Thursday, November 27, 2008

Machine players hope to read 10,000 books

Motor City Machine players Nate Taurence, Bennett Schneider, Ali Dakroub and Alec Thieda joined Taft Elementary School in Wyandotte in their goal to read 10,000 books by year’s end.

“Every week we get the chance to meet different kids in the communities and help them through their toughest challenge in life, school,” explains Thieda.

Motor City has been to over 12 different schools ranging from ages 5-14 throughout the Downriver area as they introduce themselves to the communities. Taft has been a hot spot for Machine players because of its location right down the street.

“The students get so excited when they hear the whispers of hockey players returning to the classrooms," says school principal Christine Mathews. "It helps us keep them focused on their reading goals as these young players demonstrate reading skills and interact with them about their school work."

Motor City will continue to visit more schools as the year goes on, but Taft has become an anchor in leading the way to promote education over everything else in life.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Team leaders hope to lead Jets' turnaround

No one is making excuses for the horrid season the Metro Jets are having, but several players are taking steps to hopefully turn things around as early as this weekend.

“I think we could have a good second half if we all buy into the systems and stop having so many mental lapses,” third-year defenseman and assistant captain Brett Grech (Hartland) said. “We just have to make simple and easy plays. As one of the older guys, we all try to lead on the ice during games and everyday at practice.”

Second-year forward Steve Wiechec (Troy) has optimism that the Jets (3-15-0-1) can get untracked, but it won’t be easy.

“The only way we are going to do this is to show more heart and working harder on and off the ice,” Wiechec said. “Some of the steps we have taken so far are leading by example during practice. If the guys see you working your bag off during practices and games, then they are going to want to do the same thing.

“Part of our problem is that we have young, immature guys that don’t have the work ethic yet. We just have to keep pushing them.”

Scoring goals and preventing goals have been the two glaring problems this year and a third, goaltending, is only a matter of time before that rights itself.

“We’ve been rotating our three goalies and we’re still waiting for one to go on a run and steal us a game,” Metro head coach Jamie Hayden said. “Or at least keep us in a game.”

As hard as it is to forget the first 19 games of the season, moving forward seems to be the only choice for Metro and Saturday night can’t come soon enough.

Rangers off to North Division Showcase

Following a three-point weekend in which the Marquette Rangers earned their first ever win against the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 squad, Marquette now heads to Boardman, Ohio, for the second annual North American Hockey League North Division Showcase hosted by Mahoning Valley.

Marquette (9-10-4, 22 pts.) will play three games over three days at both the IceZone and the Chevrolet Center. The Rangers will face the two-time defending Robertson Cup champions, the St. Louis Bandits, on Friday evening and the host Phantoms on Saturday evening before taking on Alpena Sunday afternoon.

“This is a great opportunity for our kids,” Rangers head coach Kenny Miller said. “They’ll get the chance to play in front of a lot of college scouts, which is always a good thing. We do have to make sure we go down there and do our job, though, and make sure to put on a good show for the people who are there to watch our guys.

“With three games in three days we know it will be a tough test as we have a tough schedule facing the defending champions and then the top team in our division (Mahoning Valley), so we know we need to be ready.”

Marquette has won three of their last four games to climb into fourth place in the North Division standings, two points behind the USNTDP heading into this weekend.

“We’re getting very good goaltending and we’re starting to figure things out as a team,” Miller added. “We’ve changed our style a bit with the personnel changes we’ve made, but we still need to play 60 minutes every night to have success and the past few weeks we’ve been doing that, so I like where we are heading into this weekend.”

James Gallagher and Chad Pietila continue to lead the team in scoring with 18 points apiece heading into the showcase. Eight Rangers players have scored in double digits for Marquette during the first quarter of the 2008-09 season.

Dan Sullivan continues to see the bulk of the workload in net for the Rangers. After seven games in a Rangers uniform, Sullivan has a 4-2-1 record and boasts a 2.12 goals-against average and a save percentage of .923.

This weekend’s action could see some separation in the North Division standings as Traverse City and Mahoning Valley are now tied for the top spot with 28 points apiece, followed by the USNTDP (who is not in the Showcase) with 24 points. Marquette has 22 points, Alpena 20, Motor City eight.

The Rangers return home next weekend to face the USNTDP Under-17 squad Friday and Saturday at Lakeview Arena.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Romaniski resigns as Machine coach, GM

The Motor City Machine announced today that Matt Romaniski has resigned as the team’s head coach and general manager, effective immediately.

Machine assistant coach Sean Clark will take over as the team’s interim head coach.

“Matt has been an important part of this organization from the beginning and we can’t thank him enough for all the hard work and contributions he’s made to help get this team off the ground,” said Machine president Marc Schneider.

Clark, from Troy, spent his college playing days in the WIAC at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire before moving on to the professional level with the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL.

After his playing career, Clark became an assistant coach for the Metro Jets of the Central States League before serving as head coach of the Michigan Jaguars during the 2006-07 season. After leaving the Jaguars, Clark jumped on board with the USA Hockey Select 17 staff in 2008.

Since 2006, Clark has been with CORE Sports Fitness, where he serves as a skating instructor, performance coach and business director. He’s also the creator, director and head instructor of Kris Draper’s CORE Fundamentals Hockey School.

Friday, November 21, 2008

North Stars readying for North Showcase

The Traverse City North Stars will get to enjoy an early Thanksgiving holiday in the company of kith and kin, but not for long.

After seven straight weeks of North American Hockey League action, the team enjoyed its first break of the season two weeks ago and picked up two of a possible four points last weekend in Marquette. The first-place Stars (13-3-2) will soak up a holiday respite this weekend, in advance of the Nov. 28-30 North Division Showcase in Youngstown, Ohio.

“We used that first weekend off to get healthy, and we’ve been able to work on our power play this week,” said Traverse City head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo, whose club went 0-for-16 in Marquette and fell from second in the league in power play efficiency to sixth. “It’s been struggle for us (on the power play), even before the Marquette series we could kind of see it. So this week has been just what we needed to focus on that aspect of the game.”

While players will get a chance to head home for the brief break, there’ll be plenty of scoreboard-watching as well. Second-place Mahoning Valley plays a pair of contests at the third-place Team USA U-17s, Marquette also visits Ann Arbor for two against the U-18s and Alpena visits Motor City in a Saturday-Sunday series. Mahoning can grab a share of the NAHL North lead with a sweep.

The teams will get a chance to sort it out for themselves the following weekend in Youngstown, with Traverse City facing off against Mahoning Valley, Alpena and interdivisional foe St. Louis at the three-day, two-venue showcase.

“It’s really a great event,” Palumbo added. “The response from colleges has been phenomenal and there’ll be a lot of them there to watch. Everyone will be trying to put their best foot forward all weekend.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jets finding rough times in '08-09 season

It’s easy to look at the standings and realize that the Metro Jets haven’t had the easiest of times early on in the Central States Hockey League season.

After all, the Jets’ 3-13-0-1 record is good for 11th overall in the 12-team CSHL.

But Metro head coach Jamie Hayden isn’t about to give up hope that the season can’t be salvaged and pointed to the obvious, while being blunt about the team’s situation.

“The past two games, we haven’t been competitive,” Hayden said. “Last year, our record wasn’t very good, but we must have lost 15-20 games by two goals or less. We weren’t getting blasted like we are this year. It’s all mental preparation where the guys aren’t ready to go when we get on the ice and it snowballs where we get down by two, three, even four goals and they get the ‘Ah, here we go again’ feeling. That needs to change.”

That said, Hayden wants the players to take ownership of the team and to start showing a sense of pride each time they put on a Jets jersey, even if the team’s next four games are against three of the top teams in the CSHL (at Dubuque, home vs. St. Louis, at Toledo) and the Jets haven’t beat any of those teams yet this season.

“We have a lot of guys who are great practice players, but when the games start, for whatever reason, they just can’t go,” said Hayden. “All of our systems are very basic and nothing, I think, that is above their ability. Every one of our players needs to look in the mirror and figure out what they’re bringing to the table or what they’ve done so far or recently. They have to make those changes individually.

“But until those changes are made or corrected, we’re not going to look too impressive out there.”

Whalers making changes in right direction

Courtesy Plymouth Whalers

If you chat informally with Plymouth Whalers president, general manager and head coach Mike Vellucci, he might tell you about the way he cuts his lawn. Like many of us, Vellucci is a creature of habit when it comes to his yard work. The grass has to be cut a certain way – and the job really isn’t finished until the lawn is edged properly.

It’s going to take a little more time than edging the lawn, but the Whalers showed definite signs of improvement during Vellucci’s first two games behind the bench. Playing before sellout crowds November 14-15 at Compuware Arena, the Whalers defeated Saginaw, 5-1 and lost, 6-2, to London.

Plymouth played with emotion and purpose over Scouts Weekend at Compuware Arena.
After taking over the team on November 10 for practice and then playing four days later, it seemed like Vellucci didn’t have a whole lot of time for changes in Plymouth’s systems. That wasn’t the case.

“I thought our forecheck struggled a bit before,” Vellucci said. “We want to get after the other team all the time and don’t let them make plays. We’re a big, strong, physical team and we want to go after the smaller defensemen. I thought we forechecked well tonight. I thought on our power play, our puck movement was very good with a lot of shots and a lot of traffic in front.”

Plymouth captain Chris Terry – out for the next couple of weeks with mononucleosis – saw a difference in his team.

“Mike is an old coach for me, but he’s actually pretty new to a lot of the guys,” Terry said during the London game. “This week in practice, we looked really good, really sharp. There’s a lot of good, positive energy out there and it showed last night and I think last night it showed in a good win. We played a good team game against Saginaw, with lots of scoring spread out. I think we can turn it around.”

In the victory over Saginaw, rookie Tyler Seguin emerged as the game’s first star with a goal and two assists. The Whalers also received goals from Tyler J. Brown, Tyler G. Brown, Vern Cooper and Ryan Hayes. In addition, goaltender Jeremy Smith was sharp, stopping 26 of 27 shots in earning the game’s third star.

“Smith made some critical stops when it was 2-1 or 3-1,” Vellucci said after the game. “Jeremy’s a great goalie. I know he’s been getting blamed lately, but I don’t think we were helping him much in our own end as much as we did tonight. There were a lot of guys blocking shots and paying the price tonight. I may have counted 25 or 30 blocked shots tonight. And that’s the kind of effort we need.”

In Terry’s absence, Vellucci put together a forward line of Seguin (the Whalers first-round pick last spring) with Hayes and Tyler J. Brown and the line clicked for three goals and four assists in the victory.

“We talked before the game as a team and (it seemed) like we clicking for the entire 60 minutes,” Seguin said. “At the beginning of the game, Coach Vellucci asked our line to have a real hard-hitting first shift so we could get things going for the rest of the game.”

“We had a great shift to start the game,” Hayes said. “One of our goals at the beginning of the game was to get it in deep and start banging bodies. Every line was going great. Seguin’s got some offensive gifts. It’s nice to play with guys like that.”

Whalers defenseman Josh Bemis – who scored his first OHL goal in the game against London – saw a difference after one period of play.

“We came out with an edge in the first period and if we continue that for the rest of the game we’ll be happy,” Bemis said. “One thing we worked on all week was our forecheck and making sure we’re pressuring them hard in their zone. It paid off, definitely.”

Bemis said that the Whalers know that with a coaching change, the onus now falls on the players.

“We know we all have to step it up for sure,” Bemis said. “We’re not happy with the way things have been so far. If we all step it up, things will improve.”

Even in losing to London the next night, the buzz returned to Compuware Arena – and it wasn’t just the fact the scouts thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The hard core Whaler fans saw a team playing with emotion.

The rest of the OHL is watching the Whalers with interest.

“There are going to be a lot of teams – not just in the Western Conference, but in the Ontario Hockey League – who will be watching Plymouth very carefully,” said London Knights play-by-play voice Mike Stubbs. “Because, as much as they may not be number one, two, or three in the standings, with Mike Vellucci back behind the bench, it’s one of those cases where this team doesn’t rebuild. You don’t get used to seeing the Plymouth Whalers down in the standings at all. I don’t think they’re going to stay there very long.

“Plymouth has always been a skating team, even dating back to the days of Peter DeBoer. Plymouth comes at you and comes at you and is relentless. If you’re not ready to play, they’ll catch you and they will make you pay for it. I have no doubt that that’s the kind of team they’ll be turned into. So the climb up the ladder has started for the Plymouth Whalers.”

Much like using a weed whacker, Vellucci and the Whalers will continue to chip away at improving and making the playoffs.

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rangers travel to NTDP this weekend

Fresh off a sweep of top-ranked Traverse City, the Marquette Rangers head to Ann Arbor this weekend for a series with the United States National Team Development Program's Under-18 squad.

Marquette usually plays the USNTDP U-17 team, but North American Hockey League North Division teams must all play the U-18 squad twice each season, with both games counting in the NAHL standings.

“We feel really good,” Rangers head coach Kenny Miller said. “Any time you can take four points from the first-place team it’s always a plus. We think if we compete and play hard like we did last weekend we should have some success down there against USA.”

The coach went on to say he feels like things are coming together for his squad as the season goes along.

“We’ve made some personnel changes that most people are aware of and these guys have brought some experience and some leadership to this team and have come in done what we expected and the rest of the team has responded," said Miller. "We still need to work hard to get better every day to continue to have the success we saw last weekend.”

Going into this weekend's series, the Rangers (8-10-3, 19 pts) trail Team USA by two points for third place in the North Division and are three points ahead of fifth-place Alpena.

The USNTDP leads the season series over Marquette, 2-0, with the two wins in Ann Arbor in October. So far in four NAHL games, the U-18 squad is led in scoring by Drew Shore (4g 4a, 8pts) and Jeremy Morin (2g 4a, 6pts).

In net, head coach Ron Rolston has split time between Brandon Maxwell and Adam Murray. Maxwell is undefeated in NAHL play at 2-0 with a 4.00 goals-against average to complement a save percentage of .795. Murray sports a 3.87 GAA and a save percentage of .800.

The Rangers continue to be led in scoring by James Gallagher (6g 11a, 17pts). The recent University of Connecticut recruit also notched the game-winning goal last Saturday in a 2-1 overtime win against Traverse City. Chad Pietila (5g 11a, 16pts) and Aaron Pietila (7g 8a, 15pts) continue to keep pace with Gallagher for scoring leadership on the team.

The big story for the Rangers has been the emergence of Dan Sullivan in goal. The York, Pa., native is 3-2 since joining the team from the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League. Sullivan’s two wins this past weekend, coupled with a GAA of 1.78 and a save percentage of .928, earned him GDI/NAHL Goalie of The Week honors on Monday.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Overtime work pays off for Marquette

Courtesy NAHL.com

The Marquette Rangers couldn’t have picked a better weekend to pocket their first sweep of the season, knocking off the North Division-leading Traverse City North Stars twice in dramatic overtime fashion.

“We knew going in we would have our hands full,” said Rangers head coach Kenny Miller, whose team improved to 8-10-3 on the season. “That’s a good Traverse City team, so for us to come out and play with that kind of emotion was good to see as a coach.”

On Friday, Michael Thompson’s goal in the extra session lifted the Rangers to a 3-2 victory.

Kyle Heck and Dustin Partacz (pictured) scored in regulation for Marquette and goaltender Dan Sullivan turned aside 34 shots.

James Gallagher struck in overtime the next night as the Rangers bested the North Stars, 2-1.

Reed Rushing rang up the other Marquette marker and Sullivan made 22 saves between the pipes.

“We played hard, competed for loose pucks, won the 1-on-1 battles and we got solid play in our own end,” said Miller.

And Sullivan took care of the rest, allowing only three goals the entire weekend. Since being acquired recently from the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, the 19-year-old from York, Pa., is carrying a stingy 1.78 goals-against average along with a .928 save percentage in five appearances.

“Dan has been outstanding back there,” said Miller. “He gives us a chance to win every night and when your goaltenders do that, good things usually happen for your hockey club.”

Gallagher, who recently committed to the University of Connecticut for next season, has led the Rangers’ offensive charge in the early goings. The 20-year-old Marquette product has 17 points on six goals, including his sweep-clinching tally on Saturday.

“When Jimmy is going and playing hard and doing all the little things to help this team win, he’s a guy who can turn a game around,” said Miller. “He worked hard for his OT goal and I’m happy for him.”

Miller is also ecstatic with the early returns of Rushing, a defenseman whom the Rangers acquired in a trade for forward Josh Bussell earlier this month. In his first five games with Marquette, the 20-year-old NAHL veteran from Seattle has pitched in a goal and two helpers.

“He’s starting to take on a leadership role on the blue line and you can tell by his play,” said Miller. “He’s very poised back there.”

With a fourth-place position in the North Division standings, Miller, in his first season behind the Rangers’ bench, was hoping for a better start to the season, but is confident last weekend’s wins over the North Stars will inject some newfound energy into his locker room.

“We had a slow start, but we feel we’re starting to turn the corner and we also understand that we have to play each and every night with the kind of passion we played with this past weekend,” said the coach. “We like our team’s makeup, so it should be interesting to see how we do on this road trip we have coming up.”

That road swing entails the Rangers playing nine of their next 12 games away from Lakeview Arena, starting with a two-game set in Ann Arbor against the U.S. Under-17 Team this weekend. Marquette has only won one game on the road this season (1-7-3).

“We haven’t had much success on the road so far, but I think if we play hard and do all the little things we do when we play here at Lakeview, then good thing are bound to happen for us,” said Miller.

And that means a repeat performance of last weekend, in which the Rangers has command of all three zones of the ice for a majority of play.

“We have to compete like that every night in order to be successful,” said Miller.

Despite the sub-par start, that hasn’t stopped the Rangers from making headlines on the college front with the recent commitments of Gallagher and Kevin Gravel (St. Cloud State University). Miller has little doubt more good news will follow in that department.

“This team, in my opinion, has several players that can play at the collegiate level and there are several schools showing interest in these guys,” he said. “I’m excited about the prospects we have and we hope we can add to our list of committed players in the near future.”

Photo by RJ Meyer/NAHL

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jets' Eby oozing potential on back end

Ryan Eby is one of those players that a coach feels safe with in his own end and knows he can insert him in any situation.

This season, Eby, in his second season with the Metro Jets, started up front in his natural position at forward, but moved back to defense in the middle of an early-season game in Flint.

“He started the year on our top line and the first time in Flint, our ‘D’ was atrocious and we couldn’t get the puck out of our own end,” said Metro assistant coach Ryan Skop. “We were looking for a way to get the puck on his stick and get him some time, so between the first and second periods, we moved him back there and he hasn’t been back up since.”

Eby, a Linden native who turns 18 in January, has all the potential in the world, according to Skop, but just needs to polish his high-end skills and playing at a much-higher level is not out of the question.

“Ryan’s one of the most, if not the most, skilled defensemen in the league,” Skop said. “When we partner him up with (Brett) Grech, it gives us a dimension no other team in the league can match. We need to continue to correct some of he small, day-to-day-type mental mistakes, but assuming he does that, no doubt he will find himself moving on sooner than later.

“He’s definitely come a long way this season. Coming into the year, there were some questions about his work ethic and his intentions with hockey. During summer workouts, he was the first guy there, last one to leave and led all of the running drills. He showed a work ethic I didn’t think he had.”

So far this season, Eby has tallied two goals and nine assists for 11 points in 15 games. His totals are second only to Grech, a Hartland native, among Metro blueliners and he’s also tied for ninth in CSHL defensemen scoring (Grech leads the league with 16 points).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rangers host North Stars this weekend

The Marquette Rangers resume action at Lakeview Arena this Friday and Saturday taking on the Traverse City North Stars - the team with the second-best record in the entire North American Hockey League.

This weekend’s series will also feature two games towards the winner of the Smith Barney Challenge Cup for 2008-09. The teams are tied in this years’ race towards the Cup, donated by Smith Barney offices in both Marquette and Traverse City, having split a weekend back in late September. Marquette won 4-3 at Lakeview Arena on September 26, while the North Stars won 3-2 the following evening at Centre Ice Arena in T.C.

“There’s no question we’ll have our hands full,” said Rangers head coach Kenny Miller. “They’re one of the top teams in our entire league, so we certainly need to be ready to play. There are obviously a few things from this past weekend with Alpena we need to work on and fix this week, but overall, even though we only picked up the one win, I thought our level of play and our intensity were pretty good last weekend.

“It’s all about scoring chances and being able to finish them off at this level. We’re getting better defensively and that will help us a lot in the offensive end as we go along. We’re excited to have them in our building this weekend.”

Traverse City (13-3-0, 26 pts.) has, so far, taken the North Division by storm. They lead Mahoning Valley by six points and are seven points ahead of the U.S. National Team Development Program heading into this weekend. Their three losses have come at the hands of the Rangers, the Alaska Avalanche at the NAHL Showcase, and Mahoning Valley.

For the North Stars, it’s been a balanced attack up front, backed by solid defense and goaltending. Kyle Bonis leads the offense so far (14 pts) with Eric O’Hearn, Nathan Urbaniak and Mark Thompson each adding 11 points so far on the season.

In net, Brandon Stephenson and C.J. Motte have shared the duty effectively for head coach Anthony Palumbo’s squad.

Stephenson is 7-1 on the season with a 2.24 goals-against average and a save percentage of .907. Motte has been equally as strong sporting a record of 6-2, a GAA of 2.50 and a .910 save percentage.

Dan Sullivan, recently acquired in a trade with Omaha of the United States Hockey League, will most likely get the nod in goal for Marquette this weekend. Sullivan put up solid numbers in his Rangers debut against Alpena - a GAA of 2.01 and a .910 save percentage while going 1-2 on the weekend.

Marquette is led in scoring by James Gallagher. The recent University of Connecticut recruit has five goals and 11 assists for 16 points after 19 games. Chad Pietila, who scored twice against the North Stars on September 26, has 15 points while his cousin, Aaron Pietila, is third in scoring with 14 points (7g 7a.)

Faceoff each night is at 7:30 p.m.

Ex-Marquette defenseman makes D-I choice

A former Marquette Rangers defenseman has joined the ranks of Division I college recruits as Cody Ikkala, who skated for the Rangers in 2006-07, has announced his intentions to play for the United States Army at West Point.

Army is a member of the 10-team Atlantic Hockey Association.

Ikkala, 20, who has skated the past two seasons for the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League, was a physical force on the blue line at Lakeview Arena. Ikkala played in 56 games for Marquette, scoring one goal and three assists for four points to go along with 185 minutes in penalties. In Vernon this season, Ikkala has played in all 24 games for the Vipers registering six assists and 12 PIMs.

A Broomfield, Colo., native, Ikkala came to Marquette with ties to the Upper Peninsula. His father, Dave Ikkala, is originally from Marquette, and played hockey for Marquette Senior High School and for Rick Comley at Northern Michigan University from 1977-81.

Whalers try to salvage season with Vellucci

The winningest coach in the history of the Plymouth Whalers is behind the bench again.

Plymouth president and general manager Mike Vellucci announced that Greg Stefan has resigned as head coach of the Whalers and will take a job as a special assignments scout for the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, reporting to Hurricanes’ general manager Jim Rutherford. Vellucci will move back behind the Whalers bench as head coach for a second term.

Vellucci, who continues as the president and general manager of the Whalers, practiced with his team Monday. Plymouth associate coach Joe Stefan and assistant coach Brian Sommariva remain with the team in their current positions.

Nobody worked harder than Stefan. On most bus trips after road games – win or lose – Stefan watched video of the game, from the time he boarded the bus until the time the team reached the border.

Expect that trend will continue with Joe Stefan and Sommariva.

Vellucci wasted no time taking over the coaching reins, running his first practice within an hour of announcing the shift within the organization.

"We're definitely struggling and it has been disappointing," Vellucci said. "We're five games under .500. We're going to give it some time to turn around. We'll make a few changes to get back to the level we should be at. I think we have a lot of talent, but we haven't been playing very hard. We want to get back to what I call Whalers hockey – aggressive and entertaining."

No matter who is coaching, the onus is on the Whaler players to turn the team’s start around.

Plymouth comes into Friday’s game against Saginaw and Saturday’s game against London without captain Chris Terry, who has mononucleosis. Terry is expected to miss two weeks and will not play for the Ontario Hockey League in the upcoming 2008 ADT Canada-Russia challenge.

“We’re not going to sit around and mope about our situation,” said veteran forward Joe Gaynor. “We’ll go step-by-step and look at it a game at a time. This weekend, we’re going into it with the goal of winning both games. We’re practicing hard this week and that’s our intention.”

Gaynor got a chance to play at the beginning of last season under Vellucci and became an integral part of the Whalers’ forward group under Stefan, often playing with Vern Cooper. He sees no change in his role over the near future.

“Mike’s been watching a lot of the games and I don’t think my role is going to change much,” Gaynor said. “Hopefully, I’ll still be on the PK and try to keep the pucks out of the net. I’ll do whatever I can for our team. Whatever role he needs me to play, I’ll play it.”

Plymouth is going through a stretch of games where the sticks are being squeezed, offensive opportunities are being missed and any defensive mistake seems to end up in the back of the net.

“Guys have felt we haven’t got the bounces over the last few games,” Gaynor agreed. “That’s kind of an excuse, but it happens. Eventually, the luck will go our way and we’ll bust out. I feel like things will change and we’ll start getting those bounces.”

The Whalers – now led by Vellucci – have the opportunity to work for those bounces and turn things around.

Gaynor photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Daniels traded from Spirit to Peterborough

The Saginaw Spirit completed a trade with the Peterborough Petes today, trading goalie Ryan Daniels for a fourth-round pick in the 2009 OHL Priority Selection.

"We are really excited to have Ryan back in our league and playing for a quality organization like the Peterborough Petes,” stated Spirit head coach Todd Watson.

Daniels spent four seasons with the Spirit, earning 74 wins in 142 games. He played 60 games in the 2006-2007 season, posting a 2.04 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage. Daniels earned a 3.15 GAA and the same .907 SV% in 49 games last season.

"We wish Ryan Daniels great success in Peterborough," Spirit president and partner Craig Goslin said. “Ryan is a very talented young man and we are hopeful that his development in Peterborough will help him get to the next level in hockey career."

The Pickering, Ont., native was selected by the Ottawa Senators 151st overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He participated in the Atlanta Thrashers training camp this past summer after entering free agency.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rangers vet Gallagher to Connecticut

Marquette Rangers forward James Gallagher has become the second Rangers player this week to make a verbal commitment to play NCAA Division I hockey. The third-year Ranger and Marquette native has agreed to play for the University of Connecticut, a member of the 10-school Atlantic Hockey Association, for the 2009-10 season.

”It feels great,” Gallagher said. “It’s nice to know where I’m going to play next after the long journey here. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to playing college hockey next year at UConn.”

Gallagher added that the Huskies were late arriving in the recruiting process.

“They first contacted me at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine (Minn.) and have been in contact with me ever since," said Gallagher. "I went for a visit a few weeks ago, liked what I saw, I liked the coaches so to make the commitment to go there was easy.”

One of three original Rangers still with the team, Gallagher, 20, is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the organization with 88 points on 35 goals and 53 assists. The 6-foot, 185-pound forward leads the team in scoring this season as well with five goals and 11 assists for 16 points. He is also serving as an assistant captain for the Rangers this season.

Rangers head coach Kenny Miller says it’s a great opportunity for Gallagher and that UConn should be a very good fit.

“We’re all really happy for Jimmy," Miller said. "He’s a guy who’s worked hard over the past three years in this organization to get this opportunity and I know he’ll go out there and represent our team and our league very well. It’s something I know he and his family are very proud of, as are all of us here.”

Photo by Daryl Jarvinen

Monday, November 10, 2008

Stefan out, Vellucci back behind Whalers' bench

The winningest coach in the history of the Plymouth Whalers is behind the bench again.

Plymouth general manager Mike Vellucci announced today that Greg Stefan (pictured) has resigned as head coach of the Whalers and will take a job as special assignments scout for the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, reporting to Hurricanes’ general manager Jim Rutherford.

Vellucci will move back behind the Whalers bench as head coach for a second term.

Vellucci practiced with his team today. Plymouth associate coach Joe Stefan and assistant coach Brian Sommariva remain with the team in their current positions.

Stefan became Plymouth’s head coach last December 11 when Vellucci was promoted within Compuware’s hockey organization to concentrate on the growth of Compuware Arena. Before that, Stefan served as an assistant coach for the Whalers from 1993-1998 and rejoined the organization in 2003 as assistant coach and director of player development where he worked until joining the Hurricanes in 2005. Stefan, 47, served two-plus seasons on the Hurricanes’ coaching staff as goaltending coach/pro scout prior to taking over as Plymouth’s head coach.

Vellucci, 42, was originally hired as Plymouth’s head coach in 2001 and led the Whalers to their second championship over the team’s 19-year history in 2007. Plymouth has won four West Division titles and never finished lower than second place during Vellucci’s tenure behind the bench.

Vellucci became the winningest coach in Plymouth history last season while compiling a record of 246-132-37-22, good for a .630 winning percentage, second in franchise history behind Paul Maurice (.681). Vellucci also became the first American to win the Ontario Hockey League’s Matt Leyden Award as Coach of the Year in 2007.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Whalers struggling, still trying to find way

It’s fair to say that the Plymouth Whalers are going to have to work for every one of their wins and subsequent points this season.

That fact became evident last weekend. After losing to London, 6-3, last Friday at the John Labatt Centre, the Whalers came back with a 6-2 victory over Kitchener on Saturday at Compuware Arena and then lost, 4-3 in overtime, Sunday evening in Sarnia against the Sting.

“We are making some strides,” said Plymouth head coach Greg Stefan. “It’s slower than expected, but it (Kitchener win, Sarnia OT loss) is a bright spot. We’re working collectively as a team and I think that’s important. We have to have everybody on the same page with our work ethic and our game plan has to be structured. If you are cheating the system a little bit, we don’t have the players that are going to score a lot of goals. So we have to be stronger defensively, pay the price and earn our goals with hard work.”

On Saturday, Plymouth earned the victory by outworking Kitchener over the final 40 minutes.

Although Florida prospect AJ Jenks (Wolverine Lake) led the Whalers attack with a pair of goals as the game’s first star, Plymouth received excellent offensive balance in the victory.

Import defenseman Jan L├ítal scored his first OHL goal and added an assist as the game’s second star, while rookie Myles McCauley (Sterling Heights) scored his first OHL goal and fellow rookie Jamie Devane scored his second-ever OHL goal. Veteran Joe Gaynor scored his fourth goal of the season and defensemen Michal Jordan and Beau Schmitz (Howell) contributed two assists apiece in the Whalers victory.

“That was the game plan coming in,” Jenks said. “We wanted to get everyone going and make sure everyone was working together. It was a good team victory tonight. It’s great to see guys get their first goal, especially a guy like Jan – he was pumped up for that and we’re all happy for him. You can’t depend on the same people night after night – you have to get contributions from everyone.”

“Obviously, with AJ and Chris (Terry) our two top scorers, teams are going to try to shut them down and see if we can beat them with anybody else,” Stefan said. “When we have that contribution from others, we’re going to have some success. If we can play four lines like we did against Kitchener, we can have some success.”

Goaltender Matt Hackett earned points against Kitchener and Sarnia and continues to give the Whalers an excellent compliment to Jeremy Smith (Brownstown).

“Matt got a chance to play last year when Jeremy was at World Juniors and held himself pretty well,” Stefan said. “Then down the stretch last year when Jeremy got hurt, Matt got some good experience and played for us again. Right now, we need both guys to play well for us to have success.”

Like Hackett, count veteran defenseman Leo Jenner (pictured) among the bright spots on the Whalers blue line this season. Jenner has developed is a dependable stay-at-home defender who is usually first on the Whalers penalty kill.

“Leo’s an outstanding penalty killer,” Stefan said. “He reads the situation quite well; he’s pretty aggressive and obviously real strong. We count on him quite a bit and missed him when he was suspended (five-game suspension September 19). You could tell then it hurt us. With him back there, with his size and strength and his penalty killing, Leo’s real important for us.”

Even though he’s a Whaler pup, Schmitz continues to receive more ice time as the season unfolds. Schmitz skates well back at the blue line and Stefan realizes Schmitz is going through a bit of a learning curve. Justin DiBenedetto worked around Schmitz to score the game-winner in Sarnia 23 seconds into overtime on Sunday.

“Beau is getting tons of ice time and he’s only 17-years-old,” Stefan said. “When you have a 17-year-old defenseman in his first year in the league playing against the top lines of the other team, you’re going to have some growing pains. But all in all, we’re thrilled with Beau and he’s playing over 20-plus minutes per game, which is more than he was playing at the start of the year. There are going to be mistakes, even in overtime. And it wasn’t just him (on the play) – you want your goaltender to take away the short side. An overage player like DiBenedetto is going to do some damage.

“But having said that, we’re very happy with Beau’s development and he’s going to be an outstanding defenseman for us in the future.”

Watching Schmitz now might remind Whalers fans of the progress of Jordan. Almost a year to the day after coming to Plymouth, Jordan skated nearly 35 minutes on Sunday in Sarnia in his third game in three days and played well.

“Michal’s obviously our best defenseman and he’s going to be out there quite a bit,” Stefan explained. “Sometimes we don’t want him out there as much as we have to, but we are. He's capable and he wants to be out there. Hopefully, we can wean back some of his minutes. If we can do that, he’ll be more effective and then so will everyone else.”

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

Justice is served with gritty Jets forward

The points may not show it, but Jared Justice is a valuable component of the Metro Jets.

“Justice is a good kid and a hard worker,” Metro assistant coach Ryan Skop said. “He’s not very big, but he plays bigger than his size (5-foot-8, 145 pounds). You’re not going to find him at the top of the scoring list, but Jared does a lot of the little things to be effective.”

Justice, a Clarkston native who turns 17 in December, has three goals and five points this season and most recently has been on a line with Steve Wiechec (Troy) and Mark Malcolm (Casco Township). His offensive numbers, according to Skop, are a bonus considering where the team had Justice penciled in at the beginning of the season.

“He’s really taken to, and accepted, his role as an agitator on this team,” said Skop. “He does a really good job getting under the opposition’s skin. We didn’t give him much of a chance coming out of camp, but with roster spots opening up, he’s definitely made the most of the opportunities given to him.”

Still, Skop said there is work ahead for Justice, but if his season progresses like it has to this point, there is a very distinct possibility of seeing Justice in a different uniform come next season.

“Jared needs to continue to work hard,” Skop noted. “If he does that and keeps improving his overall game, he has the potential to advance to the next level.”

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Machine players preach education importance

The Motor City Machine has been actively involved in local Downriver schools for the past month and this week wasn’t any different.

Sodt Elementary in Monroe was the target for the morning shift for players Mike Monfredo, Nick Grams and Jared Williams.

“Each week we visit different kids and talk to them about the importance of their studies, because with without proper schooling, I wouldn’t be here today,” commented Williams.

The final stop of the day saw Nick Taurence, Alec Thieda, Ali Dakroub, Kurtis Anton and Josh Bussell show their support at Taft Elementary in Wyandotte.

Taft students are working together to read 10,000 books by year’s end.

“We were thrilled to have the Machine players in to talk about their schooling growing up and how it’s still affecting their lives today,” said principal Christine Mathews.

The players talked to all levels of young and attentive students before handing out tickets and signing autographs.

“The most import thing in every kid’s life is school, especially reading," said Thieda. "I’m pumped to come back and read to these youngsters."

More school visits are to come as the Machine gets deeper into the home schedule.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Marquette's Gravel verbals to St. Cloud

Courtesy St. Cloud Times

Jim Gravel was a forward for the St. Cloud State hockey team from 1977-81. Like most fathers, he has high hopes for his son. Unlike many, he'll someday enjoy watching him play for his alma mater.

Kevin Gravel, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound, 16-year-old chip off the ol' block, elected to verbally commit to the Huskies on Tuesday.

"I was fortunate that my dad had the experience of playing in St. Cloud and he's taught me a lot in my hockey career," said Kevin Gravel, a defenseman who has two assists and is minus-1 with eight penalty minutes through 16 games for the NAHL's Marquette Rangers. "What he told me about St. Cloud attracted me from the start. I went there on a visit this summer and, after that, I pretty much knew that was the place for me. It's going to be a great fit."

Kevin Gravel elected to commit to SCSU despite a pair of full-scholarship offers from Michigan State and Northern Michigan.

"Both of those schools are in the CCHA and, nothing against them because they're great programs, I just think the WCHA is the best conference in college hockey," Kevin Gravel said. "Every weekend you're playing in some of the best buildings and in front of the best fans in the country."

Those schools had family connections, too. His older sister, Kelly, is a senior at Michigan State, and his mom, Kathy, graduated from Northern Michigan.

"His sister is disappointed and, of course, Northern Michigan would've been a lot closer to home, but I can't say I don't have a lot of pride in the fact that he's going to St. Cloud," said Jim Gravel, who lives in Kingsford. His son has moved in with his aunt and uncle's family in Marquette, about an hour-and-a-half northeast, so he can play in the NAHL.

"I always kind of hoped for this, but I also told him 'Hey, it's your decision. Don't do anything for me. You have to be comfortable with the choice you make,' " said Jim Gravel, who is vice-president at a bank in Kingsford. "He had other offers, but I think Mike Gibbons and Bob Motzko and Eric Rud recruited him hard and made an impression on him."

Jim Gravel, who is originally from Minneapolis, played on the same line with Jeff Passolt, who has since become more famous as a Twin Cities TV news anchor. Gravel also skated against Gibbons, then a defenseman at Bemidji State. Gravel coached his son in youth hockey, and Kevin was a forward until he reached bantam age and was playing for a team in Escanaba.

"He's a big, athletic kid with room to grow," said Jim Gravel, who scored 51 goals and totaled 101 points in his career under former head coach Charlie Basch. "Kevin's also got really good skating ability, which is why I think the SCSU coaches were so interested."

The Huskies' coaching staff is prohibited by NCAA regulations from making any public comment on recruits until they've signed a letter of intent.

"My points don't show it, but I like to jump up in the play," said Kevin Gravel, who won't turn 17 until March 6. "I'm a defense-first kind of guy, but I think I can add something in a lot of areas."

He's been drafted by Sioux City of the USHL, and likely will play there at least next season -- his senior year of high school -- before eventually coming to SCSU.

Photo by RJ Meyer/NAHL

Rangers host Alpena for three this week

The welcome mat at Lakeview Arena will be busy this weekend for the Marquette Rangers as the team will entertain the Alpena IceDiggers for three games Thursday, Friday and Saturday and will also introduce some newly-acquired players.

Along with defenseman Reed Rushing and the rights to forward Andy Inderieden, acquired in a trade with the Motor City Machine, the Rangers also obtained the rights to goaltender Dan Sullivan from the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League for future considerations.

Both Rushing and Sullivan are expected to be in the lineup this weekend against Alpena.

“Sullivan has been a junior player for a couple of years," said Marquette head coach Kenny Miller. "He has experience in the Eastern Junior Hockey League and the United States Hockey League and his numbers speak for themselves.”

The Rangers are hoping for continued success on home ice this weekend, as the team is 3-0 at Lakeview this season, including a 4-3 win over NAHL North Division leader Traverse City on September 26.

Marquette will be looking for some separation from Alpena in the standings as the Rangers lead the IceDiggers by a single point for fourth place in the North. So far this season, the IceDiggers hold a 2-1 advantage over the Rangers in head-to-head competition, with one of those wins coming in a shootout on October 11.

Something else the Rangers will try and change this weekend will be Alpena success above the bridge. Since joining the league in 2006-07, the Rangers have struggled at home against the IceDiggers with Alpena winning 11 games at Lakeview Arena; Marquette has won only three.

Marquette continues to be lead in scoring by Jimmy Gallagher (5g 10a, 15pts.) and Chad Pietila (4g 9a, 13pts.) with Aaron Pietila a close third on the team with 12 points (6g 6a.) Three Rangers players have nine points heading into the weekend.

Alpena has only one player with double-digit scoring so far this season in Erik Peterson, who has totaled 11 points on four goals and seven assists. The big addition to the IceDiggers' lineup has been the re-acquisition of goaltender Nick Graves from the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. So far Graves is 2-1 in his second tour with Alpena, and boasts a goals-against average of 2.77 to go along with a .922 save percentage.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Machine and Rangers swap big names

The Motor City Machine and Marquette Rangers completed a trade today that will see Machine forward Andy Inderieden and defenseman Reed Rushing head to the Upper Peninsula and forward Josh Bussell and a third-round draft pick coming back Downriver.

Bussell, a LaSalle native, has played in 72 games with 32 goals and 35 assists for Marquette over his year-and-a-half in the league. This season, he has eight goals and 13 points in 15 games.

“Josh has put up numbers every since he came into the league and we’re thrilled to have him on our team," Machine coach-GM Matt Romainski said. "He will be a great addition to our lines of Jared Williams and Billy Ballent, just to name a few."

Inderieden leaves with 13 games played with seven points, while Rushing skated in all 16 games and also tallied seven points.

“They have both been in the league a long time and have logged respected numbers throughout and I wish them the best of luck,” Romaniski added.

“We’ve said from the beginning that we needed to shore things up in our own end,” said Rangers head coach Kenny Miller. “Reed Rushing was an all-star defenseman last year and has proven he can play at a high level, so he’ll be a good compliment to our young guys and be a leader on the blueline. As young as we are, adding players who understand what it takes to compete and be successful at this level is important if we’re going to start a run heading into the middle part of our season.

"These guys are leaders who we’re confident will make a big difference for our club.”

Photo by RJ Meyer/NAHL

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Traverse City's streak ends Saturday night

It was bound to happen eventually.

After winning 12 of their first 14 games this season – including the previous nine consecutive contests – the Traverse City North Stars lost a 6-2 decision to Mahoning Valley on Saturday night at Centre ICE arena in the second of a three-game series.

The Phantoms rattled off the first four goals of the contest over the first 12:37 of the first period and the host Stars couldn’t recover, despite outshooting Mahoning by a 35-24 margin. It was TC’s first home loss of the season.

“We did not come out ready to play and they did,” said Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “I think we may have come out thinking it was going to be easy, though I have no idea why anyone would think that against a team like Mahoning. That surprised me, but we try not to get too high after wins and too low after losses.”

Down 4-0, the North Stars (12-3) made a bid in the second stanza, halving the deficit on goals by Dean Pawlaczyk and Nate Urbaniak, but couldn’t get any closer. Dan Radke and Eric McLintock assisted on Pawalczyk’s goal, while Kyle Bonis set up Urbaniak’s goal on a pretty give-and-go rush in the Mahoning zone.

The Phantoms, however, made it 5-2 just 1:05 into the third period to blunt any momentum TC had amassed.

With the loss – and Team USA’s rout of Motor City on Saturday – the Stars’ lead in the NAHL North shrunk to five points over the second-place Nationals, and seven over third-place Mahoning.

“If we come out and duplicate our effort tomorrow (Sunday), then I’ll be very disappointed,” Palumbo added. “It’s pretty easy to go out and enjoy winning games, but it’s the bouncing back from games like this that might be a more true measure of a team’s makeup.”

Saturday, November 01, 2008

North Stars' winning streak now at nine

It might be Halloween season, but the Traverse City North Stars are playing the role of Scrooge these days, becoming miserly in the goals-allowed department after a 1-0 victory over Mahoning Valley on Friday at Centre ICE arena.

It was Traverse City’s second straight shutout win and extended the franchise-best streak to nine consecutive triumphs.

“We knew that Mahoning was coming in here ready to play,” said Stars goalie Brandon Stephenson, who also blanked Team USA by a 3-0 margin back on Oct. 11. “We knew we had to have one of our better efforts to play with them, and we were able to get it done.”

Kyle Jean scored the game’s only goal at 15:15 of the second period on assists from David Johnstone and Eric O’Hearn, while Stephenson and the TC defense made it stand up.

“It makes it easier on our defense and penalty killing unit to have to go out and kill off only three penalties tonight,” said TC head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “And instead of having to face 30-35 shots tonight, Bandon had to contend with 24 of them. Those things make a huge difference.”

Stephenson made several “huge saves at huge moments,” according to Palumbo, but none we bigger than when he stoned Erik Higby on a penalty shot early in the third period.

“Brandon came up huge for us right there,” Palumbo added. “It doesn’t get much bigger than that.”

Traverse City improved to 12-2-0 on the season and went a full nine points up on the third-place Phantoms (7-3-1). Team USA knocked off Motor City, 4-0, to move into sole possession of second place at 8-6-1. The Stars and Mahoning square off again tonight at 7 p.m., followed by a rare Sunday matinee at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow.