ICE arena for an important Friday-Saturday series.

“They are a supremely talented team,” said North Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “If you give them a chance to make plays, they will hurt you. You can’t give them so much respect that you don’t maintain that aggressive approach, but you also can’t give them any freebies, because they’ll bury the puck in your net.”

Among the USNTDP’s top performers are a pair of NHL-reared players: Forward Ryan Bourque, son of all-time NHL great Ray Bourque, and Bjorn Krupp, whose father Uwe spent time with the Detroit Red Wings during a 20-year pro career. Bourque made an impression on Palumbo – and the net – during the teams’ first meeting back on Oct. 5.

“Ryan’s shot is just like his dad’s,” Palumbo explained. “When we played them down there, he shot one so hard - the puck had gone in, bounced off the back of the net, and landed out in the neutral zone before anyone could even react.”

Jeremy Morin leads the U-17s with 15 goals and 24 points in his 19 games, while Drew Shore (17 pts.) has dished out a team-best 11 assists. Bourque is third with nine goals and 16 points. The Under-17 squad downed TC by a 6-3 margin back on Oct. 5 in Ann Arbor in a game that Palumbo said hinged on poor puck control.

“We turned the puck over no less than 10 times and five of them resulted in goals,” he said following the game.

For Traverse City, the forward line of Nate Urbaniak, Harrison Niemann and Kyle Bonis is firing on all cylinders over the past few weekends. Urbaniak, who has scored a team-high 13 goals to go with 26 points in 23 games, has eight of those tallies in the past five contests. Niemann has 10 points over that span, while Bonis has a goal and four assists in his first four games with the North Stars. The team will also get back a pair of players who were nursing injuries of late in forward Kellen Michalak (lower body) and defenseman Ben Plocar (upper body).

“We have to try to control the puck and we have to always know where everybody is at – account for all five skaters at all time,” Palumbo assessed. “We can’t be sloppy for one minute, because we know what they can do when given the chance.”

The North Stars (9-9-5) and Team USA U-17s begin a stretch where the clubs will face off seven times between Friday and March 4. The USNTDP – whose 13-13-2 record includes games played against NAHL competition by both the U-17 and U-18 teams – has played five more games so far this season than Traverse City, while third-place Marquette and fifth-place Alpena has played two additional contests. Palumbo cautions against overvaluing games-in-hand.

“Right now, we’re playing .500 hockey and it’s not going to get us into the playoffs in this division, where no one is below .500,” he said. “We can’t count on having more games left than other teams we’re battling for playoff position. Those are games we have the opportunity to win, but there are no guaranteed points left out there.”

Friday’s contest will feature an intermission performance by Twin Bay Skating Club’s Northern Lights ‘High Ice Theatre.’ The decorated troupe will perform a number from the musical, “Hairspray.” Both Friday’s and Saturday’s showdowns will face-off at 7 p.m.

OHL games in Michigan rescheduled

The Ontario Hockey League today announced that the postponed games involving the Kingston Frontenacs in Saginaw and Plymouth have been rescheduled.

The games were postponed on November 30 and December 1, respectively.

The Frontenacs will play the Plymouth Whalers on Sunday, February 3, 2008, starting at 2:00 p.m. at the Compuware Arena while the game in Saginaw against the Spirit will be played Wednesday, February 27, 2008 starting at 7:11 p.m. at The Dow Event Center.

Rangers host Alpena on Saturday

The Marquette Rangers head to Alpena this Friday before playing the IceDiggers in a return engagement on Saturday at Lakeview Arena.

Saturday’s game begins at 7:30 p.m.

The series will be the final weekend of action for the Rangers before the North American Hockey League's annual holiday break.

Marquette sits solidly in third place in the NAHL North Division with 33 points (16-9-1) while Alpena is in fifth place, just one point behind the U.S. National Team Development Program.

“Every week it seems we’re talking about how important the next two games are,” said Rangers head coach Randy Enders. “As strange as that may seem, it’s true. We’ve started to see a little bit of separation in our division, but every weekend remains important because it won’t take much for things to get real close again. Every team in our division is capable of putting together a winning streak, so the more points we can collect the better.

“We realize it’s only December, but believe it or not, the playoffs will be here before we know it so we need to continue to play well, play smart and do the little things necessary to maintain the success we’ve had so far.”

With 12 wins, 18 losses and two overtime losses at this time a year ago, Enders sees that the Rangers have improved in their second year.

“Last season we were a new team," Enders said. "We had guys who had played at the junior level before, but never in this system, which made for some tough going in the first year.

“Now we have several veterans who were Rangers last year, so they know the league and they know what the expectations from our organization are. So in that sense, we’re much better off than we were at this time a year ago.”

Stefan named new Plymouth head coach

Compuware CEO and Plymouth Whalers owner Peter Karmanos, Jr. announced the promotion of Mike Vellucci to Governor, President and General Manager of the Plymouth Whalers and Compuware Arena, effective immediately.

In relation with the promotion, Vellucci named Greg Stefan (pictured) as new head coach of the Whalers. Stefan resigned as an assistant coach of the Carolina Hurricanes today and rejoins the Whalers for the third time in his coaching career.

Joe Stefan remains with Plymouth as an assistant coach. Greg and Joe Stefan will be behind the bench Thursday when the Whalers resume action in Peterborough against the Petes.

“Mike’s had tremendous success as a head coach, while balancing the demands of three different jobs,” said Karmanos. “He’s created stability and has built a winning environment within the organization. He has taken our on-ice performance in Plymouth to another level. I’m proud of the fact that Mike was able to bring home a championship to Plymouth. Mike will now have an opportunity to focus his energies towards running Compuware Arena and the Whalers without the day-to-day time restraints of coaching.”

After losing in the OHL finals in 2000 to Barrie and in 2001 to Ottawa, Vellucci went behind the bench in the summer of 2001 and led Plymouth to the second championship last season in the Whalers' 18-year history.

Vellucci recently became the winningest coach in Plymouth history, compiling a record of 246-132-37-22, good for a .630 winning percentage, second in franchise history behind Paul Maurice (.681), now with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Vellucci became the first American to win the Ontario Hockey League’s Matt Leyden Award last season as Coach of the Year.

Plymouth won four West Division titles and never finished lower than second place during Vellucci’s tenure behind the bench. The Whalers are currently 18-8-1-2 and in third place in the ultra-competitive OHL West, eight points behind the first-place Windsor Spitfires (21-6-2-3) and seven points behind the second-place Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Greg Stefan, 46, worked as an assistant for the Whalers originally from 1993-98 and rejoined the Whalers from 2003-05 before moving to the Hurricanes in 2005, helping Carolina to the first Stanley Cup in their history in 2006.

Stefan played in the OHL as a goaltender with the Oshawa Generals from 1978-81 before being selected in the seventh round of the 1981 National Hockey League Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings. Stefan turned to coaching after retiring as a player in 1991.

“I’ve worked closely with Greg for a long time and he has been loyal to the organization,” Vellucci said. “He deserves this opportunity to become a head coach. I am confident he will develop our players for the next level and continue our winning tradition. He knows what it takes to make it to the National Hockey League, both as a player and a coach.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

IceDiggers home Friday against Marquette

After coming off a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday in Traverse City, the Alpena IceDiggers will get ready for division rival Marquette on Friday as the Rangers will come to Northern Lights Arena for a 7:00 p.m. contest.

Newly-acquired netminder Nick Graves picked up his first win in net on Saturday making 20 saves in the OT win. On Friday afternoon, the IceDiggers landed free-agent defenseman Nick Grasso, who made an immediate impact in his first game picking up an assist and the game-winning goal.

Jimmy McCusker and Bryan Ross tallied the other two makers for Alpena, who improved its record to 13-12-1.

Marquette (16-9-1) comes to Alpena after splitting two games with Mahoning Valley. On Saturday, Mahoning Valley exploded for eight goals in an 8-2 route on the Rangers.

"We have to be better at home," Alpena coach-GM Kenny Miller said. "So far this season, we have not played up to par in our rink. Somehow, we have to find a way to put a string of home wins together and we will get our shot this weekend when a very sound Marquette team comes to town. It will be a challenge."

The IceDiggers have 2-3 record against Marquette and are winless against the Rangers at NLA.

On Saturday, Alpena travels to Marquette to wrap up the home-and-home series at 7:30 p.m.


Graves was acquired in a trade from Southern Minnesota last week and in order to make room for Graves, the IceDiggers released goalie Dan Pason.

"Nick was the difference in the game on Saturday," Miller said. "He deserved the win."

Defenseman Anton Thornquist has left the team to pursue other options.

Whalers call up Donati from London midgets

The Plymouth Whalers have called up defenseman Anthony Donati, selected in the sixth round (109th overall) in last spring's OHL Priority Selection, from the London Junior Knights midgets.

This season, Donati (pictured) has scored 10 goals with 14 assists for 24 points and 110 penalty minutes in 36 games.

Donati - no relation to former OHL players Justin and Tyler Donati - will wear No. 21 and is expected to make his Whalers debut Thursday night in Peterborough.

In other Plymouth news, the team acquired the overage rights to Chris Stewart over the weekend from the Kingston Frontenacs for a 15th-round pick in 2011. Stewart is currently with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League (under contract with the Colorado Avalanche after he was their first-round pick in 2006) and it is very doubtful he'll report to the Whalers.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Saginaw makes major swap with Bulls

The Saginaw Spirit completed a trade with the Eastern Conference’s Belleville Bulls today.

The Spirit pick up forward Brendan Taylor, goaltender Edward Pasquale, a third-round pick in 2008 and a third-round pick in 2010 for forward Jan Mursak, defenseman Nigel Williams (pictured) and goaltender Parker Van Buskirk.

“We are very excited about the latest additions to our organization,” stated Spirit GM Don Edwards. “Pasquale is one of the best 1990-born goaltenders in Ontario and is someone that we can build on for the future. Taylor will bring a great dynamic to our team as he is a gifted forward who can also help out on special teams play.”

Taylor is a 1989-born native of Oakville, Ontario. In 26 games with the Bulls, he has tallied three goals and 12 assists. Last season, Taylor played with Peterborough Petes, notching 10 goals and 15 assists in 64 games.

Pasquale has played 10 games in net for the Bulls this season, posting a record of 4-4-1-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. He had his first OHL career shutout against Peterborough on Oct. 13.

"We wish these three young men the best of luck in Belleville," said Edwards. "We as an organization are very appreciative for all of their efforts this past season.”

Mursak is a 1988-born Slovenia native that was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. This season he tallied six goals and 20 assists in 26 games. Mursak is currently away playing in the World Junior Championship ‘B’ pool tournament.

Williams is an Aurora, Ill., native that came to the Spirit from the University of Wisconsin in the early part of the 2006-2007 season. This season he has notched five goals and 19 assists in 29 games. The 1988-born player was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the second round in 2006.

Van Buskirk is a 1988-born goalie from Windsor, Ontario. This was his first season with the Spirit, after coming to Saginaw via a trade with the Sarnia Sting in the beginning of the season. In 10 games he has posted a record of 5-4-0-0, with a 3.26 goals-against average and a .874 save percentage.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Whalers send Shepley to Brampton

The Plymouth Whalers today traded 20-year-old defenseman Zack Shepley to the Brampton Battalion in exchange for a third-round draft choice in 2010.

The deal gets Plymouth to the limit of three overage players (1987 birthdays) as required by Ontario Hockey League rules. The Whalers’ other overage players include center Andrew Fournier, right wing Joe McCann and defenseman Wes Cunningham.

Shepley was originally selected by Plymouth in the tenth round (199th overall) of the 2003 OHL Priority Selection. Shepley developed into an excellent stay-at-home defenseman who was an integral part of the Whalers championship team last season. In 176 career regular season games with Plymouth, Shepley scored two goals with 20 assists for 22 points and 165 penalty minutes.

Shepley has not played this season due to an injury, but has resumed skating over the past couple of weeks and is expected to report to the Battalion ready to play. Brampton hosts Niagara tonight and Sudbury on Sunday.

“We appreciate everything Zack did for us,” Plymouth coach-GM Mike Vellucci said. “He was a big part of our championship team last year. By going to Brampton, he has a chance to play close to home.”

Shepley grew up in Oakville, Ontario, and his family lives in nearby Milton, roughly 15 miles away from Brampton.

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

North Stars gear up for Saturday showdown

Upon first glance, Saturday evening’s showdown at Centre ICE arena between the Traverse City North Stars and Alpena IceDiggers looks like any other intradivisional mid-season contest.

But according to Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo, such games are what will separate the playoff wheat from the stay-home chaff when April rolls around.

“You look at the standings and you see us at the bottom, and yes we do have some games in hand,” Palumbo explained. “But that won’t matter at all if we don’t win the games against the three or four teams we’re in direct competition with for the few playoff spots. This is exactly the kind of game we’ve got to win if we want to play on after the regular season.”

Traverse City, at 9-9-4, has played three fewer games then Alpena, and is three points behind the fifth-place Diggers. The fourth-place U.S. National Team Development Program has played five more contests then the Stars, while third-place – and recently red-hot – Marquette (5-2 last seven) has two games on TC. In fact, only one North American Hockey League team – Alexandria – has played fewer games so far than the North Stars.

“That’s a scheduling quirk, and obviously we’ll all end up with the same number of games played,” Palumbo added. “And that’s why these games are so important if we want to move up.”

The IceDiggers dropped a 4-3 decision at home to the USA Under-17s on Thursday, but also downed mighty Mahoning Valley by a 2-1 count in Youngstown on Saturday. Alpena product Erik Peterson leads the Diggers with 32 points, including 24 assists. He leads the NAHL with 15 power play assists. Jon Puskar (11) and Cheboygan product Isaac Viau (10) are Alpena’s top goal scorers. Nate Pallegrino is 10-6-1 in net for the IceDiggers, but the club just completed a trade for ex-Southern Minnesota netkeep Nick Graves, who started nine games this year for the Express.

For Traverse City, the trigger-happy trio of Nate Urbaniak, Harrison Niemann and Kyle Bonis have been ablaze of late. Urbaniak and Niemann each have nine points over the past, with Urbaniak scoring in four straight contests. Bonis, who joined the team late last month, has made himself at home with a goal and two assists in his three games in a Stars sweater.

“They are working together right now,” Palumbo assessed. “They’re doing all the little things they have to do to score goals.”

Following Saturday’s contest, the North Stars welcome the U-17s to Centre ICE next weekend for a Friday-Saturday series.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whalers host Spits, Colts this weekend

The Plymouth Whalers are home this weekend in their final two home games at Compuware Arena before the Christmas break, hosting Windsor on Friday and Barrie on Saturday. Both games start at 7:05 p.m.

Here’s a closer look:

Friday – Windsor (19-6-1-3) at Plymouth (16-8-1-2)
The high-flying Spitfires are off to one of the best starts in their history and are ranked seventh overall in the Canadian Hockey League Mosaik Mastercard Top 10 Rankings. Windsor has defeated Plymouth in three of the four games played between the two teams so far this season.

WHO’S HOT FOR WINDSOR: Former Whalers goaltender Michal Neuvirth (pictured) is 5-1-0-0 since coming over to Windsor in a trade on Nov. 13 and defeated Plymouth, 5-3, on Nov. 16. Neuvirth is second in the OHL with a .928 save percentage. Veteran Bradley Snetsinger (team leading 18-27-45) has five goals against the Whalers this season over four games. Calgary draft choice and Windsor captain Mickey Renaud (12-12-24) and first-rounder Taylor Hall (17-11-28) have also played well against Plymouth this season. Windsor rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis (5-19-24) – a second-round pick - leads all first-year OHL defensemen in scoring.

WHO’S HOT FOR PLYMOUTH: Goaltender Jeremy Smith posted a 7-2-0-1 won-loss record, 1.97 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in November and was named to the United States World Junior Championship team. Smith leads the OHL with a .931 save percentage. Co-captains Chris Terry (18-29-47, 9-14-23 in November) and Andrew Fournier (20-20-40, 10-11-21 in November) led Plymouth in scoring last month. NHL scouts will continue to evaluate AJ Jenks (15-6-21), who is currently ranked ninth overall by the National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Bureau in their preliminary rankings. Carolina prospect Brett Bellemore (3-6-9, team-leading +14) and veteran Wes Cunningham (4-26-30) lead an underrated Plymouth defense.

Saturday – Barrie (16-11-1-1) at Plymouth
It’s Teddy Bear Toss night at Compuware Arena. Fans are encouraged to bring a new stuffed animal to the game and throw it on the ice when the Whalers score their first goal of the evening. The animals with be picked up and, with the help of Plymouth United Way, will find a new home for the holidays.

The Whalers defeated Barrie, 4-1, on Oct. 11 at the Molson Centre.

WHO’S HOT FOR BARRIE: Andrew Perugini (2.75 GAA. .927 save percentage – third in the OHL) is one of the more underrated goaltenders in the OHL. Overager Vladimir Nikiforov (19-27-46) rivals Plymouth’s Vern Cooper as one of the fastest players in the OHL. New York Islanders draft pick Tomas Marcinko (11-9-20 in 18 games) has a history of playing well against the Whalers. Head coach Marty Williamson has done a good job keeping Barrie competitive in the OHL’s Central Division as the Colts have been banged up all season.

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

NAHL announces Ann Arbor tournament

The North American Hockey League announced today details on its first annual Top Prospects Tournament, which will be held February 17-19 at the Ice Cube in Ann Arbor.

The event will feature all-star teams from the NAHL's Central, North and South Divisions, as well as a team from the U.S. National Team Development Program, competing in a three-game, round-robin tournament.

“This is shaping up to be an exciting event that can’t help but draw a significant number of college and professional scouts,” said NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld.

Each team will consist of a 20-man roster. In the two, six-team divisions - the Central and South – five players will represent the first-place team as of January 1; four will represent the second-place team; three for the third; and two for the fifth- and sixth-place teams. Coaches will also select one wildcard player from each of the two divisions. In the five-team North Division (excluding the NTDP), five players will represent the first-place team as of January 1; four will represent the second-place team; and three will represent the third-, fourth- and fifth-place teams.

Coaches will also select two wildcard players from the division.

The NTDP team will be comprised of players from both the Under-17 and Under-18 Teams.

The rosters will be announced on Monday, January 14.

Coaches for the Top Prospects teams will be selected based on the highest winning percentage in the standings as of January 1. The first-place team’s coach in each division will serve as head coach, while the second-place team’s coach will serve as the assistant coach.

In conjunction with the Top Prospects Tournament, the third and final event of the season's NAHL Midget Showcase Series will be held February 15-18 at the Ice Cube.

A USA Hockey Tier I sanctioned event, the tournament will field 12 teams at the Midget Major level.

Applications, which can be found at, are still being accepted for the Midget Showcase event, with all teams being notified of their application status by January 1.

More details on the Top Prospects Tournament and the Midget Showcase Series will be released in the coming weeks.

Rangers host Phantoms this weekend

After taking five out of six possible points this past weekend, the Marquette Rangers host the Mahoning Valley Phantoms this Friday and Saturday at Lakeview Arena.

Mahoning Valley and St. Louis are currently tied for the top spot in the North Division with 36 points each while Marquette is alone in third place just five points back.

“Our division is all about opportunity this year,” said Rangers head coach Randy Enders. “We’ve been fortunate enough to put some positive things together against teams beneath us in the standings, and with that create some separation between our team and those behind us. Mahoning presents a great challenge this weekend because not only are they a tremendous team, but this will be the first time in a while we’ve had a chance to head to head with a team in front of us in the standings.

“We’ll learn a lot about the kind of hockey team we are through these games this weekend. If the last three games are any indication, we’ve come quite a ways since the beginning of the season.”

The Rangers beat Traverse City last Thursday and split with the U.S. National Team Development Program Friday and Saturday. The game Saturday saw the Rangers climb back to win 5-4 after trailing 4-1 after two periods.

“Earlier this year who knows how Saturday would have turned out,” Enders said. “But as the season has gone along our older guys have really accepted their roles as leaders and have done a nice job of helping the younger players develop and grow. We’ll need more of that this weekend with Mahoning Valley in town.”

The challenge brought by the Phantoms has resonated in the Rangers locker room as well.

“They’re a good team,” said Rangers defenseman and assistant captain Derek Grogan. “We’re excited to play them because this will be a good measuring stick for where we are so far this season. It’s the kind of challenge you look forward to as a player, so I think we’ll be ready to play Friday and Saturday.”

The Rangers continue to be led in scoring by Aaron Pietila, who had a six-point weekend (three goals, three assists) and now has 30 points on the year with 17 goals and 13 assists.

Goaltender Matt Brooker, who was named North Division Player of The Week for his play against Traverse City and the USNTDP, continues to produce solid numbers for the Rangers this year. He sports a record of 11-2-0 with a goals-against average of 2.83 and a save percentage of .921.

One battle to keep an eye on this weekend may very well be in net, as Brooker and Mahoning Valley goaltender Garrett Bartus are in a statistical dead-heat so far this season featuring near identical numbers going into this weekend.

The Phantoms feature a balanced attack offensively this season with seven players scoring 20 or more points on the year. Mahoning Valley brings with them one of the NAHL’s top scoring threats in Schoolcraft native and Ferris State recruit Derek Graham, who leads the potent attack with 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists,). As a team, Mahoning Valley averages nearly four goals a game on offense.

“They’re as good a team as there is in this league” added Enders. “This will be a great test for our guys, and a terrific weekend of hockey for our fans.

Both games begin at 7:30 at Lakeview Arena.

Alpena back home tomorrow night

After playing six straight games away from the friendly confides of the Northern Lights Arena, the Alpena IceDiggers return home this Thursday night to take on the USA Under-17 Team.

"It is good to get back here and play in front of the best fans in the league," said coach-GM Kenny Miller.

The IceDiggers are coming off a weekend split against with the Mahoning Valley Phantoms in Ohio. On Friday, the IceDiggers dropped the contest 4-1, but rallied on Saturday to claim a 2-1 victory.

Alpena is currently 12-11-1; Team USA is 12-13-2.

Mursak, Smith, Jordan off to WJHC

Saginaw Spirit winger Jan Mursak has taken a temporary leave of absence from the team to participate in the World Junior Championship with Team Slovenia for the second consecutive year.

The IIHF Under-20 Division I ‘B' tournament will take place in Latvia from December 12 through December 18. Mursak tallied five points on three goals and two assists in last year's tournament that saw Slovenia post a record of 1-3-0-0.

“We wish Jan and Team Slovenia the best of luck in the tournament,” stated Spirit GM Don Edwards.

Plymouth Whalers goaltender Jeremy Smith was selected for Team USA and defenseman Michal Jordan has received an invitation to try out for the Czech Republic team.

North Stars tender pair of state midgets

The calendar still says 2007, but Traverse City North Stars coach-GM Anthony Palumbo is already thinking ahead to next fall, locking up a pair of talented 1989 birthdates to tenders for 2008-09: Soo Indians defenseman Bo Jacobs and forward Ryan Amin of Detroit Compuware.

Jacobs would become the sixth former Soo Indians player to don the interlocking ‘TC’; Former Soo alums now in with the North Stars include captain Joe Greener, Kory Kaunisto, Eric McLintock, Eric O’Hearn and Garrett and Marc Thompson.

“Bo’s an offensive defenseman who doesn’t contribute offensively at the expense of his defensive responsibilities,” Palumbo assessed. “He’s got size and skill, and is a hard worker.”

Through 10 Midwest Elite Hockey League games so far this season, Jacobs has five assists and 37 penalty minutes. The 6-foot, 210-pound Jacobs was a First Team All-State performer at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer in 2006-07.

“Bo is an all-around outstanding athlete,” Soo Indians head coach Rick Corbiere said. “He gives 110 percent in everything he does. It seems like he fears nothing and isn’t afraid to push anything to the limits if it helps his team.

“We bring kids here to concentrate on learning the skills to advance to higher levels of hockey. It’s no surprise that Bo will be playing in the NAHL.”

Jacobs says his ultimate goal is similar to that of most juniors – NCAA hockey.

“It’s a good place to live and a good team to play for,” Jacobs said. “I hope to make the team, get some playing time, contribute, and eventually get the scholarship.”

Amin, who came out of the starting block with both guns blazing this season, has a Compuware-leading four goals and five assists through his first eight MWEHL contests. Over his past three seasons – 2004-05 with Compuware’s 1990 team, 2005-06 with Honeybaked’s midget minor club, and 2006-07 with the Honeybaked midget majors – Amin (now 5-foot-10, 180 pounds) has totaled 19 goals and 28 assists in 82 MWEHL outings.

“Ryan is player we’ve been keeping our eye on and we really wanted him here,” Palumbo added. “We’re going to have some offense to replace next season, and we think Ryan could be a part of that.”

Amin, a Canton native, played with current TC defenseman Chris Heineman, when the two were with Honeybaked in 2005-06.

“I came up to Traverse City for pre-season training camp when I was with Honeybaked, and we really liked the city,” Amin explained. “And Chris told me that it was a good place to play. Plus it’s close to home where my parents could still come and watch regularly. I’m pretty excited about the opportunity.”