Canadian Players Form ECHL Backbone

By Neil Stevens
Canadian Press

From Oromocto, New Brunswick to Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, they arrived in Florida from all parts of Canada to help the Pensacola Ice Pilots win the Brabham Cup as regular-season champions of the ECHL.

Head coach Dave Farrish (pictured), the former NHL defenseman, couldn’t have done it without his Canadian players. “The passion for the game is still deeply rooted in Canada and that comes through in the way they play,” says Farrish.

Most of his players are supplied by the Toronto Maple Leafs and by the Minnesota Wild.

“There are worse places to be, that’s for sure,” says Farrish. “And we’ve got a great organization here and a great place to play.

“Being on a winning team helps, of course.”

Given his credentials, it’s no surprise that Farrish demands defensive excellence.

The most dazzling defenseman is all-star Corey Neilson of Oromocto, who has 61 points, which is a hefty total for a blue-liner. Neilson played in the OHL at North Bay and Barrie. In summer, the six-foot-five blue-liner lives in Shelburne, Ont., and works at Teen Ranch north of Toronto as a hockey school instructor.

“It’s the second year in a row he’s led the league in scoring by a defenseman,” says Farrish. “He’s always been one of the top defensemen in this league.

“He’s a very solid defensive player, too. He’s a good all-around player.”

Other defensemen Farrish has used this season include: Aaron Gionet of Qualicum Beach, a graduate of the Western Hockey League Kamloops Blazers; Tyson Marsh of Quesnel, British Columbia, via the WHL’s Vancouver Giants; Dominic D’Amour of LaSalle, Quebec, out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Hull Olympiques; Ryan Stokes of Sarnia, Ontario, who skated for Ontario Hockey League clubs in Barrie and Mississauga; Ryan O’Keefe of Mississauga, also out of the Barrie juniors; and Jason Beckett of Lethbridge, Alberta, who played in the WHL at Seattle.

“Beckett is a real tough kid,” says Farrish. “He played in the AHL the last couple of years but is down here now because of the depth situation (due to the NHL lockout). He’s been a real big player for me.

Some Ice Pilots have been or are with parent teams. Stokes was called up by Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Houston, and Tyler Beechey was leading the Ice Pilots in scoring when he was summoned to the Leafs’ AHL farm team in St. John’s.

Frederic Cloutier of St. Honore, Quebec, who played in the QMJHL at Bathurst, New Brunswick, and Shawinigan, Quebec, and Todd Ford of Calgary, formerly of the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos and Prince George Cougars, split the goaltending chores.

Jordan Krestanovich of Langley, British Columbia, and Aaron Phillips of Hawarden, Saskatchewan, each have 66 points.

Krestanovich, who scored 40 goals for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen four years ago, is another player who would be in the AHL today under normal circumstances. He played 15 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche last season.

“He’s been a pretty dominant player for us,” says Farrish. “He’s got NHL speed and great patience with the puck.

“This season will really help him, long-term, in his career. I think you’ll see him back at the AHL level next season.”

Phillips has become more of a playmaker this season. He has a team-best 51 assists. He went the U.S. college route after playing for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan junior league.

“He’s really become a great two-way player,” says Parrish. “He’s a tough kid, too.

“That’s what I like about our team – nobody’s one-dimensional.”

Scott May of Surrey, British Columbia, via Ohio State, centers a line between Krestanovich and Alex Materukhin, who is from Ukraine.

Chris St. Jacques of Edmonton (Medicine Hat Tigers) has been given Beechey’s spot between Phillips and 24-goal shooter Dwayne Hay of London, Ontario (Guelph Storm).

Cory Stillman of Lindsay, Ontario (Kingston Frontenacs, Barrie Colts) skates on an all-rookie line with Swede Nick Lindberg and Mark Rooneem of Hinton, Alberta (Kamloops Blazers, Calgary Hitmen).

Cam Keith of Nelson, British Columbia (Alaska-Fairbanks) has scored 15 goals.

“We’ve got 11 rookies on the team, out of 22 guys, which says a lot about how good these young kids are,” says Farrish. “To be No. 1 with that number of rookies is a pretty good accomplishment.”