Nearly every player in the ECHL enters the minor hockey league after prepping either with a Canadian-based major-junior team or U.S. Division I college program.
There are outliers, though, usually guys who played in Division III college programs.
The Alaska Aces last season included four such players, and defenseman Brad Richard, straight out of Hobart College, not only shined but became the first former Division III player named to the ECHL’s All-Rookie Team.
Now, the Aces have signed two skaters fresh from a Division III program.
The Kelly Cup champions on Thursday announced they have signed rookie forward Ridge Garbutt and rookie defenseman Mike Slowikowski, both of whom played four seasons at Utica College.
If that school rings a bell, it is likely because center Tim Coffman, who played most of last season for the Aces before a crowded roster prompted his release, also played at Utica.
Also, longtime Utica head coach Gary Heenan was a finalist for the head coaching job at UAA in the spring of 2013. Aces coach Rob Murray met Heenan when Heenan visited Anchorage as a candidate for the Seawolves job that went to former ECHL Stockton bench boss Matt Thomas.
While players with Division III pedigrees are no lock to make the Aces’ roster -- plenty of them did not survive Aces training camp in the past -- the club has reaped benefits from some of them.
Richard racked the game-winning goal deep into the third period in the Aces’ 4-2 win at Cincinnati in Game 5 of the Kelly Cup Finals, which they won in six games. That came after he delivered 6-24—30 totals and a plus-20 rating in 62 regular-season games.
Coffman posted 9-13—22 totals in 35 regular-season games -- he missed 24 games with a broken foot. Winger Ross Ring-Jarvi from Division III Gustavus Adolphus generated 9-15—24 totals in 51 regular-season games for the Aces last season. And winger Shawn Skelly, from Division III Adrian College, contributed 5-9—14 totals in 28 games before he was released in February, when the Aces had a glut of forwards.
“I don’t have a problem with D-III guys because we’ve had success with them the last couple of seasons,’’ Murray said. “They were all quality players and made an impact on our team.’’
Murray signed Garbutt and Slowikowski on recommendations from Heenan.
He said Hennan told him Garbutt, a 5-foot-9, 180-pounder, is “the type of guy who has the speed to play on our (bigger Olympic) ice surface and be tenacious.’’
Garbutt, 23, last season led the Pioneers in goals and finished second in points with 12-12—24 totals and a plus-9 rating in 25 games. He also led Division III in short-handed goals (4) and led Utica in power-play goals (3). In 78 career games, Garbutt earned 29-39—68 totals.
Slowikowski, 25, is intriguing because he is huge -- 6-6 and 230. He had five assists and a plus-6 rating in 25 games last season and 15-27—42 totals in 102 career games for Utica.
Murray said skating is often a concern with extremely tall players. He said Garbutt told him Slowikowski possesses good speed.
The Aces have announced the signing of four players for the upcoming season, Murray’s fourth as bench boss. They previously announced the return of defenseman Corey Syvret and the addition of former Las Vegas Wranglers center Chris Francis.