FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Good news and bad news today on the “used to be on the local hockey market scene.”

First, the Phoenix Coyotes, who are NOT moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba, signed former Hartford Wolf Pack and New York Rangers goalie Jason LaBarbera to a two-year contract extension.

Terms weren’t disclosed, but the unrestricted free agent earned $1 million this season to be the backup to Ilya Bryzgalov, who made $4.2 million. So it’s safe to assume former Rangers assistant general manager/Wolf Pack GM Don Maloney gave LaBarbera at least some kind of raise after he was 7-6-3 with a 3.26 goals-against average, .909 save percentage and two shutouts in 17 games in his second season with the Coyotes.

“We are very pleased to sign Jason to a new contract,” Maloney said in a release. “Jason is a quality NHL goaltender who has played well for us and been an extremely reliable player. We look forward to having him back next season.”

LaBarbera and Bryzgalov combined for nine shutouts last season, tying the franchise record. LaBarbera also had a team-high 46 saves in a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, who are close to winning their first Stanley Cup.

LaBarbera, a third-round pick of the Rangers in 1998, has a 52-55-14 record with a 2.90 GAA, .906 save percentage and six shutouts in 141 NHL games with the Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Canucks and Coyotes. And he has got better with age, as he’s 15-11-4 with a 2.69 GAA, .918 save percentage and two shutouts with the Coyotes, who signed him as a free agent on July 1, 2009.

LaBarbera, named to the All-Wolf Pack team, had his best days in Hartford, winning the AHL’s MVP in 2003-04, when he was 34-9-9 with a 1.59 GAA, .936 save percentage and record 13 shutouts in 59 games. He then led the Wolf Pack to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost 2-1 in overtime to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Then in 2006-07 while stuck with the Manchester Monarchs because of archaic recall rules that prevented him from joining the parent Kings, LaBarbera was 39-20-1 with a 2.20 GAA, .933 save percentage and seven shutouts in 62 games.

Like most goalies, LaBarbera was always interesting to talk to and rarely ducked a question, whether it was after a win or a loss or a practice. And he even returned cell phone calls after he had moved on to the Kings and Coyotes, so we can only wish him continued good fortune for at least two more NHL seasons in whatever capacity he is used.

On the other end of the spectrum is the news that the Binghamton Senators’ excitement of being within one win of their first Calder Cup has been dampened by assistant coach Steve Stirling having emergency quadruple bypass surgery Sunday night that obviously prevented him from traveling to Houston for Game 6 on Tuesday night and Game 7, if necessary, on Thursday night.

The 62-year-old Stirling, whose coaching jobs have included a stint with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, was reported in stable condition after a successful quadruple bypass, which is back on the “good news” side.

In a release Sunday night, the Senators announced Stirling experienced chest pains while at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in the afternoon and was taken to UHS Wilson Medical Center in nearby Johnson City. Stirling ran the defense and power play of the Senators, who did not immediately announce who would take his place behind the bench for the remainder of the finals against the Aeros. But coach Kurt Kleinendorst indicated it probably would be goaltenders coach Rick Wamsley.

Stirling was named the Senators assistant coach last Aug. 26, joining Kleinendorst for the start of a two-year agreement. Stirling returned to the AHL after coaching the Iserlohn Roosters of the German Elite League (DEL) in 2008-09. He spent the previous two seasons as the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top affiliate in Springfield and then Norfolk, Va.

A native of Clarkson, Ont., Stirling spent more than three seasons in the New York Islanders organization from 2001-02 to 2005-06, including 11/2 seasons as coach of the parent club, where he was 56-51-13 and led them to the playoffs in 2003-04. He had been promoted from the Sound Tigers after two seasons that included a Calder Cup finals appearance in the franchise’s first season, 2001-02. Prior to that, he spent three seasons as an assistant coach of the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters, where he worked the final two years with Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.

After playing at Boston University, Stirling wasn’t drafted and then played four seasons in the AHL with the Boston Braves and Rochester Americans before being with the North American Hockey League’s Binghamton Dusters for most of the 1975-76 season, when he was second in team scoring with 24 goals and 32 assists. He ended his playing career with one season in Austria (1976-77) and began his coaching career in 1978-79 with Babson College, where he spent 11 of the next 13 seasons. Stirling’s two-year hiatus from Babson (1983-85) was when he coached Providence College.

A 4-2 victory Saturday night was the second in a row for the Senators and gave them a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Senators flew to Houston on Monday morning on a chartered flight that the parent Ottawa Senators pitched in toward but weren’t covering all costs.

“We’ve worked out an arrangement with a charter company for a one-way trip,” B-Senators executive vice president of operations Tom Mitchell, who formerly worked for the Binghamton Whalers and Rangers, told the Binghamton Press & Sunday-Bulletin. “We have such short notice in trying to make these connections that the airlines try to find an airplane with 30 empty seats to go when you want to go and get there when you want to get there, and it’s not easy.

“It’s important that we got our guys there early, get acclimated, get their feet on the ground and practice. We want everyone to have the appropriate rest and food and everything like that. The best thing to do was bite the bullet and do it this way.”

Travel plans for the team’s return to Binghamton weren’t immediately finalized.

“We’ve got to get there, we’ve got to win, and sometime in between, we’ll have to figure out how to get home,” Mitchell said.

Chartering a flight allows the Senators some comfort while traveling, but they’re not completely comfortable needing one more victory for the title.

“If you want to be a championship team, you can’t get complacent at any time,” said center Zack Smith, who scored twice Saturday night to break a 2-2 tie. “We’re one win away from a championship, and we’re going into a barn with a desperate team. They’ve played great all series, and if we get complacent, that’s just not going to work. But I think we’re pretty confident in ourselves.”

Despite two consecutive losses, Aeros coach Mike Yeo insisted his team also was confident.

“We’d rather be where they’re at,” Yeo said. “We’re not. I think there are enough things for us to still be optimistic. Obviously, they’ve got two chances to win, and we have to make sure that we approach the next game as a Game 7. Our season’s on the line, but I think that what we’ve seen when we’re playing our game and we’re doing the right things, we’ve seen the result that we have on them. We’ve done a nice job of creating turnovers, exposing some things in their own zone and controlling the play with the puck.”

The Aeros have limited the Senators to 2.2 goals a game after they averaged 3.94 in the first three rounds. But the Senators are a stunning 9-2 on the road in the postseason, led by Ryan Potulny (14 goals, 12 asissts), Ryan Keller (9, 15) and 19-year-old rookie goalie Robin Lehner (13-4, 2.11, .934, league-high three shutouts). Former Wolf Pack and Rangers center Cory Locke has three goals and 11 assists in 15 games after missing the first round with a shoulder injury.

ORTMEYER A MAINSTAY FOR AEROS

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers right wing Jed Ortmeyer has been a major contributor for the Aeros since the parent Minnesota Wild signed him to a professional tryout contract on Jan. 4 and sent him to Houston.

Though the 32-year-old Ortmeyer doesn’t wear a C or A on his jersey, having played in 306 NHL games with the Rangers, Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks makes him a strong veteran and leadership presence in the Aeros lineup and locker room. And Ortmeyer and linemates Colton Gillies and Warren Peters reflect the Aeros’ defensive responsibility against the opposition’s top line while contributing offensively at the most opportune time as when Ortmeyer scored late in regulation of a game that Houston won in overtime.

“In the playoffs everything is extremely important, and you watch Jed and his line with Gillies and Peters, every shift they go out there and do the right things and play hard,” Aeros wing Casey Wellman said. “They are playing the game we want to play.”

In 40 regular-season games, Ortmeyer had six goals and 10 assists and was even in the plus-minus department. In the playoffs, Ortmeyer has matched his goal production in 23 games and tacked on seven assists while being plus-2. His 13 points are second on the team to former AHL Rookie of the Year Patrick Sullivan (four goals, 13 assists), and that’s especially noteworthy with Ortmeyer & Co. usually playing against the opposition’s best forwards.

“I think our line has been really good when it comes to reading off each other, and having good energy playing against the other team’s offensive lines make them try to change their game,” Ortmeyer said. “When you play the right way, you are going to get offensive chances and take advantage of them.”

Ortmeyer always played “the right way” with the Wolf Pack, and his picture still hangs in the hallway leading to the locker room. I’m sure coach Ken Gernander would like to still have someone who epitomized his style in his playing days.

And perseverance always was a part of Gernander’s game, as it has been for Ortmeyer. After not being drafted, the gritty wing who played one season at the University of Michigan with a torn ACL supported by a brace bounced between Hartford and New York and earned the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award for “going above and beyond the call of duty” in 2004 and 2007. The award is named in honor of a New York City police detective who was shot three times and paralyzed from the waist down while investigating a robbery in Central Park on July 12, 1986. A die-hard Rangers fan, McDonald remains in a wheelchair, but he and other Rangers fans choose the award winner, which was former Wolf Pack wing Ryan Callahan in 2009-10 and Brandon Prust this year.

Ortmeyer later survived a pulmonary embolism (another connection to Gernander) and more ACL injuries. He and the rest of the Aeros have an uphill battle to win the team’s second Calder Cup, but he’s delighted just have to have a chance after failing to land a contract on a tryout agreement with the Islanders and San Antonio Rampage, AHL affiliate of the Coyotes. But he has fit in well with Wilds and Aeros.

“Having that experience helps with confidence and that shows on the ice and helps the younger guys,” Ortmeyer said.

They include South Windsor native and Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore, who also has been a vital cog for the Texas team. DiSalvatore scored the Game 7 winner in the Eastern Conference finals against the Hamilton Bulldogs and former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Nigel Dawes. DiSalvatore is tied for fifth on the team in scoring with six goals and five assists after getting a career-high 28 goals in the regular season. And like Ortmeyer, DiSalvatore brings loads of experience and leadership that the Aeros will need if they’re to add a second title to their 2003 championship.

DRIVE FOR 13’ ENDS QUICKLY

Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was stunned that True North Sports and Entertainment completed its “Drive to 13” ticket campaign to sell 13,000 season tickets in only 17 minutes on Saturday.

When the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to True North for the purpose of moving the team to Winnipeg was announced eight days earlier, Bettman said, “This isn’t going to work very well unless this building (MTS Centre) is sold out every night.”

That sounded as a bit of a threat to some observers, especially Winnipeg fans who had been slighted by Bettman when the Jets moved to Phoenix 15 years ago. True North wanted to reach 13,000 season tickets sold as a way to show the NHL’s Board of Governors that they are serious about supporting a NHL team again. That was a year before Peter Karmanos bolted Hartford and moved the Whalers to North Carolina, the last team location until True North gets approval via a vote of the board on June 21.

A pre-sale for current season ticket holders and corporate sponsors of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose began on Wednesday and resulted in 7,158 tickets being sold. The public sale began at noon on Saturday, and the remaining 5,842 tickets were gone by 12:17.

“We would like to take a special moment to thank all of our fans in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Canada for their support over the past week, in particular, the overwhelming response of our fans which has resulted in a successful ‘Drive to 13,000’ campaign,” said Jim Ludlow, president and CEO of True North and Entertainment. “The success of the campaign is a key ingredient to ensuring the sustainability and long-term viability of NHL hockey in this province. We look forward to seeing everyone this fall at MTS Centre for opening night of regular season NHL hockey in Winnipeg.”

A statement from Bettman said: “While I had no doubt the ‘Drive to 13,000’ would reach its destination, the remarkable speed at which it got there certifies the fans’ hunger for NHL hockey and their commitment to True North’s initiatives.”

With ticket demand still high, it was announced fans who missed out can get on a membership only waiting list with benefits such as first dibs on playoff tickets, team store discounts and an invite to a Select-a-Seat event during next season. Depending on the section, each season ticket came with a three, four or five-year commitment. Reaching 13,000 tickets sold means approximately 2,000 tickets remain for the general public and luxury boxes.

One person who won’t see the return of the NHL to Winnipeg as an official is Rick Dudley, who was not retained as general manger. The final four years of Dudley’s contract were reportedly bought out, and Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will replace Dudley.

Meanwhile, Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Howard Baldwin, who brought the NHL to Hartford as owner and managing general partner of the Whalers, told Hartford Business Journal that if the world’s best hockey league can return to the Canadian prairies, it can come back to the capital of Connecticut.

And Baldwin tossed in a bit of humor with a reference to the team’s famed theme song.

“With the announcement this week of the National Hockey League returning to Winnipeg, we can all be reassured that our strategy to bring Hartford back to pre-eminent status as a hockey market works,” Baldwin said. “This announcement could be a brass bonanza for Hartford.

“Like Hartford, Winnipeg was an original World Hockey Association city. Like Hartford, Winnipeg was one of four WHA franchises that merged with the NHL in (1979). Like Hartford, Winnipeg lost its NHL team in the mid-’90s. And like Hartford, Winnipeg developed a plan and a passion to get back to the NHL.

“If it can happen there, why not here?”

Why not indeed if he fans really want the NHL back.

Read the remainder of the editorial at www.hartfordbusiness.com

HOWARD BALDWIN SPEAKS ON FACE THE STATE
To view the video of Howard Baldwin’s appearance on “Face the State” click here

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