by Chris Walter January 19, 2018
The ECHL held its 22nd annual all-star game at the Indiana Farmer’s Coliseum Jan. 15, where fans were treated to an exciting game with the league’s top players. Wayne Gretzky was also on hand to drop the ceremonial puck to start the games proceedings. Gretzky started his professional career here in Indianapolis. At the age of 17, he made his debut for the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association in 1978. Also on hand was Chicago Blackhawks anthem singer Jim Cornelison, who sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” as a tribute video for Gretzky played on the scoreboard.
The Mountain Division won 6-5 in a thrilling sudden death overtime shootout after the South Division came back from a two goal deficit to tie the game. Cliff Watson, a defenseman for the Utah Grizzlies scored the shootout goal and secured the victory for the Mountain Division.
Although on the losing side of the game, the MVP was Taylor Cammarata, the center for the South Carolina Stingrays. He had a big game, as he scored 7 points in total and had a natural hat trick in the championship final.
The hometown Indy Fuel sent two players to the All-Star game this year, as well as head coach Bernie John and assistant coach Ryan McGinnis. Forward Michael Neal, who is leading the team with 22 points and 11 goals this season also, goaltender Etienne Marcoux, who leads the team with a 2.70 goals against average.
Michael Neal is the younger brother of NHL player James Neal, who is also going to the NHL All-Star Game as a representative of the expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights when they host their All-Star game in Tampa on Jan. 28. Michael was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2007 and has spent the majority of his career in the ECHL. Like his brother, he is a big power forward with a heavy-handed shot. Michael had a goal and an assist for the Central Division in the All-Star game on Monday afternoon.
The All-Star game was a very interesting one as, instead of the normal five versus five style of play fans are more accustomed to seeing, the ECHL added a multi-game, three versus three tournament to this year’s game. This style of play led to more open ice where players frequently had more scoring chances and breakaway opportunities.
Instead of playing one game with three 20 minute periods, the three games were split into seven minute halves with three minute intermissions between them. In between the second game and the championship final, there would be a skills challenge where players competed in three separate challenges. The first was the fastest skater, followed by the rapid-fire shootout challenge which was a skater vs goaltender matchup, and lastly the hardest shot competition.
The first game featured the North Division All Stars versus the South Division All Stars. Fuel goaltender Marcoux, who played for the North Division, made some great saves during the game, but could not stop the South’s offensive onslaught. Taylor Cammarata had two goals for the South Division as they won easily by a score of 3-1.
The next game featured the Central Division versus the Mountain Division, where the Mountain division pulled out to an early 3-0 lead in the first half. They also added two goals in the second half as two late goals by the Central Division were not enough as the Mountain Division won by a score of 5-2.
Then came the skills challenge, where the fastest skater award went to the Central Division’s Justin Danforth, who currently plays for the Cincinnati Cyclones, with a single lap time of 12.7 seconds around the ice. The rapid-fire shootout challenge, which featured the goaltenders and was measured by which goaltender stopped the fewest number of shots, was won by the Mountain Division’s Shane Starrett, who plays for the Wichita Thunder. Finally, the hardest shot challenge was won by the South Division and Orlando Solar Bears defenseman Nolan Valleau, with a slap shot that was recorded at 97 miles per hour.
The third and final championship game was a fitting end to the day as the Mountain Division faced off with the South Division. The Mountain Division jumped out to an early two goal lead. But, the South Division came back at the end of the first half to tie the game with two goals apiece. Then, to start the second half, Taylor Cammarata scored his third goal of the game and 5th goal of the day to give the south a 3-2 lead. But, the Mountain division wasn’t finished as they scored three straight goals to take a 5-3 lead.
Late in the second half with time expiring, Christopher Dienes scored a nifty goal with the assist from Taylor Cammarata. Then, with one minute left in the game, the South pulled their goalie to allow an extra forward. Grant Besse put the puck in the net with a nice assist once again from Taylor Cammarata. This would be Cammarata’s 7th point of the day and fifth of the game.
With the score tied at the end of regulation, a sudden death shootout between the two teams began. With the game on the line, the Mountain Division called on defenseman Cliff Watson, who scored. The South Division’s Cammarata was stopped by Mountain goaltender Shane Starrett on his shootout try to end the game.
With the All-Star game over, the Indy Fuel will be back in action on Friday, Jan. 19 when they take on the Allen Americans at home. Then on Saturday, Jan. 20 the Fuel will host the Cincinnati Cyclones. This will cap off a tough weekend full of divisional matchups when the Fuel travel to Kalamazoo to take on the Wings. The Fuel are currently sixth in the Central Division and these games could turn the tide in their favor as they make a push to the playoffs.