ECHL

4 U.S. women’s team members play in ECHL All-Star Classic

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WICHITA, Kan. — The visor on Annie Pankowski’s helmet gave her significant pause before the ECHL All-Star Classic.

“That is the first time me and the other women have worn visors,” said the three-time wold champion who has always worn a full cage. “When I saw that, it was the first time I got nervous. I started telling some of the guys like, you know, I’m not going to play defense.”

Not to worry, no one else was playing much defense, either.

Pankowski was one of four members of the U.S women’s team taking part Wednesday night in the event played in collaboration with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.

Dani Cameranesi, Kali Flanagan and Gigi Marvin also played on the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medal team.

Pankowski, playing with a team of host Wichita Thunder players, scored a backhanded goal in the night’s third matchup, getting a big cheer from the crowd. Cameranesi and Marvin also scored goals during the round-robin portion of the tournament.

The ECHL event featured four teams playing short games against each other. There was one female player on each team in the nationally televised showcase.

“It’s an opportunity for our league to celebrate our players but also to highlight hockey everywhere for our fans to enjoy,” ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said.

But while the women were competing with some of the better players in minor-league hockey, the games barely resembled normal competition. It was 3 on 3 with no stoppages – and almost no defense other than an occasional stick in the passing lane.

“I was really nervous about how it would go, how the guys would accept us,” Flanagan said. “But they made us feel like one of them.”

Flanagan played for the Eastern Conference All-Stars, who won the event. She scored a goal in the final, though it went into a wide open net after the puck went off a referee’s skate. That earned her some good-natured teasing in the hallways.

“Got lucky there,” she said, laughing, “but you could tell by the time we got to the final, the guys wanted to win.”

Wichita Thunder forward Stefan Fournier said the women were a welcome addition for the all-star festivities.

“They integrated right in,” he said. “I think, for us, it was about respecting all hockey players. Sure, the size of the players might be different between men and women, but mentally, we are all just hockey players.”

For Flanagan, the event was particularly special as her uncle, Joe Flanagan, played in the ECHL All-Star Game more than 20 years ago.

“I was thrilled to be part of that,” she said. “And I’m really happy the ECHL is fighting for women’s hockey.”

Pankowski was thrilled to see each of the women score, but she said one of her favorite moments came after the sharp-shooting competition when she was just yapping with other players.

“I told them I was worried about taking too long, that they might just turn the lights out on me if it took too long to hit the targets,” she said. “And they were all like no, you did fine, look at what this guy did or whatever. It was nice to be so relaxed like that, just joking player to player.”

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

ECHL makes new trophy after Kelly Cup not returned by champions

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Here’s a fun one from the world of the ECHL. 

The Kelly Cup, awarded annually to the league champion, was not returned by the Colorado Eagles, who won the last two titles and has since moved into American Hockey League. Speaking on AM 1230 in Toledo on Friday, Patrick J. Kelly, Commissioner Emeritus of the ECHL and for whom the trophy is named after, revealed that the Eagles have kept it and not given back to the league office.

“I don’t know if I should say this or not, but Colorado kept the trophy, if you can believe it,” said Kelly. “They still have it. This is a new trophy. They won the Cup two years in a row, and their owner just said, ‘We’re going to keep it.”

Eagles owner Martin Lind released a statement in response for Kelly’s claim stating that the team did in fact attempt to the return the trophy, but no one from the league office got back to them.

“The management of the ECHL has full knowledge of the situation with the Kelly Cup,” Lind wrote. “We have made numerous attempts to return it. They have chosen to ignore our requests, therefore the Kelly Cup remains in Colorado. This is all that will be released regarding this matter.”

Here’s what the ECHL came back with:

“Despite a confirmed plan with Eagles’ management to return the Kelly Cup to the ECHL in December 2018, the arrangement was not fulfilled. In reaction to this, the League created a new Kelly Cup, complete with the history of players, coaches, and staff that have earned ECHL Championships over the past 30 years, including the inscription of ‘Patrick J. Kelly’ on the Cup itself to honor the man that is the trophy’s namesake. This Cup represents the fourth Kelly Cup in ECHL history, with the older models enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. 

“If the Colorado Eagles do intend to return the Kelly Cup, the ECHL welcomes its return so that it too may be a part of hockey history.”

ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin told David Briggs of the Toledo Blade that the Eagles sent the trophy back to the league to be engraved after they won their second straight title last season. Crelin said the Kelly Cup was then sent back to the Eagles so they could celebrate their home opener with it, even though they were moving into the AHL.

More from the Toledo Blade: 

The ECHL confirmed a plan with Colorado to return the Cup in December, but when the time came, Eagles management misplaced the mailing address. An unnamed source told the Denver Post the Cup is “safe” and in “pristine condition,” though a photo of the trophy with a current newspaper was not provided as proof.

“We can’t take the players names off but I can’t say his name but I wish we could take his name off,” Kelly said of Lind.

Meanwhile, with the new Kelly Cup on the line, the expansion Newfoundland Growlers own a 3-2 series lead over the Toledo Walleye with Game 6 coming up on Tuesday.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The ultimate EBUG: Nick Niedert stole the show in surprise ECHL start

Reading Royals
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The timing couldn’t have been worse. Nick Niedert’s phone rang on Friday afternoon and on the other end was the ECHL’s Reading Royals in need of an emergency goaltender after Austin Lotz was called up to AHL Lehigh Valley.

Niedert, who lives in Connecticut, quickly mapped out the trek in his head. A typical three-to-four hour drive to Reading, Pennsylvania would have taken him much longer on Black Friday when you factor in all the traffic he would likely experience. It was clearly a no-go.

But the Royals’ goaltending situation was in such flux that Niedert, 36, was still planning to be the team’s emergency backup for their Saturday night game in Glens Falls, New York against the Adirondack Thunder. As he was driving to the game his phone rang once again around 3 p.m. Reading’s assistant coach Mike Marcou was calling from the coaches office at Cool Insuring Arena and was kind of dancing around the reason for dialing. Eventually, Niedert asked what was going on.

“Well, you’re going tonight,” Marcou told him.

“Going where?” Niedert replied before it finally hit him after a beat. “Oh s—-. Alright. Let’s go.”

“You ready to go?” Marcou followed up.

Said Niedert: “Does it really matter?”

Royals goaltender Angus Redmond suffered a concussion, so the organization’s depth chart in net was depleted. In stepped Niedert, who went from EBUG to starter in a matter of a few hours. Backing him up was another EBUG that the team was able to grab before game time.

The pressure of the moment didn’t get to Niedert as he watched from his crease his teammates playing their hearts out, galvanized by their current predicament.

“You know what, it’s so cliche, it really is, but let me tell you when I say the guys played their balls off. Those guys… they threw everything out there,” Niedert told Pro Hockey Talk on Sunday. “They were phenomenal.”

A night after losing 8-3 to Adirondack, the Royals rebounded, thanks to Niedert’s 38 saves, for a 2-1 victory. It certainly wasn’t an easy one as the Thunder had six power plays, but couldn’t capitalize.

“The buy-in was absolutely remarkable,” Niedert said. “Honestly, in 15 years I’ve played over 300-something games, that was the most impressive, complete game I’ve ever seen in my career.”

As the final buzzer sounded and the Royals celebrated a victory, you could see how much Niedert’s performance meant to the team. A night earlier they suffered a big loss and then had to hop on a bus for five hours with that defeat still fresh in their minds. Factor in their goaltending situation and it wasn’t an easy lead up to Saturday’s rematch.

For Niedert, who’s gotten used to watching games from the bench as a legendary minor league EBUG, it was a satisfying experience considering it had been 1,032 days since his last ECHL start.

“When you’re on the team, you’re a part of it,” he said. “But when you’re on the ice contributing, there’s a big difference. It feels a helluva lot better.”

**

That last start in the ECHL with the Royals — Jan. 27, 2016, a 7-5 win over Elmira — left Niedert with a bad taste in his mouth. His wasn’t happy with his performance that night and it stayed with him.

“That was a nightmare. I was so disappointed with the way everything went that day,” he said. “It’s almost like it didn’t count. It was just an unsatisfied feeling.”

That’s why when the buzzer sounded Saturday night and the Royals had sealed a win, it left Niedert in a different place. The reason why he keeps answering the phone whenever teams call is because of what transpired in Glens Falls.

“There’s no better feeling than being on the ice when the horn blows and the win,” he said. “When the rink’s pitch black and you’re leading your team on the ice, there’s nothing like it. There really isn’t.

“To play in a meaningful game in a National Hockey League affiliated league at this age… I’m 5-foot-8 from Iowa. It’s not exactly a hockey hotbed. I’ve been on borrowed time since I was 16 years old when I left home. All the stuff that I went through in my very, very, very extremely long career, it really was worth it [Saturday] night to see what the 17 other guys had to go through to get a win. … When you see guys getting banged up and you see guys getting the ice bags and you see guys fighting through being hurt, guys that are battling through everything, I want to be there for those guys, too.”

Niedert’s never gotten close to the NHL during his long career. Aside from a few AHL tryout contracts and EBUG situations, no invitation has been sent his way for a main training camp in either league. He’s been everywhere, seen everything. He’s been around so long that now former teammates and opponents have become members of opposing coaching staffs.

“It was really worth it. All the things that I went through coming up to [Saturday] night, all that stuff didn’t matter,” he said. “All those week-to-week paychecks, hoping your check doesn’t bounce, playing in front of 150 people some nights, all that was not even relevant. I was happy to do it. I was happy when that damn horn blew, I couldn’t play any longer. It was a helluva night and I’m beyond happy I had the opportunity to do that.”

***

Call up Niedert’s profile page on HockeyDB.com or EliteProspects.com and your mouse will get a decent workout from all the scrolling you’ll have to do. In his 15 years as a professional, the Hudson, Iowa native has played or dressed for 36 teams in 11 different leagues.

Those numbers, however, are unofficial, something that Niedert says may make him one day sit down and sort through game logs for an true tally. He does estimate he’s dressed for somewhere between 700-800 games in his career.

Want an idea of the hectic life Niedert once led when he was a regular dial-a-goalie?

Here’s a sample of one week during the 2011-12 season:

Tuesday: Sent down from ECHL Elmira (NY) to FHL Danbury (CT). Picked up on waivers by ECHL Wheeling (West Va.)

Wednesday: Drive from Danbury back to Elmira for Wheeling road game. After pre-game skate, informed he was called up to AHL Bridgeport (CT). Drove back to Danbury for Thursday practice with Bridgeport.

Thursday: Practice with Bridgeport. Drive to Albany (NY) for game.

Friday: Play in Albany. Get sent back down to Wheeling, who were playing in Cincinnati (OH) on Saturday night.

Saturday: Travel to Cincinnati. Serve as EBUG.

Sunday: Play game. Travel back to Danbury.

That emotional roller coaster led Niedert to ask himself if it was really worth it to continue. But again, the phone kept ringing and he kept answering and grabbing his pads.

The ups and downs he’s experienced during a life in the minors has taught Niedert about resiliency and battling adversity, qualities needed in order to last as long as he has in the game.

***

The thought of retiring has crossed Niedert’s mind before, sometimes on those long car rides home. And while he’s worked as a manager at the Brookfield, Connecticut Wesco Sports Center since 2010, he keeps answering the phone when teams call, knowing his has very understanding co-workers.

The phone keeps ringing because his reputation follows him at every single stop. Coaches know what they’re going to get. No matter how long he sticks with a team, he’s never going to change. He’ll support his teammates. He’ll stick tap a player who dropped to block a shot. He’ll be positive. He’ll show up early and be the last one off the ice. 

There was a time when goalies of Niedert’s size were all the rage: small and quick. Now, bigger goalies are much more athletic and have become the norm around the game.

“All I honestly have is my compete level. My skill set is not even close to these other guys,” he said. “Not even close. I’ll be honest, I’ll tell people that all the time.

“I just work. That’s all. That’s literally all I have in my bag, is just go out, give an effort, don’t be a s——- team guy, and see what happens.”

Down the line, when Niedert finally stops picking up that ringing phone, he’d like to get into coaching — junior hockey, specifically — in order to make an impact on young players’ lives. He doesn’t envision himself as a head coach, but feels more suited in the role of an assistant, that middle-ground guy who can be the liaison between the head coach and players.

He’s back working at Wesco — he put in a full shift on Sunday afternoon after arriving back from Glens Falls — and waiting for his next call. Reading head coach Kirk McDonald told him he’d get in touch if the team needed him again. In the meantime, he plays in a pro/am league once a week to keep sharp and works out regularly in case another EBUG situation pops up.

If he wanted to be like George Costanza he could go out on top, which very well could be the case. That next opportunity could come at any time and he’ll be ready to answer the call, if needed. If it doesn’t, Saturday night’s experience put Niedert at peace.

“If that was it — perfect,” he said.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.