After an extended stay in the American Hockey League, Kane Lafranchise had recently just hooked back up with the Alaska Aces on the road in Las Vegas, where the players had long planned their Super Bowl party and were ready to make it a Super Sunday.
Lafrachise's cellphone rang. On the other end was Alaska coach Rob Murray.
"Put that beer down,'' Murray said.
"Those were his exact words,'' Lafranchise recalled with a laugh. "I'd just cracked the first one.''
Murray reported good news. Lafranchise had been loaned to AHL Houston, where he played one game for the Aeros after a nine-game gig with AHL Oklahoma City, the affiliate of Lafranchise's hometown Edmonton Oilers. Lafranchise flew out of Las Vegas that night.
After his first promotion -- make that promotions -- to the AHL, Lafranchise is back with the Aces as they prepare to open a four-game, ECHL road trip to Utah starting Friday. Like any player, Lafranchise is eager to again make the climb up hockey's ladder.
"It's something you work for, a goal,'' he said. "Being Edmonton's farm team, Oklahoma City was special. You always want it to last longer. You want that taste again.''
Lafranchise said he returned from his time with Oklahoma City and Houston knowing he needs to improve parts of his game to stick at the next level.
He said he will focus on being more assertive and forceful in the defensive zone, and on moving the puck quicker and harder when kick-starting the offense. Lafranchise's skating ability and offensive skills are strong -- despite missing 19 Aces games, he still leads the club's blueliners in scoring with 4-19--23 totals in 32 games. Fortifying his defensive game is essential.
"Just being intense in my own end,'' Lafrachise said. "I've had to work on that for years, and it's a mind-set I need to develop.''
Being seen by scouts in the AHL could prove beneficial down the road -- the Aces aren't affiliated with an AHL team, so they can loan players wherever -- and having AHL games on his resume can only help when it comes to interest from European teams.
Still, Lafranchise said his minus-12 rating in 10 AHL games is hard to see. In 123 career regular-season games with the Aces, he is plus-40.
"It's a glaring statistic, obviously, and here I've been a plus player, so it's hard,'' he said. "But I can honestly say I tried my best, made my best effort.''
Back with the Aces, Lafranchise should bolster the club's blue line and enhance its power play.
"You just want to play, and get better, and that's what I'm here to do,'' he said.
The Aces' No. 1 goaltender, Gerald Coleman, won't make the trip to Utah after suffering a lower-body injury in practice Tuesday that he said shouldn't keep him out of games more than a week or two.
Coleman is 17-4-1 with a 2.30 goals-against average that ranks fifth in the league and a .914 save percentage.
With Coleman out, Mark Guggenberger is likely to start all four games in Utah. He's 17-6-4, with a 2.33 that ranks sixth on the circuit, a .910 save percentage and three shuts, which ties him for second in the league.
Expected to make the trip with the Aces is goalie Drew O'Connell of Anchorage, who beat the Aces while filling in for the Ontario Reign earlier this season.
Shuffling the deck
The upcoming series marks the second time this season the Aces and Grizzlies have played four consecutive games. The clubs split a four-game series at Sullivan Arena in early December.
Alaska owns a 5-3-0 record against Utah in the season series. The Aces won a pair of games at Utah in mid-December and split a pair of games at Sullivan in October.
First-line right winger Garry Nunn has hit a rough patch -- zero goals in the last six games and 2-1--3 totals in his last 12 games. In the 11 games before that dry spell, Nunn delivered 5-8--13 totals.
Winger Jordan Kremyr, who earlier missed 24 games, one-third of the season, with a concussion, has struggled to get going too. He has one goal -- an empty netter -- and eight points in 25 games after generating 14-10--24 totals in 52 games a season ago. Kremyr has fired 57 shots on goal this season.
The Aces will spend most of six days in Utah, fly home on Feb. 21 and the next night open a series of three games in three nights against Las Vegas as part of a six-game homestand.
Through 27 of 36 regular-season home games, the Aces' average attendance is 4,694, an increase of 244 fans per game, or 5.48 percent, above last season's average of 4,450.
Former Aces winger Anthony Peluso made his NHL debut Tuesday for the Winnipeg Jets. He became the eighth Aces player to make his NHL debut after playing for the club. The others are goaltender Chris Beckford-Tseu, defenseman Zack FitzGerald, and forwards Tomas Kana, D.J. King, Charles Linglet, Chris Minard and Ryan Reaves.
Interesting ECHL Stat of the Week: Bakersfield Condors goalie Scott Greenham, the former UAF masked man, has faced 26 shooters in shootouts this season, and surrendered a mere one goal. He is 5-0 in shootouts. Greenham also has stopped both penalty shots he has faced this season. Kalamazoo's Joel Martin, 5-1 in shootouts, has stopped 30 of 33 shooters. He's also stopped two of three penalty shots, and one of those stops came in overtime.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY