It was a night of great skills, great goals, and great moments for all those on hand.
The Fort Frances Lakers hosted the SIJHL's annual skills competition and all-star game last Wednesday night in front of 487 people at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Lakers' head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan was selected to coach Team Canada for the second-straight year, with his squad falling 8-6 to Team U.S.A.
Despite a second-straight loss to their cross-border rivals (the Americans won last year's game 5-2 in Eveleth, Mn.), Strachan still was glad to be able to take part in the league's prestigious event.
“It's fun to be a part of it again," he enthused. ”You know to experience it, and to see the skill level of both teams and the best players in the league to come together in one venue, is a great atmosphere.
“Obviously, we didn't come out on the right end of the game. That's 0-2 in all-star games for me with Team Canada so I probably won't get the call again [to coach],” he laughed.
“I maybe would have liked to have seen more intensity in the game but it is what is,” Strachan added.
“There was a lot of skill, some nice goals, some big saves, and it's just too bad we didn't have a few more people in the stands.”
Also joining Strachan at this year's all-star festivities on the Canadian side were fellow Lakers Dwayne Sinclair (equipment manager) and Jake Witherspoon (trainer), along with forwards Kirk Coppock and Brett Hahkala and defencemen Dane Bateman and MacKenzie Flett.
Representing the Lakers on Team U.S.A. were defencemen Anthony Antonelli and Nate Drobnick and forwards Nick Lucas, Jaedin Ness, and Chase Robideau.
Lucas also was captain for the Americans.
“It was unreal. The league gave us a lot of good meals and they set up things really good for us,” Hahkala, the lone Fort Frances native selected for the game, said of his all-star experience.
“It was a lot of fun to play," he added. "Even if it was just an interleague game, it's always fun to play for Canada and overall I think it was a really good week for us.”
It was all Team U.S.A. from the outset last Wednesday as they opened the scoring about midway through the first period when Ness went high on Team Canada goalie Brock Aiken (Thunder Bay North Stars) from the right side.
The Americans then used some wizardry to extend their lead a couple of shifts later as Blake Nelson (Thief River Falls Norskies) danced into the Canadian zone and fed Bryce Johnson (Norskies) behind the net.
Johnson then neatly scooped the puck up and whipped it into the top corner—lacrosse style—for a highlight reel goal to put his team up by two.
Team U.S.A. continued to push the pace and later in the frame, Eric Stout (Dryden GM Ice Dogs) forced a turnover, which eventually led to Braden Shea (Ice Dogs) stuffing one in from close range past a sprawled out Aiken.
Team Canada got one back before the first period ended when the Red Lake Miners' trio of Bryce Young and Michael Di Lullo set up Spencer Milne, who buried a shot from the slot past U.S.A. goalie Bailey Schmitz (Norskies) at 18:31.
It was more from the Miners' trio four minutes into the second as Young broke up a U.S.A. rush, which helped Di Lullo feed a hard-charging Milne, who then cut left and tucked in his second of the night to bring the Canadians within a goal.
After a goaltending change for both teams midway through the contest, which saw Zach Willms (Miners) enter the game for Canada and Nick Corneliusen (Minnesota Iron Rangers) for the U.S., the Canadians tied it after Keighan Gerrie (North Stars) fired a cross-ice pass to Ryan Mignault (North Stars), who knotted it 3-3 at 12:13.
But the Americans stormed back by striking three times before intermission to take a 6-3 cushion after 40 minutes on tallies by Nelson, Alec Daman (Norskies) on a short-handed breakaway, and Mason McIntosh (Norskies).
Battling back in the third, Canada saw Milne bank one in from the side to cap his hat trick while Coppock's attempt on net bounced off a U.S. defender and in to pull their side to within one.
The back-and-forth affair saw the Americans extend their lead to 7-5 at 7:08 of the third with Garrett Wojcicki (Iron Rangers) finishing off a pass from McIntosh.
Lukas Lundgren (Iron Rangers) then swiped the puck off Willms stick and was left with an easy empty-netter to put the U.S. back up by three before Trey Palermo (Ice Dogs) rounded out the scoring for Canada with just over five minutes to go.
Cam Birkeland (Iron Rangers) had two assists for the U.S., as did Young and Di Lullo for Canada.
Team U.S.A. outshot Canada 47-38 on the night, with Corneliusen picking up the win and Willms suffering the loss.
Earning game MVP honours were Johnson (Team U.S.A.) and Milne (Team Canada).
“If you look at our guys, I thought a lot of them played well,” Strachan said of the Lakers' players on Team Canada.
“On their side [Team U.S.A.], most of them registered a point in the game and you know, for the group as a whole, I don't know how many schools or scouts were here but just to have your name recognized at something of this stature and level of play, it definitely helps in the process of getting your name out there,” he noted.
“And then allowing the scouts to recognize you as one of the top players in the league, the experience itself to play at this high level is definitely a benefit for them throughout the rest of the year.”
In the skills competition held prior to the game, it was the Canadians who came out on top 8-4 over their American counterparts.
Team Canada's Jacob Siebenga (Ice Dogs) won the shooting accuracy event by hitting all four targets in just 16 seconds.
Cameron Coutre (Ice Dogs) of Team Canada was the fastest skater, clocking in with a time of 13.57, while Corenliusen of Team U.S.A. was the top shootout goalie in making nine saves.
Alec Severson (Norskies) of Team U.S.A. had the hardest shot with a blast of 90.08 m.p.h.
Team Canada then claimed the puck relay event, which gave them the overall win in the skills competition.