Two of hockey’s most passionate personalities first became acquainted as players with the AHL’s defunct Louisville Panthers in 1999-2000, the season the Hartford Wolf Pack won their only Calder Cup title.
Two years ago, they reunited about 4,000 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, as Thompson hired Boguniecki as a player-coach with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces.
On July 12, the duo joined forces again when Boguniecki, the West Haven native and AHL MVP with the then Worcester IceCats in 2002, was named an assistant for Thompson, the former Wolf Pack defenseman who led the Aces to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup this spring and became Bridgeport Sound Tigers head coach on June 28.
“It’s a great fit. It worked out perfectly for me,” Boguniecki said. “I got a chance to come home and work again for someone who has the same passion for hockey that I do. And I have a little history with the (New York) Islanders from playing there and in Bridgeport (in 2006-07).
“Tommer and I became really good friends when we initially played with each other, maintained that throughout our careers and helped each other a lot throughout our playing days. So it’s a great fit, and I’m excited about it.”
Boguniecki, 36, is renting a house in Orange, about a 20-minute drive from the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport.
“I don’t have a home base, but obviously Connecticut does feel like home just because that’s where my family is,” Boguniecki said.
Thompson, 40, said “a good team and a good group of guys” led to the Aces’ title last season, when he won the John Brophy Award as ECHL Coach of the Year.
“We had character guys who worked their (butts) off, so I can’t complain,” said Thompson, who made his first visit to the former Hartford Civic Center on Oct. 15 since he retired as a player with the Providence Bruins in 2005. “Being in Alaska was like baseball. You’d play two/three-game sets at home or in Idaho or California, like St. John’s does in Newfoundland. Travel was a little bit hard. It’s a longer road, but you’re home longer, too. I enjoyed it, had a good time and obviously learned a lot in a short period of time.”
After a 14-year pro career that included two seasons with the Wolf Pack (1997-99), Thompson was an assistant coach for one year with the Colorado Eagles of the Central Hockey League and three seasons with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen before heading north to Alaska, where his job description expanded exponentially.
“After what I witnessed with Brent, the ECHL is one of the hardest coaching jobs out there,” Boguniecki said. “You’re a general manager, you’re a coach, you’re a video guy, you’re a babysitter, you’re recruiting players, you’re taking care of housing and money and budgets. He had to make sure the salary cap ($12,000 a week) is where it should be. We’re talking about things at the AHL level that everyone has a job to do.
“Everything you can think of in hockey he had to do, and his accomplishments speak for themselves: Coach of the Year and championship. And Alaska is a first-class organization but a long ways away, and that’s the hardest thing to sell because kids are like, ‘Well, how am I going to be seen way out in Alaska or get called up?’ Most guys who have to go to the ECHL want to stay on the East Coast for obvious reasons, but the thing with Alaska is the organization is first class and wants to win and you’re going to go there and have a great experience that will take you to the next level.
“And they pack ’em in because they’re the only game in town besides the University of Alaska-Anchorage. It was my first experience as a coach and a great learning year, and I’m still learning. Tommer has been great, and we share a lot of ideas.”
Thompson caught the eye of Islanders management while the Aces were beating the Kalamazoo Wings, the Isles’ ECHL affiliate, in the Kelly Cup finals.
“Maybe they saw some of that and were aware that we had a successful year as an organization,” Thompson said. “I had talked the year before to (Islanders general manager) Garth (Snow) about other things, and ultimately he made the choice to bring me on board, and I’m sure glad he did.”
While Thompson prefers an aggressive style of play, he has always tried to adapt to his personnel.
“If you want to describe my personality, I’m a very passionate coach,” he said. “I do have a little bit of emotion involved, and I feel that’s a strength and the players realize that. I coach a little bit like I played, though obviously I have a little more discipline – maybe.
“You have to feel off your players. Expectations are always working hard. I don’t think any coach will ever say we don’t want to work hard. But I like to be defensive oriented because the offense will take care of itself. So we’re focusing on defense, but it’s a process. We’ve got five young defensemen in the organization that we’re going to have growing pains with but will get better as the year goes on.”
With Sound Tigers captain Mark Wotton retiring, Thompson has three rookie defensemen – Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan – to go with Ty Wishart, Anton Klementyev, Benn Olson and Dylan Reese, who started his pro career playing 10 games with the Wolf Pack at the end of the 2006-07 season after graduating from Harvard, and has been the team’s most consistent blueliner so far. Thompson feels de Haan has been helped by being paired with Wishart, which was Boguniecki’s recommendation.
“I’ve seen big improvements in all three of the new guys and grasping the concept of defense first,” Thompson said. “That’s all we have to worry about because the offensive things will happen. They still have that offensive flair where they want to be up the ice and want to be going, but overall, there has been improvement. There’s still a long ways to go, but we’ve got a young set of defensemen who are headed in the right direction and buying into the system and what’s going to get them to the next level.”
Yes, as expected, the Sound Tigers have had some growing pains, but Thompson said he’s delighted with his team’s perseverance while compiling a 5-4-1-0 record that includes rallying from two goals down to beat the Whale in a shootout (5-4 on Oct. 15) and in overtime (4-3 on Wednesday). A lot of that can be attributed to a three-headed goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen, Kevin Poulin and Swedish rookie Anders Nilsson that Thompson said has been “very strong,” including on the penalty kill, where the goalie is often the No. 1 penalty killer.
“When I look at our 10 games, we have improved, but we’re nowhere where we need to be,” Thompson said after the latest comeback win over the Whale. “I think we still have defensive deficiencies where we get puck watching and have to eliminate turnovers. But those kinds of mistakes are going to happen. What I like about our team is we have a never-quit attitude. Our guys compete very, very hard right to the end. Whether it’s 3-1, 4-1, 5-1, they aren’t quitters, and that’s something to be proud of.
“So I’m proud of the fact our guys do not quit and work very, very hard, but we’ve got to start eliminating some of these mistakes and really easy goals and turnovers. It’s one of those things where we can definitely be better at. Our special teams are slowly improving, but it’s a 10-game window, and we have more work to do. But the good thing is we’re one game over .500, which isn’t necessarily where you want to be, but it’s better than the alternative of being one game below .500.”
Thompson said the Sound Tigers’ approach is a function of the team’s leadership, led by captain Jeremy Colliton, Reese, center Trevor Frischmon and right wing Tim Wallace, who had his first pro hat trick Wednesday.
“They’re all guys who play with their hearts on their sleeves and work as hard as they can,” Thompson said. “Yeah, we make mistakes, but we work. I’m happy with the way they approach practices. I’m happy with the way they approach games. That’s a big key for you. If your leaders are going, you know your young guys are going as well.”
Thompson said the Sound Tigers also will be helped by the addition of former Wolf Pack left wing/enforcer Trevor Gillies, who cleared waivers and was assigned on Tuesday.
“He isn’t here to score goals,” Thompson said with a smile. “He brings a lot of passion and will do whatever you ask.”
While the Sound Tigers have a lot of change on the backline, Thompson still sports the familiar goatee he had when he did “Tommy Talk” on the radio in Springfield and Hartford. It’s similar to the goatee of Gillies, and Thompson also has a familiar face with him on the bench in Boguniecki.
“He helped me out coaching and kind of got his feet wet,” Thompson said. “He had an opportunity to come to Bridgeport, and he’s handling the power play and some offensive tendencies. He was fiery when he played, and he has that same passion as a coach.”
Boguniecki needed plenty of passion as an undersized wing at 5 feet 8, 195 pounds. He steadily improved in four years at the University of New Hampshire, where his teammates included former Wolf Pack forward/defenseman Todd Hall, now a fireman in Westport. Boguniecki was an All-Hockey East selection at UNH, where he had 173 points in 142 games before graduating in 1997.
Boguniecki was an eighth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 1993 and virtually willed his way through the pro ranks with his most productive season being 2001-02, when he won the Les Cunningham Award as AHL MVP after getting 36 goals and 48 assists in only 63 games with the IceCats. He spent the next season with the Blues, scoring 22 goals and adding 27 assists in 80 games.
Injuries slowed Boguniecki the next three seasons, but he returned to play 38 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005-06 and then landed in Bridgeport after being traded the following season. His final two seasons were with Ingolstadt in the German Elite League and the AHL’s Iowa Chops before Thompson’s offer to come to Alaska. He finished with 34 goals and 42 assists in 178 NHL games with the Blues, Florida Panthers, Penguins and Islanders.
Boguniecki agreed with Thompson that passion is a key ingredient in playing and coaching and enhanced his behind-the-bench experience last season with the Wonderland Wizards, a squirt B team that plays out of the Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport. Boguniecki said coaching is something he “definitely wanted to do” when he playing days ended. He also works with fellow assistant Matt Bertani, “a great young kid who knows the game from four years in the organization” and focuses on video and working with certain players on the ice, much like the Whale’s Pat Boller.
Boguniecki said he feels he and Thompson are a good fit because he was an offensive player and Thompson a defensive player, though both have a similar connection to the game.
“Some guys don’t want anything to do with hockey when they’re done playing; they want to move on to something else,” Boguniecki said. “For me, I don’t really see myself doing anything but something in hockey. Hockey has been my life, and it’s what I love and what I’m passionate about. And it’s an opportunity for me to share my experiences, good and bad, with young kids and Tommer. Like I said, it’s a perfect fit, and I feel very fortunate.”
WHALE RETURN TO XL CENTER GAME FRIDAY NIGHT
The Whale (6-1-1-2) is home Friday night – Halloween Costume Night – against the new St. John’s IceCaps, the top affiliate of the new Winnipeg Jets, the former Atlanta Thrashers. It’s the Whale’s only game at the XL Center in 25 days, from a 4-1 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Oct. 23 to a visit from the Sound Tigers on Nov. 18. It’s also the first of three meetings with the IceCaps in 10 days, as the Whale have a two-game set in Newfoundland on Nov. 12-13, their first visit to The Rock since a 3-1 victory on Dec. 1, 2002. The Wolf Pack last played St. John’s on March 26, 2003, a 7-4 loss in Hartford.
The St. John’s trip is part of the Whale opening with 10 of their first 14 games, and 15 of their first 22, on the road, much like the parent New York Rangers started with a team-record seven straight away from Madison Square Garden, which is undergoing a $850 million facelift over three years. The Rangers are now in the midst of six consecutive home games, while the Whale plays eight of their last 11 in 2011 on Asylum Street.
The IceCaps’ visit to Hartford is their fourth stop in a six-game trip through New England from last Saturday to Sunday. St. John’s was the top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1991 to 2005 before being relocated to Toronto and becoming the Marlies, whose roster has included Whale centers Kris Newbury and John Mitchell, who share the team scoring with rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault with eight points. The IceCaps are the successors of the Manitoba Moose, who were based in Winnipeg and played in the International Hockey League in 1996-2001 and the AHL in 2001-2011 after the departure of the original Jets to Phoenix, Ariz. As the top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, they won the North Division in 2006-07 and 2008-09, when they reached the Calder Cup finals, losing to Hershey in six games.
The Atlantic Division-leading IceCaps (6-2-3-0) of rookie head coach Keith McCambridge handed Worcester its first regulation loss Tuesday, 6-3, as right wing Kevin Clark had two goals and rookie Edward Pasquale made 30 saves after overtime losses at Springfield and Providence. The IceCaps are led by defenseman Paul Postma (two goals, six assists), an AHL All-Star in 2011, right wing Spencer Machacek (1, 7) and rookie left wing Karl Klingberg (6, 1). Former Wolf Pack left wing Garth Murray has four assists. The 33-year-old David Aebischer (2-3-0-0, 2.58 GAA, .881 save percentage) is trying to get back to the NHL, where he has played 214 games, including with the 2001 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, after four seasons with Lugano in the Swiss Elite League.
After the home game, the Whale travel Saturday to Albany, where they lost 3-2 in a shootout on Oct. 14 after leading 2-0. Rookie forward Joe Whitney (four goals, four assists) leads the Devils in scoring, followed by veteran forward Matt Anderson (3, 4) and defenseman Matt Corrente (2, 5). Right wing Steve Bernier, a 2003 first-round pick of San Jose who has played 385 NHL games, signed with the Devils last week after he attended training camp with New Jersey and scored a shorthanded goal in a 3-2 victory over Binghamton on Wednesday night. But the Devils (5-6-0-0), last in the Northeast Division, will be without wing Tim Sestito, who will be serving the fourth game of a five-game suspension for an illegal check to the head in a 4-2 loss at Binghamton last Friday night.
LEGACE BACK WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Talk about coming full circle.
In 1993, the Hartford Whalers selected goalie Manny Legace in the eighth round, and a year later, he reported to their AHL affiliate in Springfield. On Oct. 20, the Springfield Falcons signed the 38-year-old Legace to a professional tryout contract, and three days later, he was in goal for his 670th pro game against the Whale at the XL Center. Audy-Marchessault, who was three years old when Legace played his first pro game in 1994 with the Falcons, had his first multiple-point game as a pro with a goal and two assists to lead the Whale to a 4-1 victory.
“I still love the game, and I still think I can play at a high level,” Legace told Fran Sypek of the Springfield Union-News. “It’s exciting to be back, and I can’t believe what they’ve done to the place (MassMutual Center).”
Legace was signed after being released by the San Antonio Rampage, the Florida Panthers’ top affiliate, after playing one period in three games. He was needed because Allen York was recalled by the parent Columbus Blue Jackets after injuries to Mark Dekanich (sprained ankle) and veteran Curtis Sanford (groin), who was originally ticketed to play for the Falcons. That left UMass grad Paul Dainton as the only healthy goalie in Springfield so Danny Taylor was called up from Cincinnati of the ECHL. But Taylor had to return to Canada to get his immigration situation cleared up before he could rejoin the Falcons for a game against the Whale on Oct. 22, in which Mats Zuccarello banked in a shot off the goalie’s leg with 4:53 left for a 2-1 victory.
Meanwhile, Dainton was loaned to Chicago of the CHL two days after Legace returned to Springfield in time to attend a Southwick High School golf match involving his 16-year-old daughter Sabrina, one of two children from his first marriage who live in Springfield. Then Sabrina and 13-year-old brother Manny Jr., who also is a goalie, watched dad’s second-act debut, a 3-0 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 21 that was Legace’s first game with Springfield since the 1997-98 season and included an empty-net goal.
Legace rejoined the Falcons with a 187-99-41 record, 2.41 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 365 NHL games, having won a Stanley Cup with the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings and also playing for the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Carolina Hurricanes, the successor to the Whalers. The 2008 NHL All-Star with the Blues never played with the Whalers but was a solid prospect while in Springfield, where he was 53-45-15 with a team record eight shutouts in 118 games in the mid-1990s and was named the AHL’s top goalie in 1995-96.
And the ironic connection didn’t end there. Legace was signed by Falcons owner and general manager Bruce Landon, who played for the former Springfield Kings in 1969-72 and the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in Boston and Hartford and has been a managerial fixture in Springfield hockey for more than three decades.
“We’d had problems in goal with injuries here and in Columbus, and Dainton wasn’t ready for the AHL and needed to play regularly,” Landon said. “Manny can still play, is still capable, and played in the NHL two years ago (with Carolina).”
Legace, who played for Iserlohn in the German Elite League last season, is 0-2-0 with a 3.02 GAA and .885 save percentage while backstopping a team that has been affected by injuries in Springfield and Columbus. Besides Sanford, former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux, the AHL’s MVP in 2009 with Hershey and expected to be the Falcons’ top offensive threat, has been on recall for several weeks because of injuries in Columbus.
On another front, it wasn’t surprising the Falcons named former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers their new captain. Byers was signed as a free agent in the offseason after finishing last season with the San Antonio Rampage after being acquired by the Phoenix Coyotes from the Blue Jackets. He had been acquired from the Rangers last Nov. 13 for Chad Kolarik, who is in the midst of six months of recovery from surgery on a torn ACL in his right knee on Oct. 5.
“It’s an honor when your teammates vote on you as a leader,” Byers told Dan Hickling, who covered the Falcons’ 2-1 win over Manchester for the Union-News. “But that doesn’t change anything. We’ve got lots of leaders on this club.”
Another former Wolf Pack, defenseman Dean Arsene, is the Portland Pirates’ new captain, and former Rangers draft pick Marc-Andre Cliché remains captain of the Manchester Monarchs.
QUITE THE RETURN FOR HEAT’S KOLANOS
Abbotsford Heat center Krys Kolanos made a memorable return to hockey and was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday, after getting four goals and three assists in two wins. Kolanos played in his first game since Jan. 16, 2010 last Friday night and had a hat trick and one assist in a 5-1 victory over Grand Rapids. On Sunday in Hamilton, Kolanos had one goal and two assists in a 6-2 win. The 11 goals over the weekend were only one less than the Heat scored in their first seven games with Kolanos, a first-round pick (19th overall) of the Coyotes in 2000, who signed a tryout contract on Oct. 11 after missing the last season and a half after hip surgery. He has 110 goals and 99 assists in 228 AHL games over seven seasons and 20 goals and 21 assists in 136 NHL games with Phoenix, Minnesota and Edmonton. … The Anaheim Ducks called up Farmington native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston University standout center Nick Bonino from the Syracuse Crunch, where he had two goals and nine assists and was plus-4 in nine games. He was scoreless and minus-2 in his first game with the Ducks, a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington on Tuesday night in which Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau got lots of attention for twice benching captain and star wing Alex Ovechkin in the final 90 seconds with the team down a goal. But Nicklas Backstrom scored with 42 seconds left in regulation and 2:18 into overtime off an assist from Ovechkin, leading to a meeting between the coach and star on Wednesday. The benching was part of Boudreau’s new philosophy of making players more accountable by showing more of a willingness to reward or restrict players depending on their performance in practices and games. “I hope the message has gotten clear from July till now, and I’m hoping we don’t change that message and we’re going to try to stay strong with it,” said Boudreau, an AHL Hall of Famer. “I think that’s what it is and that’s the only way we’re going to stay successful.” Ovechkin admitted he was upset at that moment of the benching, which was caught on TV. “Of course I want to be in this situation on the ice,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who I say it [to] or what I said. It looked funny on TV. Right now it is big story, but it was just frustrating because I am a leader on the team and I want that kind of responsibility. Bruce put (Brooks Laich’s) line out and they scored. It is one team, and it doesn’t matter how good you are or who you are. We have to be on the same page.” … The Florida Panthers reassigned former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy to the San Antonio Rampage after he had one goal in six games after being called up on Oct. 20. … South Windsor native Chris Clark has joined the Providence Bruins on a professional tryout contract. The 35-year-old right wing has 103 goals and 111 assists in 607 NHL games with Calgary, Columbus and Washington, where he was captain. He also had 63 goals and 65 assists in 142 AHL games with Saint John, helping the Flames win the Calder Cup in 2004.
DEMICHIEL RETIRES, BECOMES RIT VOLUNTEER ASSISTANT
Avon native Jared DeMichiel has joined his alma mater’s women’s hockey staff as a volunteer assistant to help with recruiting and mentoring the goaltenders.
DeMichiel led the Rochester Institute of Technology men’s team to the Frozen Four in 2010, when he was named the Atlantic Hockey Association Goaltender of the Year and to the AHA first team. After graduating, DeMichiel signed with Hershey and played parts of two pro seasons with the Bears and the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals and South Carolina Stingrays. He was invited to the Boston Bruins’ training camp in September and played with the P-Bruins and Kalamazoo and Chicago in the ECHL before hanging up the competitive skates.
“Jared was well coached during his four years at RIT and during his professional career,” women’s coach Scott McDonald said. “He brings a wealth of experience from his playing days, and I’m looking forward to him passing that knowledge on to our goaltenders and team.”
RIT (2-0-0), ranked No. 2 nationally, hosts Utica in two ECAC West games at home on Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m.