Most of Drew O’Connell’s goaltending work in recent years has come in the informally named Wednesday Night Hockey League, where former Alaska Aces, UAA Seawolves and assorted other past professional and college players gather for pick-up games.
No on-ice officials, no scoreboard, not even set teams, really. Still, it’s not exactly a beer league — they won’t take just any old goalie who used to be someone’s sieve in high school.
But the Wednesday night league certainly isn’t pro hockey, which is where O’Connell, a former Colorado Colleage goalie and a commercial real estate appraiser from Anchorage, shined Saturday night.
Making his first pro start against his former club, the ECHL-leading Alaska Aces, O’Connell nearly pitched a shutout in the Ontario Reign’s 3-1 win at Sullivan Arena.
O’Connell, who helped out the Aces when they were in dire goaltending straits last season because of Gerald Coleman’s extended call-up to the American Hockey League, stopped 20 shots to win his first pro decision. He also snuffed a penalty shot.
“I was nervous, but not scared,’’ O’Connell said.
Ontario’s victory in the finale of a three-game series snapped a slew of Alaska streaks.
The Aces (30-9-1) lost their streak of 13 straight games (12-0-1) without a regulation loss, which tied their second-longest such streak in their 10 ECHL seasons. Their eight-game home winning streak also vanished, as did Coleman’s personal nine-game winning streak — he made 20 saves.
Most of the ECHL’s 23 teams have been decimated by more than 100 call-ups to the American Hockey League and a dozen to the NHL in the wake of last week’s end of the NHL lockout.
But no ECHL club took the 1-2 punch the Reign (25-10-2) absorbed. Both their goalies, Jean-Francois-Berube and Chris Carrozzi, were summoned to the AHL before Ontario flew to Alaska on Tuesday for a three-game series.
“Let me tell you, getting to the (Ontario) airport to fly up here, with no goalies, is not a good feeling,’’ said Ontario coach Jason Christie.
Christie got hold of former Ontario goalie Dustin Carlson, who was working and training in Columbus, Ohio. Carlson met the team in the Seattle airport on the way to Alaska and started Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss and Friday’s 4-1 loss.
Christie then connected with O’Connell, 26, through former Aces winger Jacques Lamoureux, who is stationed in the Air Force here and is the brother of Ontario rookie forward Mario Lamoureux.
Christie liked what he saw from O’Connell in Wednesday’s morning skate and put him in net for the third period Friday. O’Connell stopped all five shots he faced and bagged an assist, and after the game Christie told O’Connell he would start Saturday.
O’Connell, who played nearly two full periods of a road game in Idaho for the Aces last season, did not surrender a goal Saturday until Alaska rookie Jarred Smith batted a puck out of mid-air with 35.6 seconds left.
“He played unbelievable,’’ said Ontario defenseman Cameron Burt. “He came in with a great attitude and he fit right in, played soccer upstairs with us when we warmed up. If you had walked into our locker room, you wouldn’t have known he was a new guy.’’
The rest of the Reign, who needed a nickname for O’Connell for quick communication purposes during play, settled on “O’C.’’ Yet, here’s a sign he was still the new guy — O’Connell was listed “O’Connor’’ on the lineup sheet coaches fill out before the game.
“It’s hard to walk into a new locker room as the new guy, but they were very welcoming — especially to some real estate appraiser just wandering in,’’ O’Connell said.
Burt, who played collegiately at RIT, said he did check out O’Connell’s credentials.
“Knowing he came from a program like Colorado College, I knew he could play,’’ Burt said. “They don’t take just any goalie.’’
O’Connell caught a nice break when the Aces barely threatened him in the first period, mustering just six shots, one of them Jordan Kremyr’s 2-on-1 bid. But Kremyr didn’t get much on his shot.
“It was huge to be able to feel the puck, but not have many good chances for them,’’ O’Connell said. “The guys did a great job of letting me see the shots.’’
Ontario forged a 2-0 first-period lead on Brodie Sheahan’s goal just 11 seconds into the game and the first of league-leading sniper Colton Yellow Horn’s two goals. Yellow Horn scored before the game was five minutes old.
O’Connell produced the play of the night before an announced crowd of 5,920 when he stopped Zach Harrison’s penalty shot early in the second period, with Ontario’s lead still at 2-0. Harrison was awarded the shot after Burt hauled him down from behind on a short-handed breakaway.
As Harrison skated in from center ice, O’Connell skated out nearly to the hash marks, 24 feet above the goal line, before backtracking. He didn’t bite on a couple of Harrison’s fakes and stopped a wrist shot from near the right post with his left pad.
“I’ve seen Harry a few times in practice (with the Aces), so maybe that helped,’’ O’Connell said.
Harrison said O’Connell’s aggressive approach prompted him to make a couple of dekes before shooting.
“That’s why I decided to deke, because he was so far out of his net,’’ Harrison said. “I didn’t get far enough across on him. I was disappointed not to get that one.’’
In truth, the Aces, who like the Reign dressed a patchwork lineup, didn’t badger O’Connell much.
“With what we didn’t generate offensively, we probably didn’t play well enough defensively to warrant the win,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray.
Outside the visitors’ locker room, the Reign quickly packed and departed the rink, headed to the airport for a red-eye flight home. Several Ontario players stopped to thank O’Connell, and then Christie walked past.
“Come on, Drew,’’ the coach said with a laugh. “We’ve got a flight to catch.’’
Alas, O’Connell, who in three pro appearances is 1-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, holds down a day job in Anchorage.
Besides, they expect him in the Wednesday night league later this week.
Shuffling the deck
The Aces signed former UAA forward Peter Cartwright of Anchorage, who last played two years ago in the Great Britain-based EIHL, to bolster their decimated lineup.
That gave them three local fill-ins — Cartwright joined fellow former Seawolves Brad Gorham, a defenseman, and Merit Waldrop, a forward.
Aces center Bobby Hughes took the warm-up before the game but did not play because of a lower-body injury suffered Friday when he absorbed a check and pin-wheeled to the ice. Hughes said he doesn’t think the injury is serious and he should be able to make a three-game road trip this week that opens Friday in Idaho.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Ontario 2 1 0 — 3
Aces 0 0 1 — 1
First Period — 1, Ontario, Brodie Sheahan 4 (Yellow Horn, Huxley), :11; 2, Ontario, Colton Yellow Horn 25 (Brodie Sheahan, Stretch), 4:51. Penalties — M. Lamoureux, Ontario (tripping), 5:31; Molle, Aces (slashing), 12:36.
Second Period — 3, Ontario, Yellow Horn 26 (Stretch, Burt), 17:57 (pp). Penalties — Molle, Aces (interference), 3:53; Clune, Ontario (holding the stick), 6:35; Imbeault, Aces (hooking), 9:02; Curry, Aces (interference), 13:12; Cartwright, Aces (high-sticking), 16:59.
Third Period — 4, Aces, Smith 3 (Mazzolini, Wrenn), 19:24. Penalties — Cloud, Ontario (slashing), 4:04; Waldrop, Aces (boarding), 4:21.
Shots on goal — Ontario 10-12-1—23. Aces 6-7-8—21.
Missed penalty shot — Harrison, Aces, 5:13 2nd period.
Power-play Opportunities — Ontario 1 of 6. Aces 0 of 4.
Goalies — Ontario, O’Connell, 1-0-0 (21 shots-20 saves). Aces, Coleman, 14-3-0 (23-20).
A – 5,920 (6,399). T – 2:22.
By DOYLE WOODY