PRINCETON, N.J. – Former Toledo Walleye, Gwinnett Gladiators and Colorado Eagles right wing Akim Aliu became the 490th player to play in the National Hockey League after the ECHL when he made his debut with the Calgary Flames in a 3-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.
The 22-year-old registered one assist, was +1 and had two penalty minutes in 10:34 of ice time for the Flames.
The Utah Grizzlies are the ECHL affiliate of the Flames and the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League. Former ECHL coach Troy Ward is the head coach of the Heat while former ECHL player and coach Cail MacLean is an assistant coach with the club.
A second-round selection (56th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Aliu scored 18 points (5g-9a) in 13 regular-season games with Toledo in 2009-10 and added two points (1g-1a) in two Kelly Cup Playoff games. He tallied 20 points (12g-8a) in 16 games with Gwinnett in 2010-11 and this season, posted six points (2g-4a) in 10 games with Colorado. A native of Okene, Nigeria, Aliu has scored 51 points (32g-19a) in 154 career American Hockey League games with Rockford, Chicago, Peoria and Abbotsford.
Aliu is the sixth player to play in both the ECHL and NHL this season, joining Brian Foster (Cincinnati and Florida), Milan Kytnar (Stockton and Edmonton), Peter Mannino (Chicago and Winnipeg), Jussi Rynnas (Reading and Toronto) and Allen York (Chicago and Columbus).
Twenty-three ECHL players have made their NHL debuts this season: former Toledo Walleye, Gwinnett Gladiators and Colorado Eagles right wing Akim Aliu (Calgary on April 5), former Florida Everblades center Mike Angelidis (Tampa Bay on Jan. 24), former Victoria Salmon Kings defenseman Jordie Benn (Dallas on Jan. 3), former Bakersfield Condors and Elmira Jackals defenseman Stu Bickel (New York Rangers on Dec. 20), former Greenville Road Warriors defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon (Philadelphia on Nov. 21), former South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Joe Finley (Buffalo on Dec. 2), Cincinnati Cyclones goaltender Brian Foster (Florida on Feb. 4), former Victoria Salmon Kings defenseman Kris Fredheim (Minnesota on Nov. 17), former Gwinnett Gladiators center Ryan Garbutt (Dallas on Feb. 18), former Elmira Jackals center Mike Hoffman (Ottawa on Dec. 23), former Victoria Salmon Kings goaltender Leland Irving (Calgary on Dec. 16), former Toledo and Reading center Bracken Kearns (Florida on Oct. 20), Stockton Thunder center Milan Kytnar (Edmonton on Jan. 11), former Bakersfield center Maxime Macenauer (Anaheim on Oct. 7), former Ontario Reign center Jordan Nolan (Los Angeles on Feb. 11), former Idaho Steelheads center and two-time ECHL All-Star Greg Rallo (Florida on Dec. 18), former Cincinnati Cyclones center Ryan Russell (Columbus on Jan. 7), former Reading Royals goaltender Jussi Rynnas (Toronto on March 27), former Reading Royals goaltender Ben Scrivens (Toronto on Nov. 3), former Cincinnati Cyclones defenseman Frederic St. Denis (Montreal on Nov. 16), former Ontario Reign defenseman Colten Teubert (Edmonton on Nov. 3), former Wheeling Nailers goaltender Brad Thiessen (Pittsburgh on Feb. 26), and former Las Vegas Wrangler right wing Matt Watkins (Phoenix on Feb. 21).
The ECHL had a record 81 players on NHL opening-day rosters, surpassing the 79 from a year ago and marking the ninth year in a row that there have been over 50 former ECHL players on opening-day rosters. The ECHL has affiliations with 26 of the 30 NHL teams, marking the 15th consecutive season that the league has had affiliations with at least 20 teams in the NHL.
There have been 490 players who have played in the NHL after playing in the ECHL including 23 in 2010-11. The ECHL has had 298 players reach the NHL since 2002-03 when it changed its focus to become the primary developmental league for the NHL and the AHL. The ECHL had 97 players reach the NHL in its first 10 seasons and 215 in the first 15 years. There have been 234 ECHL players who have played their first game in the last seven seasons for an average of more than 33 per year.
There are 30 coaches with an ECHL background working behind the benches of teams in the NHL including including Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach and 2011 Jack Adams Award winner Dan Bylsma, New York Islanders head coach Jack Capuano, Dallas Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan, Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel. It is the seventh consecutive season that there have been 11 or more coaches with an ECHL background working in the NHL. Boudreau, who coached Mississippi for three seasons winning the Kelly Cup championship in 1999, was named NHL Coach of the Year in 2007-08 becoming the first former ECHL coach to receive the award. Bylsma, who played in the ECHL with Greensboro from 1992-94, was named NHL Coach of the Year in 2010-11.
There are 22 former ECHL officials scheduled to work as part of the NHL officiating team in 2011-12 with referees David Banfield, Francis Charron, Ghislain Hebert, Jean Hebert, Marc Joannette, Mike Leggo, Wes McCauley, Dean Morton, Dan O’Rourke, Brian Pochmara, Kevin Pollock, Kyle Rehman, Chris Rooney, Justin St. Pierre, Graham Skilliter and Ian Walsh, and linesmen Steve Barton, Brian Mach, Matt MacPherson, Tim Nowak, Bryan Pancich and Jay Sharrers.
The ECHL was represented for the 11th year in a row on the Stanley Cup champion with Boston Bruins assistant coach Geoff Ward, players Rich Peverley, Michael Ryder and Tim Thomas, radio broadcaster Dave Goucher and scout Tom McVie. Thomas is the first former ECHL player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as Most Valuable Player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There were 34 former players and 19 coaches on the 16 teams competing in the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, marking the sixth year in a row that there have been at least 30 former ECHL players and the eighth consecutive season that over 25 players with ECHL experience have competed in the NHL postseason.
The first ECHL player to play in the NHL was Johnstown Chiefs goaltender and current Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach Scott Gordon, who played his first game with the Quebec Nordiques against Buffalo on Jan. 30, 1990. The 100th player honor is shared by Jean Sebastien Aubin and Manny Legace, who both made their debut on Oct. 21, 1998 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings, respectively. The 200th player was Brett McLean with the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 10, 2002 while the 300th was David Liffiton with the New York Rangers on Apr. 11, 2006 and the 400th was Phil Oreskovic on Mar. 9, 2009 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Former ECHL broadcasters working in the National Hockey League include John Ahlers and Steve Carroll of the Anaheim Ducks, Tom Callahan of the Nashville Predators, Dave Goucher of the Boston Bruins, Chris Kerber of the St. Louis Blues, Jack Michaels of the Edmonton Oilers, Dave Mishkin of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Bob McElligott of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Ryan Stanzel and Jeremy Zager, who were both recipients of the ECHL Media Relations Director of the Year award, are working in the communications department for the Minnesota Wild and the Los Angeles Kings, respectively. Former ECHL assistant director of communications Joe Siville and Kelly Murray are now with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals, respectively, while former ECHL director of communications Jason Rothwell is the creative director for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League Fast Facts
• Watch games live on America One, the “Official Broadband & Mobile Broadcaster” of the ECHL.
• The ECHL celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 2007-08 and is the third-longest tenured professional hockey league behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
• ECHL began in 1988-89 with five teams in four states and has grown to be a coast-to-coast league with 20 teams in 16 states in 2010-11.
• The league officially changed its name from East Coast Hockey League to ECHL on May 19, 2003.
• In the last seven seasons the ECHL has had more call-ups to the AHL than all other professional leagues combined with over 3,000 call-ups involving more than 1,500 players and in 2010-11 there were 10 times as many call-ups from the ECHL to the AHL than all other professional leagues.
• The ECHL averaged 4,339 fans per game in 2010-11, marking the seventh consecutive season and the 19th time in the last 21 years that the ECHL has averaged over 4,000 fans.