June weather melts the ice for hockey champs

Photo by Phillip Brents SoCal native Michael Pellegrino led the Aztecs in scoring during their maiden ACHA Division 1 season in 2022-23.

It’s June but ice hockey is in the news.

The NHL crowned its 2023 Stanley Cup champion last week when the Vegas Golden Knights, the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, defeated the Florida Panthers, the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, by a score of 9-3 to lay claim to the league’s top prize via a four-games-to-one series victory.

It marked the second time in six years that the VGK had advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals after falling in five games to the Washington Capitals during the team’s expansion season in 2017-18.

The Golden Knights have reached for the top since they first stepped on the ice at T-Mobile Arena and finally completed their final ascent on June 13 to fulfill the dream of majority owner Bill Foley, the man who brought the league to the Nevada desert.

Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps, responded with a parade down the glitzy Strip and rally at Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena last Saturday night to celebrate the city’s first major sports championship. It was very watchable stuff for a franchise known for its over-the-top pregame introductions.

The one-mile parade and raucous rally had immeasurable meaning for the tens of thousands of fans who turned out for the piece of history and also for the hockey world in general.

The Original Six owners never envisioned that the Sun Belt would support their sport, much less excel in it.

Jonathan Marschessault received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP while team captain Mark Smith netted a hat trick in the series-clinching Game 5 victory.

Marschessault, one of six original Golden Knights taken in the NHL expansion draft still on the team, was deservedly among the first players to touch the Stanley Cup trophy upon its presentation following the game. He quickly shared the prize with the other five “misfits,” as they have been endearingly called after being taken into the VGK fold as supposed cast-offs from the league’s other teams.

Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and William Carrier joined Marschessault in a once-in-a-lifetime personal celebration.

Raising the Stanley Cup definitely had meaning for those players, among them Theodore, who was selected from the Anaheim Ducks, who serve as the parent club for the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ American Hockey League top developmental affiliate.

Local hockey fans got the chance to see a Stanley Cup champion in the making when Theodore, a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, skated in 76 games for the Gulls (with 14 goals and 57 points) during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. He received 53 call-ups to the Ducks those two seasons.

Marschessault was ironically selected from the Panthers in the expansion draft.

The AHL’s Calder Cup Finals were set to wrap up Wednesday in Palm Desert as the league’s newest club, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, were set to face off against the league’s oldest club, the Hershey Bears, in a winner-take-all Game 7 championship tilt.

The Firebirds, who had the chance to showcase their talent locally during games against the Gulls this season, are the top developmental affiliate of the NHL Seattle Kraken.

Red and Black

June is also time for college teams to start cobbling together their training camp rosters for the upcoming season. San Diego State University head coach Phil Bateman is hoping his team’s second season at the ACHA Division 1 level in 2023-24 is more prosperous than last season’s 1-20-1 foray into the higher division.

Bateman expects 45 to 50 players at tryouts Aug. 25-27. He’s already released a list of 31 prospects, including nine returners.

Among them are a pair of high-profile South County marksmen:
Eastlake’s Braden Mayer and Otay Ranch’s Sean Devaney.

Both Mayer and Devaney played roller hockey in the CIFMetro Conference and were among the top players on wheels. They appear to be just as good — or even better — on ice skates.

The current list includes 15 players with California roots as well as two players from New Jersey and one player each from Arizona, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado and Georgia.

Bateman has turned his attention across North America for the new incoming class of recruits. Eight prospects hail from Canada.

Swede Daniel Flodman is among the returners.

Other Southern Californians on the training camp roster include defensemen Zachary Casinghino (San Diego Saints/L.A. Jr. Kings) and Zachary Strooza (Yorba Linda) and forwards Marcus Kim (Irvine), Brandon Grant (Irvine), Nolan Conrad (Corona), Gavin O’Bryan (Tustin) and Shane Ege (Patrick Henry).

SDSU remains the lone Division I ACHA team in California and is a steppingstone to higher levels of play in the sport.

“Ultimately, it’s a field of dreams scenario,” Bateman said. “As painful as last year was on the ice with our results, we needed to ‘build it’ so this year they would all come. The collection of incoming, extremely talented players this year are so excited to take on this challenge and be a part of the upward trajectory.”

The Aztecs entered their final homestand at the Kroc Center Ice Arena Feb. 17-18 against George Mason University with a numbing 0-19-1 record. SDSU pulled out a thrilling 5-3 victory with late third period goals by Conrad and Luke Desmarais to snap a 3-3 tie. Ege, Ian Stentz and Michael Eng also scored for the host team while Isaiah Tano and Kim both picked up two assists. Michael Pellegrino, the team’s season scoring leader with 22 points (three goals, 19 assists) in 22 games, also drew a helper in support of Parks Owensby, the winning goaltender, who made 26 saves on 29 shots.

“The guys celebrated like they had just won the Stanley Cup,” Bateman enthused.

But the celebration was mixed with a dose of reality as GMU won the season concluding game 9-3.

SDSU’s 2023-24 season faces off following the conclusion of training camp. Aztecs opponents for the upcoming season include Colorado Boulder, Colorado State, George Mason University, the Naval Academy, Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University, UNLV, University of Utah and University of Oregon.