Scouting the Pack live at the AHL All-Star Game in California
The buzz surrounding the hockey world was high this past weekend as both the NHL and AHL took part in their respective All-Star weekends. The 2020 AHL All-Star Classic was set up to be a historic one as it would be the first ever to be held on the west coast at Toyota Arena in Ontario, CA. With the resurgence of the Hartford Wolf Pack during the first half of the 2019-20 season, the AHL had selected 2 players to represent Hartford, something that had not happened since 2013 when JT Miller and Chad Kolarik were selected to represent the then-Connecticut Whale for the Eastern Conference.
Initially, it was rookie defensemen Joey Keane and rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin who were selected as All-Stars. It wouldn’t stay that way long though as Shesterkin was called up by the Rangers on January 6th and Vinni Lettieri was named as his replacement to join Keane just days before players were set to embark for the west coast. Lettieri, who had a slow start to his season had earned his way on the roster as a replacement with a current hot streak as mentioned in my prior article here.
All Star Festivities
AHL All-Star festivities kicked off on Sunday with the Skills Competition with both Keane and Lettieri taking part in the Breakaway Relay, Individually, Lettieri took part in the Hardest Shot, Pass and Score and Rapid Fire while Keane took part in the Puck Control Relay and Fastest Skater completions.
Joey Keane had a minor slip up on the back end of his turn during the Puck Control Relay but his team earned a point with a little help from Syracuse Crunch forward Alex Barre-Boulet. During the Fastest Skater event, Keane could not duplicate what John Gilmour had done by winning that particular event having come in 3rd with a time of 13.453 as Alex Formenton of the Belleville Senators won with a time of 13.356, good enough for 3rd fastest all time behind the record set last year in Springfield by Anthony Greco of the Springfield Thunderbirds. During the final event of the evening, the Breakaway Relay, Keane was not able to score against Connor Ingram of the Milwaukee Admirals during his turn with the 1st set of shooters while Vinni Lettieri was also unable to score during his turn with the 5th set against Kevin Lankinen of the Rockford Ice Hogs.
In the Hardest Shot event, Vinni Lettieri shot a 97.8 mph as did Brogan Rafferty of the Utica Comets, good enough for 3rd as no one could touch Martin Frk of the hosting Ontario Reign. His winning 109.2 mph shot not only broke the AHL record but also faster than the 108.8 mph speed set by Zdeno Chara in the NHL Skills Competition in 2012. Pass and Score saw Lettieri teamed with Rudolfs Balcers of the Belleville Senators and Joey Anderson of the Binghamton Devils as they were given 15 seconds to score as many goals as they could against Anthony Stolarz of the San Diego Gulls. By the end of the night, the Western Conference had beaten the Eastern Conference 18-15.
AHL All Star Game
Monday saw the 4 AHL divisions square off in a round robin style tournament with 2 five minute periods before a 6 minute championship round to determine a winner. During the round robin, the Atlantic Division, led by Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch, were able to beat the Pacific and North Divisions but lost to the Central Division in the 2nd game of the evening. Joey Keane netted an assist in the Atlantic’s 3-2 win over the Pacific Division in the 4th game while Vinni Lettieri had an unassisted goal in the loss and scored a goal in the 5-2 win over the North Division in the 5th game. The Atlantic Division managed to advance via tiebreaker to the championship round against the Central Division. While Joey Keane was held without a point, Vinni Lettieri made his case for All-Star MVP with a goal and assisting on the 2 goals scored by Jack Studnicka of the Providence Bruins in the championship game to help the Atlantic Division win its first AHL All-Star Classic since the current format was implemented.
Joey Keane’s first All-Star appearance saw him net the one assist while Vinni Lettieri scored 3 and netted 2 assists for 5 total points in also his first All-Star appearance. Despite the 5 goals making his case for MVP, Vitek Vanacek of the Hershey Bears took MVP honors allowing only 2 goals the entire night but Vinni Lettieri had made quite a statement having only been chosen to replace Igor Shesterkin just a few days beforehand.
The AHL All-Star Classic provides a different experience compared to most other All-Star events. The side glass is taken down for the Skills Competition so fans and players can interact during warmups and after the event for autographs, pictures, etc. I myself took a selfie with Joey Keane during warmups. The AHL holds its annual Hall of Fame induction the day of the event and fans are welcome to attend. The league even holds an after party event after the Skills where fans, players and media can get together and mingle with each other. Highly recommended as a hockey fan.
Nearly every player that takes part in an All-Star event carries some level of excitement with them but aside from Eastern Conference captain Matt Moulson, no other player seemed as excited to be in Ontario as Vinni Lettieri. During introductions at the Skills Competition, he can be seen saying ‘hi mom’ when on camera and a mile wide smile. His excitement level was also obvious after his Atlantic Division team’s win as he was seen smiling ear to ear. In a season that has gone so well for the Wolf Pack thus far, to see players like Vinni Lettieri and Joey Keane having the time of their lives in the AHL’s first All-Star event on the west coast with a team coached by Kris Knoblauch and to be there to witness it firsthand, not much can beat that except for a run to the Calder Cup which begins this week.