By Len Bardsley
© 2005 The Times of Trenton
One of the benefits Charlotte Checkers goalie Alex Westlund has enjoyed since returning to the United States after spending two years playing hockey in Russia is staying in better touch with old friends.
On a whim, he can give a former college teammate a call and get a scouting report on a certain emergency goalie the Checkers have used.
Like Jeff Longo.
You can understand Westlund’s curiosity. Longo is the president of the Checkers, and like Westlund, he grew up playing hockey in New Jersey.
Westlund is from Flemington and went to Lawrenceville Prep, while Longo is from Hazlet and played at Christian Brothers Academy.
It was over 12 years ago when Westlund and Longo were playing for two of the top high school teams in New Jersey. Today, they are hoping to lead the Checkers to the Kelly Cup Finals.
Heading into the weekend, the Checkers and Florida Everblades were tied 1-1 in the best-of-seven American Conference Finals.
The winner of the series advances to face the winner of the National Conference finals between the Titans and Alaska Aces.
Longo enjoyed taking his open-door policy to a new level this season while working as the Checkers’ emergency backup goalie. (The backup goalie usually has the job of opening the closing the bench door during games.)
Longo moved from the front office to the bench when the Checkers were in a bind in games just after Thanksgiving and Christmas this season.
“I think I was more excited than he was,” said Westlund of Longo’s work as an emergency goalie.
“It was probably the only time two New Jersey guys were a tandem. I have been meaning to call Jeff Brow (Westlund’s former teammate at Yale). He played with Jeff (Longo) at CBA. I wanted to ask Brow how good he was.”
While Longo’s two seasons as a starter at CBA probably were the highlight of his playing career, Westlund is just hitting his peak after several solid seasons in the ECHL and in Europe.
“It feels great getting through a couple of rounds in the playoffs,” said Westlund. “This is as far as I have been in the playoffs. Every year I have been on a seventh- or eighth-seed team. It is nice to break through and win.”
Longo has been involved with winners since his days at CBA. He worked as an intern during the Rangers’ last run in the NHL playoffs in 1997 before getting hired by the San Diego Gulls. Longo worked in several capacities in the Gulls’ front office while the team won three West Coast Hockey League championships in a span of six seasons.
The Checkers’ current run in the ECHL playoffs has included a 3-2 series win against the Columbia Inferno in the first round after losing the first two games before winning the fifth game in overtime, and winning three in a row in the second round against the Gwinnett Gladiators after losing Game 1.
“It has been great,” said Longo. “I was fortunate to win three cups in six years in San Diego, but that was when the league only had eight teams. The ECHL has 28 teams; doing it on such a bigger presence is very satisfying. We went into each series as underdogs and lost the first game of each series. It is the most fun hockey I have ever watched.”
It would not take a call from Westlund to Brow to know Longo is far from the best former goalie on the Checkers’ staff. Longo is happy to concede that title to head coach Derek Wilkinson.
Wilkinson played parts of four seasons in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Longo praises Wilkinson for being the steady hand that has guided the Checkers to the American Conference finals, despite the fact he is in his first full season as a head coach and is only 30 years old.
“A credit to our success goes to his demeanor,” Longo said of Wilkinson. “He does not get too high or too low. He is the second-youngest coach in the league (behind Atlantic City’s Matt Thomas). You get a lot of respect when you are a young guy and you don’t get caught up in your emotions.”
Westlund has thrived under Wilkinson’s tutelage. Westlund finished the regular season with the most wins in his career (27), and is tops among active ECHL playoff goalies in saves (404) and save percentage (.937).
“The single biggest reason I was so excited to come down here was getting a chance to play for a former goalie,” said Westlund. “(Wilkinson) has been unbelievable. He is a great guy at noticing the little things. He has been great at managing the psyche of our team. He picks his spots better than any coach I have ever had.”