That winning feeling breeds the desire to succeed. The coach sets the mood, then a leader among the players enjoins another to believe that they can overcome the intense odds of postseason competition. And, before you know it, everyone has bought into the mindset that they can and will prevail as the last team standing (or skating).
On the ice, each player takes his own game and even pain threshold to a higher level in the spotlight’s glare with the game, the series, even the season and the championship on the line.
To win just one professional hockey championship is quite a feat – to win three in a row as the Allen Americans did recently with a seven-game conquest of South Carolina to put an exclamation point on their first season in the renowned ECHL is simply amazing.
“The truth is, these (three straight titles are) a tribute to the guys who you (won) with,” said Americans defenseman Tyler Ludwig minutes after the 2014-15 team completed the Allen franchise’s ‘Hat Trick’. “Our team includes some guys who helped us win Game Seven against Wichita two years ago, and we just have a lot of experience with those types of situations. You can’t really describe the feeling of winning, and you can’t compare them. This is something we’ll be talking to our kids and our grandchildren about, and it’s just surreal.”
As we look back at the Allen Americans’ three consecutive pro hockey championships it is clear that each of GM/Coach Steve Martinson’s squads had to rise up in the face of tough opposition, particularly during the Semifinals and Finals each year. They had to overcome some force, or some individual, in order to dance with and drink from the President’s Cup in each of their first two titles, and the ECHL’s Kelly Cup during the season that recently ended in joy and celebration. And, there were different heroes each and every season.
Mully & Macker Plant the Seeds
The seeds for the franchise’s success were planted when the Americans were launched in time for the 2009-10 CHL campaign by General Manager and Head Coach Dwight Mullins and Assistant Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Bill McDonald (“Mully” and “Macker”). Allen finished second to Odessa in the Southern Conference (101 points to 89) of the 15-team CHL their inaugural season before defeating Laredo and the Jackalopes in seven games each to reach the finals against Rapid City. The Americans led the series two-games-to-one before their rivals won the last three games, including Game Six in overtime.
Allen won the Berry Conference in 2010-11 with a league-high 97 points in the 18-team CHL before disposing of Rio Grande Valley in a three-game sweep and Odessa in five games. But they bowed to eventual President’s Cup champ Bossier-Shreveport in the Semifinals.
The Americans bowed were dispatched in six games by the rival Texas Brahmas in the opening round of the 2011-12 President’s Cup playoffs after finishing second to Wichita (91 points to 87) in the Berry Conference of the 4-team circuit.
Martinson Takes Over Behind the Bench
When Martinson was hired to replace Mullins before the 2012-13 CHL season, the former NHL and minor league skater known for his pugilistic tendencies had coached his teams to six titles — five in the WCHL (with the San Diego Gulls from 1995-2003) and another in the UHL with the 2006-07 Rockford IceHogs.
Martinson’s team play with an immediacy to succeed at the job at hand, skating and checking with passion and commitment while executing a game plan comprised of frenetic skating, attacking the net and two-way accountability.
His first Americans squad captured the 2012-13 CHL regular season championship on the final day by one point over second place Wichita (87 points to 86) in the 10-team league with a 39-18-9 mark. Goalie San Jose Sharks’ prospect Aaron Dell tied for first with Fort Worth’s Kristofer Westblom, each posting a 2.30 goals against average, and Dell was second in wins with 22 behind the 24 posted by Wichita’s Torrie Jung. Allen’s leading scorer, Anthony Maiani (55 points, including 17 goals) ranked 17th in the league scoring race.
Martinson added the general manager’s duties after McDonald — who had remained with Allen as senior advisor of hockey operations — resigned in March 2013 to become the head coach at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada.
The Americans celebrated Martinson’s first postseason series behind their bench with a five-game conquest of expansionist Denver. In the Semifinals, Allen jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead before Missouri rallied to tie the series. Allen prevailed in Game Seven, 7-3 as Brian McMillan and Todd Robinson each netted a pair of goals at the Allen Event Center.
The First Cup
In the President’s Cup Finals, Wichita won the opener in Allen and Game Three at home to take a two-games-to-one lead. Allen won Games Four (2-1 at Wichita) and Five (5-1 at home) before Wichita tied the series at three games each with a 3-2 win on their home ice.
Wichita appeared on its way to a Cup win after 40 minutes of Game Seven as forward R.G. Flath beat Dell in the first and second (shorthanded) periods. The Americans, who seemed sluggish to that point, hit the ice with a renewed vigor in the third session as forward Jarret Lukin halved the lead just over seven minutes in to bring the Allen Event Center crowd back into the contest.
Defenseman Trevor Hendrikx tied the score with just under three minutes to play in regulation, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic moments in CHL, Americans’ and arena history on Saturday, May 11, 2013.
Less than three minutes into sudden death overtime, Robinson took a pass from defenseman Mike Montgomery and beat Wichita goalie Torrie Jung for a 3-2 win and the Americans’ first President’s Cup title. “It was the goal you dream of scoring every day in your basement growing up,” said Robinson, the assistant coach for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks in 2014-15. “My good friend (Allen forward) Darryl Bootland (convinced them to) bring me in to play for Allen late in the season. The guys made me feel right at home as soon as I arrived. Every time I think of that moment it gives me chills. We had a great team and even better people (who made up) that team.
“I had just stepped onto the ice — I saw (Montgomery) was picking up the puck (and) he hit me with a pass at the far blue line,” Robinson added. “I took two strides into (the Wichita) zone and took a slap shot. It beat Jung low to the blocker side…..and then the building erupted. I will never forget that moment.”
Robinson led the league in postseason scoring with 22 points, while McMillan paced 2nd among all CHL teams with 20 points. Defenseman Tyler Ludwig (16 points) was fifth, Kale Kerbashian (14) was tied for seventh, and Jim McKenzie and Jason Deitsch contributed 13 each to tie for ninth best. Forward Jamie Schaafsma and Bootland chipped in 12 points apiece to tie for 14th highest in the circuit.
Allen’s forwards included Maiani, Adam Pineault, Lukin, Drew Daniels, Chris Doyle, and Alex Levoie, along with defensemen Trevor Ludwig, Hendrikx, Montgomery, Mike Berube, Corbin Baldwin, and Bruce Aneloski, and goalies Dell (who notched all of his team’s 12 postseason victories) and Steve Silverthorn.
The Second Cup
One year later, the 2013-14 Americans did not appear primed for a repeat after finishing in third place with 83 points behind Missouri (90) and Denver (87) during the regular season. Levoie led the team with 76 points (25 goals) to ranked seventh in the league’s scoring race. (Todd Robinson had moved on to Tulsa and finished with 74 points, good for eighth in the league). Jonathan Lessard’s 28 goals led the Americans and his 57 points ranked 17th, while Schaafsma and Tyler Ludwig each had 55 points to tie for 20th in the CHL. Goalie Bryan Pitton was fifth in wins with 27, and his 2.75 goals against average was sixth best.
Allen conquered expansionist Brampton in the Quarterfinals before taking on Quad Cities, the 10-team league’s 5th ranked team. The Amerks lost the opener and Games Four and Five before rallying. Tyler Ludwig and Brian McMillen each contributed a goal and an assist while Pitton made 32 saves in a big 6-1 Game Six victory at home to tie the series. In Game Seven, defenseman Jonathan Zion, Lessard and Asuchak each scored to build a 3-1 third period lead as Pitton made 30 saves en route to a nail-biting 3-2 triumph to advance to the Finals.
In the Finals, the Cutthroats won Game One in Denver, 5-4 behind four goals (tying a single playoff game league record) from forward A.J. Gale, who would finish as the playoffs’ leading scorer with 22 points. However, Gale was lost to an injury early in Game Two and did not reappear. Pitton made 47 saves as Allen won 5-4.
Hoping to capture their second straight Cup at home with Games Three-through-Five back in Allen, Martinson’s charges came through brilliantly. Allen won Game Three, 3-1 after forward Greger Hanson scored with just under five minutes left in regulation to break a 1-1 tie as Pitton turned aside 28 shots.
They captured Game Four in dramatic style when Lessard scored his second of the night just under four minutes into sudden death overtime in a 4-3 triumph.
For a fitting encore, they won Game Five and their second President’s Cup by erasing a 1-0 second period deficit with a four-foal flurry in less than eight minutes off the sticks of Bootland, Schaafsma, Kale Kerbashian and Lessard. Pitton made 27 saves to secure the 5-2 triumph on May 10, 2014.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Bootland after Allen became the first CHL team to won consecutive titles since the Memphis RiverKings in 2002-03. “Defending the Cup is so tough. For most of this year, it’s all everyone’s talked about.
“I don’t know where my career will take me, or whether I’ll continue playing, but I’m really going to savor these two President’s Cup championships,” concluded Bootland, who played for the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles franchise in 2014-15.
“We really took advantage of our momentum (during the four-goal outburst) and capitalized on our scoring chances,” said CHL Playoff MVP Schaafsma. “I think once we had that, we could smell blood and we were so excited it just got the adrenaline going even more. (The Cup victory is) such a great honor and is very rewarding, but I couldn’t do it without my line mates or my teammates. I really thought our goalie (Bryan Pitton) deserved (the league’s playoff MVP award) for all the big saves he made for us, but I’m still really thankful for the honor.”
“I really felt tonight was the night (the Americans would explode offensively),” said Martinson after winning his second Cup in Allen. “I thought (this type of game) was coming tonight because we hadn’t really played our best game against Denver.”
Schaafsma’s 20 points ranked third among CHL postseason scorers, while Maiani (18) ranked eighth, Hanson (17) tied for fifth and Bruce Graham and Lessard (15 each) tied for seventh. Pitton’s 2.20 goals against average ranked second for the post season, and he recorded all 12 of his team’s wins to lead the league.
Allen’s forwards included Levoie, Asuchak, Kerbashian, Bootland, McMillan, Lukin, Garrett Klotz, Maiani, and Cain Franson, along with defensemen Hendrikx, Steve Tarasuk, Zion, Ross Rouleau, Daniel Tetrault, Berube, and Tyler Ludwig, and goaltenders Pitton, Ross MacKinnon and Willie Yanakeff.
In 2014-15, Allen and its six CHL brethren bid goodbye to their former circuit and joined the ECHL as its Central Division and played all but a few of its regular season games within the division.
Martinson’s skaters seemed an even closer mirror image of its coach by displaying an unabashed passion for puck possession and physical play.
Losing Their Combs
In a mid-January move that shocked the locker room as well as Allen’s devoted fan base, ECHL All Star forward Jack Combs took his 22 goals and league-leading 56 points overseas after accepting an offer to play for Bjorkloven of the second tier Swedish Hockey Allsvenskan league. He departed one day after leading his team to a sixth straight victory, 3-1 verdict over the Missouri Mavericks at Allen Event Center on Jan. 11. Combs did not last very long in Europe and returned to North America, but ECHL rules prohibited him from returning to Allen. He was claimed by and played for Stockton and later Cincinnati of the ECHL. In between, he was claimed by Central Division rival Missouri but never dressed out for the Mavericks.
The loss of Combs hardly stalled the Americans’ as a team or their offensive output. And his linemate, Chad Costello, hardly lost stride. After missing most of the previous season with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign off the ice with an upper body injury, Costello finished as the 28-team ECHL’s scoring champion with a team single-season record-setting 125 points on 41 goals and a single-season team record 84 assists. He teamed brilliantly with linemates Gary Steffes, who netted a league-leading and Allen single-season record 44 goals and finished 9th with 73 points, and power forward Ian Schultz (19 goals, 38 points before being promoted to the AHL). Greger Hanson was also a frequent entry on ECHL score sheets with 29 goals and 62 points. Goalie Riley Gill finished 14th with a 2.59 goals against average and a 33-10-3-2 Win-Loss-Overtime Loss-Shut Out Loss mark.
The Americans, who set a franchise record for best winning percentage at .736 while leading the ECHL with 77 power play red lights, raced out to a huge lead atop the Central Division, winning eight straight and 16 of 19 through the end of 2014. They added another nine-game winning streak in January before cooling off and losing five of seven in early- and mid-March. They regained their winning touch, finishing with a flourish to compile the ECHL’s best record over its final 10 games – eight victories, an overtime loss and a shootout setback. Allen accumulated 106 points, one behind Eastern Conference and North Division champion Toledo. As a result, Allen had home ice advantage in every series until/unless it faced the Walleye.
Completing the ‘Hat Trick’ – The Third Cup
Allen dispatched of Tulsa in five games and Rapid City in six matches to reach the Western Conference Finals and a date with the Ontario Reign. Amid reported murmurs among players on existing ECHL teams that the Americans would not match up well with existing league squads, Allen fell into a three-game-to-one hole and were within 12 minutes of being bounced from the postseason in Game Five in Southern California.
Then Costello tied the game and touched off a five-goal explosion for a 6-2 victory that returned the series to North Texas. Back in the friendly confines of Allen Event Center, Allen’s defensive corps of Aaron Gens, Justin Baker, Kevin Young, Nolan Descoteaux, Garrett Clarke, Kon Abeltshauser, and twins Tyler and Trevor Ludwig improved its play by denying the speedy Reign forwards any odd-man rushes to make Gill’s live easier.
As a result, the reigning two-time CHL President’s Cup champs reined in the Reign, 2-1 in Game Six and 3-1 in a decisive Game Seven to capture the Bruce Taylor Trophy (named for the West Coast Hockey League’s founding father) and reach the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals.
South Carolina had outlasted Toledo with a classic triple overtime Game Seven goal by forward Joe Devin. Similar to Ontario, the Stingrays’ lineup is highlighted by speedy skaters, specifically the trio of Wayne Simpson, Derek Deblois, and Andrew Rowe. And they lived up to their advance billing, scoring or assisting on eight of their team’s first 10 goals to help their team win Games One and Three in Allen. South Carolina had an apparent psychological advantage when the series moved to North Charleston for Games Four, Five and Six.
That’s when Americans’ forward Vincent Arseneau, who had skated for Denver in the President’s Cup Finals just 13 months previously, gave his team new life when he scored in double-overtime of Game Four to give Allen a much-needed 3-2 win.
“(Linemate Ian) ‘Schultzy’ give me a good pass, and I think that was a turning point in the series,” said Arseneau, who had been assigned to Allen from Worcester in the AHL by the San Jose Sharks. “I’m happy about that goal, and now I can call myself a champion.”
Hanson was the overtime hero in Game Five, scoring in the first extra session for another 3-2 triumph that gave Allen its first lead of the series, three-games-to-two. Hanson gained separation from the South Carolina defense after taking a deft pass from defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser and beat South Carolina goalie Jeff Jakaitis with a wrist shot over his blocker pad for the game-winner.
“(Abeltshauser) made an unbelievable play at the blue line,” said Hanson after netting his 12th goal of the playoffs. “I got some room in their zone and was lucky to score. We believed we were going to win tonight. We controlled the play for much of the night and (goalie Riley Gill) was great again in net. We know they will come out strong tomorrow night, but our mission is to wrap up the series and end it on Wednesday.”
South Carolina captured Game Six, 4-1 to force a seventh game for only the fourth time in the ECHL’s 27-year history. The Stingrays’ coach, Spencer Carbery, was a player on the South Carolina team that had captured Game Seven on the road at Alaska in 2009.
But Allen dominated the game right from the opening whistle, with Costello and Arseneau scoring just 1:16 apart midway through the first period to set the tone and get the sellout crowd into the game. “We wanted to play more of our type of game, and in previous games got caught playing a little too safe,” said Costello, who made it 3-0 just over three minutes into the middle stanza. “We returned to our puck control game and that provided us with scoring chances that we cashed in on.”
Steffes made it 4-0 three minutes after Costello’s second goal to chase Jakaitis, and Spencer Asuchak potted a rebound with eight seconds left in the period to make it 5-0. Arseneau’s second of the game early in Period Three provided icing on the cake.
“Well, there’s one team raising the cup right now, and it’s us,” said Amerks’ defenseman Aaron Gens, one of the team’s emotional leaders and standout performers all year long in the euphoria of the Americans’ locker room celebration. “The truth is, we’re humbled by this experience. We’re just thankful for the way it went. Each of the teams we played throughout the playoffs (CHL holdovers Tulsa and Rapid City followed by existing ECHL teams Ontario and the Stingrays) are great hockey clubs, and we beat every one of them.
“When that final buzzer sounded………what an unbelievable feeling,” Gens added. “It’s a feeling I’ve never had in my life. And coming from a small town in Minnesota, it’s something I’ll never forget. To know what these guys have been through and have accomplished is truly impressive. A lot of great players and great guys led us into the battle and helped us win this title.”
“Before Game Seven, our coach (Steve Martinson) laid it out for us, and we followed his game plan,” said Playoff MVP honoree and Americans’ leading postseason scorer Hanson (29 points to rank third league-wide and 12 goals), who was in the Philadelphia Flyers’ training camp prior to the 2013-14 season. “And we followed that plan, we played an unbelievable game, and I’m very proud of our team.”
As a result, they finally stopped Stingray sniper Simpson, holding him pointless in Games Six and Seven after he had set a new league postseason scoring mark with 38 points (including 25 assists) through the first five matches.
Gill, who needed a timely helping glove hand from Joel Rumpel (who backstopped three of Allen’s victories) in the opening round triumph over Tulsa, became a dominant goaltender beginning with the Conference Semifinals conquest of Rapid City and came up big in his showdown with South Carolina’s Jeff Jakaitis, the ECHL’s 2014-15 MVP and its Goaltender of the Year the last two seasons. “
“It’s pretty special to win my second (Kelly Cup), especially in a tight series like this that went seven games,” said Gill, who stopped 27 of the Stingrays’ 28 shots and lost his shutout with nine minutes to play. “I (won four games) playing on Reading’s 2013 Kelly Cup champion team, and this one is truly special. It was a mental and physical battle the whole playoff series.”
Gill’s eight career triumphs in the ECHL Kelly Cup spotlight tie him with Dave Gagnon (1991 with Hampton Roads and 1994 with Toledo) and Alaska’s Gerald Coleman (2011, 2014). He is also only the fifth netminder in league history to win multiple championships.
“We had one intangible on this team, and it was character,” said Gens. “You look around the locker room, and it starts with our captain Jamie Schaafsma (whose faceoff win led to Costello’s first goal, and who has led the team to its three Cup triumphs). He makes sure he shows us the way and that we are following. And there are others who are leaders and we are very proud to follow them.”
Costello finished with 28 points as the ECHL’s fifth leading playoff scorer, while key performances were also turned in by forwards Asuchak (11 goals, 21 points to tie for eighth league-wide), Chris Crane (20 points to tie for 10th place league-wide, 10 goals), Steffes (18 points, 13 goals), Schultz (16 points), and Schaafsma (16 points). Contributors also included Dyson Stevenson, Rylan Schwartz, Patrik Valcak, McMillan, and Kyle Follmer; defensemen Trevor and Tyler Ludwig, Nolan Descoteaux, Aaron Gens, Kevin Young, Justin Baker, Konrad Abeltshauser (16 points), and Garrett Clarke, and goaltenders Rumpel (3 wins) and Gill (13 wins).
“I’ve always said I’ve had the same team (as a coach) for 19 years now,” Martinson told the Dallas Morning News. “Just different names on the front and back. But it’s been the same team.”