By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009
VICTORIA, British Columbia – The Alaska Aces of the ECHL produce third-or-fourth liners for the parent St. Louis Blues. That’s just how the system works.
On the other hand, fans can see potential first- or second-line future NHLers come out of the NCAA University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, as evidenced by UAA forward Paul Crowder of Victoria, who recently signed with the New York Rangers.
But it doesn’t translate that way in the stands at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, where the pro Aces are a happening and passionately followed while the collegiate Seawolves are more spottily attended. Even Sarah Palin is a fan.
The third-seed Victoria Salmon Kings will enter the howling mouth of the Sully on Friday and Saturday to open the best-of-seven ECHL Kelly Cup West Division final against their arch-nemesis and top-ranked Aces, who didn’t allow a goal at home in dispatching the division fourth-seed Utah Grizzlies 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
Defenceman Aaron Brocklehurst of Nanaimo has played in the Sully as an NCAA collegian with St. Cloud State and this season as a pro with the Salmon Kings and said there’s no comparison in terms of kinetic atmosphere. The people of Anchorage simply love their Aces and let the visiting teams know it in no uncertain terms. All this for a franchise that was so desperate in 2002 that it made world headlines by being placed for sale on EBay. Since then, the Aces have never failed to make at least the second round of the ECHL playoffs and they won it all in 2006 with a Kelly Cup title.
But the Salmon Kings say they won’t be rattled by the Sully patrons and their famous cowbells. Victoria has been cool and composed on the road all season — often rebounding from poor home stands to win with confidence on ensuing road swings.
“We not fazed by the Sully,” said Brocklehurst.
“We’re not intimidated by that place. We’ve gone into other rinks and won. We don’t care who we play. We’ve just got keep doing what we did against Idaho [in the 4-0 upset sweep of the second-seed Steelheads in the West Division first-round semifinals]. We have to continue to make things simple. When we play simple and with intensity, we can beat anybody.”
Head coach and GM Mark Morrison said his Victoria teams have always fed off the energy in the Sully.
“It is loud but that helps both teams,” he said. “I’d rather have that than a quiet road building. I was just talking on the phone to [Manitoba Moose GM] Craig Heisinger about playing the Marlies in Toronto in their AHL series and how there were so few people there that it didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere.”
There won’t be any problem with that in Anchorage.
The series shifts to Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre for the third and fourth games April 29 and May 1.
The Aces have received three AHL send-downs for the playoffs — forwards Josh Soares and Matt Stefanishion and defenceman Tyson Marsh.
“The Aces are good and they are stronger because of Marsh, Soares and Stefanishion than when we saw them last time,” said Morrison.
Alaska won the regular-season series 8-5 over Victoria.
“The Aces have three well-balanced lines coming at you,” added Morrison. “Their big advantage at home is the Olympic-sized ice surface in the Sully. That’s an advantage for them to play on. We have to continue playing our game on the bigger surface — forecheck, finish the body and wear them down. It becomes a mental thing. Are you willing to pay the price? The team that can answer yes to that question usually wins in the playoffs.”