By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
Imagine having to get in the way of a hockey puck traveling over 100 miles-per-hour — on purpose, every day in practice, without the added protection goaltenders get to where.
For Gwinnett Gladiators rookie forward Colton Fretter, it was his job to be on the receiving end of defenseman Jon Awe’s slap shot during penalty killing drills until he broke his ankle a little over a week ago against the Florida Everblades.
And it wasn’t a picnic.
“I’ve taken a few in the back, a few in the side, a few everywhere, and it’s not very fun to get in front of,” Fretter said, admitting Awe holds back a little in practice. “He better hold back, but still I don’t want to get in front of it.”
The 6-foot-4 and 220-pound Awe not only set an ECHL record at last month’s All-Star Skills Competition in Boise, Idaho when he ripped one clocked at 102.2, but he also beat out the NHL’s hardest shooter, Boston’s Zdeno Chara. The 6-9, 260-pound defenseman from the Czech Republic fired one 100.4 miles-per-hour at the NHL skills competition.
Awe hails from Memphis and was up with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves when Chara failed to beat him. The Wolves were playing in Iowa and he did not see it, but got a call from his father telling him all about it. He credits the work he put into his swing for his success, which has resulted in a league-leading 17 power-play goals prior to Friday night’s game at Florida.
“It’s a timing thing,” Awe said. “I think it has to do with everything, obviously the right form, the right placement of the puck and obviously hip drive through the puck. Any of those three things, you put them in line, anybody can shoot it that hard. My golf swing has helped, although I played a whole round of golf the Happy Gilmore style and didn’t do too well.”
Winning the hardest shot competition is old hat to Awe, having done it in college at Northeastern University and juniors. During practice, he tries to give his teammates a break with some wristers now and then, but he still lets one go every once in a while to stay sharp.
Opposing players dread going out on the penalty kill charged with the responsibility of trying to block Awe’s shot on the way to the net, but they know it’s part of the game. Awe remembers hitting an Alaska Aces player right on top of the laces of his skate and he said the player “went down like a ton of bricks.’ Everblades forward Dustin Johner can sympathize.
“I’ve been there and I took a pretty good one in the ankle, and it doesn’t feel good, I’ll tell you that much,” he said. “But when you get out there, especially if you block one, maybe he’ll hesitate the next time and not take that shot. You’ve got to do what you do and if it misses you then you just hope that you’re goaltender’s going to be there to back you up.”
When everyone was healthy and not on recall with Chicago, Awe, Fretter, Mike Vigilante, Brad Schell and Scott Mifsud made up easily the league’s best power-play unit. Between the speed of Awe’s shot and the skill level of Schell — the league’s leading scorer with 98 points — Mifsud and Fretter, there are no real weaknesses.
Fretter talked about the challenge of deciding whether or not to focus on Awe at the point and risk letting himself, Schell, or Mifsud get open near the net. Awe’s shot creates so many rebounds when it does it through, or just flat out goes in the net, that it becomes frustrating for the opposing goaltender.
“It surprises me when Awe scores me from the blue line on goalies in the league when they’re not screened, but I guess I can say that because I’m used to his shot and see it every day in practice,” said Gladiators rookie goaltender Dan Turple. “I guess if you’re not facing a shot that hard on a daily basis it would be a little deceiving in a game against us.”
Fretter summed it up best when he recalled the most common thing he’s heard from opposing players after games.
“‘I don’t want to get in front of the net,’ that’s what all our guys were saying at the All-Star Game, the guys that we play in the conference,” he said. “They all felt sorry for me that I have to stand in front of it all the time, and obviously we haven’t seen anyone with a harder shot this year in all three leagues (NHL, AHL and ECHL).”