By Bruce Berlet
Casey Wellman played several sports growing up in Brentwood, Calif., hardly a hotbed for hockey.
But Wellman got hooked on the game played on ice after his father, Brad, met several New Jersey Devils players who asked him to skate with them in Boston.
“Dad didn’t know how to skate, so he was pretty upset about that,” Wellman said with a smile.
But Brad, an infielder for 441 games for three major league teams over eight seasons who later managed in the Houston Astros organization, introduced Casey and his brother, Logan, to hockey, and 31/2-year-old Casey fell in love with his new endeavor.
“I have some vague memories (of his dad playing), but I was pretty young,” said Wellman, whose uncle, Tom Candiotti, is a former major league pitcher known for his knuckleball. “Having pictures of a father-son game is pretty cool, but I haven’t played baseball for a while. It’s a great sport, but at the time, it was just a little slow, a little boring, so I stuck with hockey.”
Despite his West Coast upbringing, Wellman is now surprisingly playing professionally with the Connecticut Whale, who are about 70 miles from where he competed collegiately on the East Coast. When Wellman was on his way to practice with the Houston Aeros last Thursday, he got “a pretty big surprise,” a call that the Minnesota Wild had traded him to the New York Rangers.
“It was definitely pretty crazy, a bit of a shock,” said Wellman, 24, acquired for center Erik Christensen, who had a two-week conditioning assignment with the Whale in mid-January, and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013. “It was tough to say goodbye because I had some good friends (in Houston), but that’s the business and that’s what can happen and probably won’t be the last time.”
Wellman quickly returned home, packed and headed for Hershey, Pa., where he met his new teammates. Whale coach Ken Gernander put Wellman on a line with All-Star Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and rugged Andre Deveaux, and the trio helped produce a 4-1 victory over one of the AHL’s top teams, including going 5-for-5 on the penalty kill against the league’s top power play.
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In his home debut Tuesday night, Wellman again helped on the penalty kill, played the power play and assisted on Blake Parlett’s winning goal in a 3-1 victory over the Syracuse Crunch as the Whale won their third in a row after an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January to reclaim first place in the Northeast Division from the idle Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“I think there’s definitely been a little bit of chemistry, and as we play together more, it’s only going to grow,” Wellman said of the pairing with Audy-Marchessault and Deveaux. “They are two very good players, and there have been a few different plays where we could have been somewhere else. We talk about it on the bench, and we’re just going to learn from it.”
Wellman said the only Whale player he really knew was defenseman Stu Bickel, whom he skated with in the summer but has been on recall to the Rangers since Dec. 18 and a solid contributor, especially in the physical and stick-up-for-teammates department.
“When I got traded, he sent me a text (message) and just said welcome and if I needed anything to let him know,” Wellman said. “(But) there are great guys here, and they’ve welcomed me. Obviously we’ve got two wins since I’ve been here and are now on a three-game (winning) streak, so they’re turning the ship around and now we just have to keep it going.”
Wellman has brought some speed, playmaking and a pretty good shot to the Whale and can play all three forward positions. He had been playing wing but was a center at UMass, so he’s getting re-acclimated to that position “so I can be a solid, two-way player.” But Wellman’s versatility and speed fit in well with the puck-pursuing style that the Rangers and Whale like to play.
“He’s still finding his way, learning the guys and learning the systems, all those types of things,” Gernander said. “But he has picked up two points in two games, and center is an important position where you can always use depth. He’s got decent speed and won a footrace in the neutral zone in Hershey to make a nice play to Audy-Marchessault and eventually to Deveaux (for a goal).
“And he’s good on faceoffs, which are important. Depending on where you are on the rink, it could be from 10 to 20 to 30 seconds if you can win the draw as opposed to losing the draw. If it’s in the defensive zone, it takes time to get possession, break out and enter their zone. And if you look on special teams, if your power play can win a faceoff and start with possession, it’s certainly an advantage as to having a clear-in breakout and gain entry because a lot of times that’s a difficult task. So he does a lot for us and has been a very good pickup so far.”
Unlike former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing Ryan Hollweg, who also grew up in California but went to play in Western Canada in search of better competition, Wellman left home at 14 to attend Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he helped win Division III state titles in 2004 and 2006 when the Cranes went 21-5-0 and 25-4-1 in his sophomore and senior years. Though youth hockey in California is improving, there were limited quality teams, so the move proved beneficial for Wellman.
“It was a good fit for me academic-wise and hockey-wise, so I really loved it there (Cranbrook),” he said.
Wellman played two seasons with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the United States Hockey League, getting 30 goals and 39 assists in 118 games in two seasons. Wellman then attended the University of Massachusetts for two years, getting 34 goals and 44 assists in 75 games.
“It was something in my mindset growing up that I always wanted to go to the furthest level that I could and that was playing college hockey so I was really fortunate to get that experience,” Wellman said. “Traveling around all over the place for hockey has been pretty exciting, and I liked UMass a lot. There are a lot of good people there.”
But after his sophomore season, Wellman decided to sign a two-year, free-agent entry level contract with the Wild on March 16, 2010. At the time, he was general manager Chuck Fletcher’s first major college free-agent pick-up and considered the Wild’s top prospect. But after drafting or signing youngsters such as Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips and Mario Lucia, the Wild felt Wellman was expendable in favor of a needed veteran presence for an injury-riddled team.
“I still think he’s going to find his way and become a regular NHL player,” Fletcher told the Houston Chronicle on the day of the trade. “But we have a lot of returning forwards next year, and we have six young prospects that are turning pro. I can assure you it wasn’t a case of offering Casey around, but we’ve been working on this for a couple weeks. We tried several different options, and this is what they insisted upon.”
Wellman finished his Wild career with four goals and nine assists in 41 games and had 28 goals and 33 assists in 68 games with the Aeros, including a point-per-game output this season with 14 goals and 12 assists in 26 games. He also helped the Aeros reach the 2011 Calder Cup finals, where they lost in six games to the Binghamton Senators.
A major perk of the trade for Wellman was moving out of the Western Conference, where 6 a.m. flights and lots of travel are commonplace compared to mostly bus rides around the Northeast.
“It’s a little bit different, kind of like when I was in college at UMass, so it should be a little bit better,” Wellman said.
Being back near his alma mater also makes his adjustment to a new team easier.
“I’ve got some good friends around here and might head over to UMass to say hi to a few people,” Wellman said.
CONGRATS, PAPA PAVEL
Congratulations to Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko and wife Ekaterina on the birth of their first child, 8-pound, 6-pound Polina, on Tuesday afternoon. Valentenko, recovering from an injury sustained in a 3-2 overtime loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 27, skated with the Whale on Tuesday morning and then got a call that Ekaterina was about to give birth. He and Ekaterina went to St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford for the arrival of Polina, and he then celebrated with a late-night dinner at Trumbull Kitchen restaurant in Hartford with neighbor Chad Johnson after the goalie made 23 saves to backstop the win over the Crunch.
“I still can’t believe it,” a beaming Papa Pavel said as he responded to congratulations in the restaurant to text messages from family and friends in Russian and English.
Best wishes to the Valentenkos. Pavel is one of the most pleasant and caring athletes/people that I’ve ever met. He’s often self-conscious about his English when chatting with the media after games, but he has done a tremendous job learning a new language. He sure speaks English a lot better than I speak Russian.
Meanwhile, Johnson spoke glowingly of the Whale’s turnaround thanks in large part to the return of Deveaux, veteran center and leading scorer Kris Newbury and All-Star Mats Zuccarello and the additions of Wellman and left wing Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka, who accepted the Rangers’ request for a two-week conditioning assignments last Thursday.
“We’re all playing together and playing well and just finding ways to win,” Johnson said. “We’re more disciplined, and you can tell that we’re more conscious of the score (in the third period) and what we want to accomplish, and that’s to get the two points. We’ve really locked down in the third period, and it helped out these last few games and it’s helped us to get these wins.”
WHALE ON ROAD THIS WEEKEND
With Monster Trucks in the XL Center this weekend, the Whale (21-16-4-5) is on the road for games at Springfield and Manchester on Friday and Saturday nights and at Bridgeport on Sunday afternoon.
Before Friday game’s game, Whale fans will try to get off the schneid in their inaugural seven-game series against their Falcons counterparts. Falcons fans have won the first five games, with Game 6 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Friday at 5 p.m. The final game of the series is March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, at 4 p.m. at the XL Center and tickets ($16) will be available soon. For more information and tickets, visit facebook.com/whalefalconsfangame.
The series was originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first five games raised $750 for DBL.
WHALE TO SALUTE ALUMNI WHO GRADUATED TO RANGERS
The Whale and Whalers Sports and Entertainment will host “It All Starts Here” Night on Feb. 18, when the Worcester Sharks visit the XL Center. The night will pay tribute to players who spent time playing in the AHL in Hartford before moving on to the Rangers. It also will participate in USA Hockey’s “Hockey Weekend Across America” that is meant to spread the game throughout the country.
The night will include special ticket deals, as those wearing a youth hockey jersey to the XL Center’s Public Power Box Office will be able to purchase special $10 lower-level end zone seats. Also, 5,000 fans will receive an “It All Starts Here” poster, compliments of Webster Bank. The poster will feature Wolf Pack and Whale alumni who have made it to the Rangers, including AHL All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan, who is now the captain on Broadway. For more information, contact www.ctwhale.com.
Sharks coach Roy Sommer is one victory from becoming only the fourth coach to win 500 AHL games. Sommer, the dean of AHL coaches, is 499-495-90 in 14 seasons and trails Hall of Famers Fred “Bun” Cook (636), Frank Mathers (610) and John Paddock (589), who led the Wolf Pack to the Calder Cup in 2000. Sommer’s newest player is former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy, acquired from the Florida Panthers for defenseman Sean Sullivan on Friday. Kennedy had three assists as the Sharks split two games at St. John’s on Friday and Saturday night. … Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at www.theahl.com. Zuccarello and Audy-Marchessault represented the Whale, and Falcons rookie wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native who starred at Avon Old Farms and helped Boston College win a national title, was also on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears. … College students can get discounted tickets to weekday games with a “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.
2013 AHL ALL-STAR CLASSIC IN PROVIDENCE
AHL president and CEO David Andrews announced Wednesday that the board of governors has selected the Providence Bruins and Rhode Island Convention Center Authority to host the 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts AHL All-Star Classic as part of a weekend of festivities Jan. 25-28.
The event will kick off with a P-Bruins game on Friday, Jan. 25, followed by the Providence Bruins Youth Hockey Festival on Jan. 26. The All-Star skills competition will be Jan. 27, and the AHL Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony and All-Star Game will be Jan. 28.
“The American Hockey League is excited to be returning to one of its founding cities for the 2013 All-Star Classic,” Andrews said in a statement. “Providence has been part of the fabric of our league since our first season in 1936, and the Providence Bruins organization has been a cornerstone for the last two decades. We’re looking forward to showcasing our brightest stars to capacity crowds at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and to an international television audience.”
Providence will host a third All-Star event. The old Rhode Island Auditorium was the site of an All-Star Game on Oct. 23, 1956, and the Dunkin’ Donuts Center hosted the first All-Star Game of the modern era on Jan. 17, 1995.
“The 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts AHL All-Star Classic is the American Hockey League’s premier exhibition, bringing together dozens of hockey’s rising stars for an exciting weekend of competition,” P-Bruins CEO Jeff Fear said in a statement. “The Providence Bruins are honored to play host to this special event.”
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have this event coming to Providence and to be using our entire complex,” Rhode Island Convention Center Authority CEO James Bennett said. “One of our primary goals is to bring big-time sporting events to our facilities, and we continue to do just that: the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championships in 2010, the NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey regional tournament in 2013 and now the 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts AHL All-Star Classic weekend.”
The AHL All-Star Classic annually draws thousands of fans to the host city, and 2013 event is expected to provide a boost to hotels and restaurants in and around Providence. Of the 597 players to take part in the All-Star Classic since it was reinstated in 1995, more than 91 percent have competed in the NHL, including Callahan, who won the 2007 All-Star Game with three seconds left. More details, including event times and information on tickets, will be announced in the future.
2013 NHL WINTER CLASSIC IN DETROIT, ANN ARBOR
The NHL announced Wednesday afternoon that it will make a major announcement at a press conference at Comerica Park in Detroit on Thursday at 10:30 a.m. that will continue at 1:15 p.m. at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Red Wings will play the 2013 NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 against another Original Six team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Rangers rallied to beat the Flyers 3-2 in the fifth NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Comerica Park, the baseball stadium of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, will host major events in a week-long celebration that will include a Legends Alumni game Dec. 31 between former members of the Wings and Leafs. Earlier in the week, there will be Great Lakes Invitational games, an AHL game between the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Wings top affiliate, and Toronto Marlies, Ontario Hockey League games between the Plymouth Whalers and London Knights and Saginaw Spirit and Windsor Spitfires, as well as youth and high school hockey games.
The Detroit Free Press reported Wednesday that the University of Michigan Board of Regents voted unanimously to allow the NHL to use Michigan Stadium, where a Guinness world-record crowd of 104,173 watched the Spartans beat Michigan State 5-0 in “The Big Chill at the Big House” on Dec. 11, 2010. Rangers rookie wing Carl Hagelin, who started the season with the Whale, had two goals and an assist in the game.
Regent Denise Ilitch, daughter of Mike Ilitch, recused herself from voting Wednesday. The Winter Classic game will be Jan. 1 with an alternate date of Jan. 2. The NHL will pay the University of Michigan $3 million to use the stadium from Dec. 1 until mid-January.