By Bruce Berlet

HARTFORD, Conn. – Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the 1986 NHL All-Star Game at the then Hartford Civic Center and the end of the 2011 AHL All-Star break for the struggling intrastate rival Connecticut Whale and Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

CT WhaleWhile Game 50 for the Whale and Game 49 for the Sound Tigers likely won’t make any All-Star reels, it proved plenty exciting for the 6,023 at the XL Center, including ’86 All-Stars and former Hartford Whalers Mark Howe and Brian Propp, along with former Whalers fan favorite Alan Hangsleben.

And Whale goalie Chad Johnson gave an All-Star performance, especially in the first period, and AHL All-Star Jeremy Williams, rookie Jyri Niemi and veteran Kris Newbury scored as Johnson and the Whale ended three-game losing streaks with a 3-2 victory.

Johnson’s 28-save effort came a day after he spent a half-hour after practice chatting and watching video with New York Rangers goaltenders coach Benoit Allaire. They reviewed a few clips of Johnson’s first NHL win last season against the Colorado Avalanche and focused on keeping things simple.

“I told him I just haven’t felt the same,” said Johnson, who had a 21-save, 4-0 victory over the Sound Tigers in their previous meeting Dec. 26. “For me, it’s all about my posture and my stance. We looked at things and just tried to keep it simple. I admit I haven’t really been consistent this season throughout games, so it has been tough. We just talked about little things and simplifying my game, just beat the pass, that’s the big thing. He was just reinforcing the basics and his philosophy and what can make us successful.”

Johnson was especially successful in the opening 10 minutes, which the Sound Tigers dominated while holding the Whale to only one shot. But that was a goal at 3:22 by Jeremy Williams, who took a centering pass from behind the net from Brodie Dupont and lifted a shot under the crossbar, much as he did in helping the Eastern Conference beat the Western Conference 11-10 in the AHL All-Star Game on Monday night. It was Williams’ 23rd goal and 41st point, both team highs.

The rest of the period belonged to Johnson, who made point-blank saves off Justin DiBenedetto at 6:14, Olivier Labelle at 9:38 and Brady Leisenring at 10:01.

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“Bennie had said be aware of where the players are, and my success was being aware of where guys were when they got in the slot,” Johnson said. “I was in good position, pushed into it and was square to the puck earlier than usual. Guys did a good job communicating after I talked to the defensive corps with (assistant coach) J.J. (Daigneault). We wanted to make sure we had communications, and if could see pucks and playing the puck behind the net, and I think that helped a lot. We had a lot more communications and I was seeing a lot more pucks, so like J.J. said, if I see it, I stop it. Now having consistency is going to be the biggest thing for me.”

Newbury, reassigned to the Whale on Thursday after two solid stints with the Rangers spanning eight games, scored the winner off Wade Redden’s rebound with 8:40 left in the second period. Newbury had several other good scoring chances while having to play a more offensive role than in New York, where he was on a checking line and helped kill penalties and take face-offs.

“We’ve been struggling, but tonight we put it together for 45-50 minutes,” said Newbury, who will have played seven games in 10 days by the end of a home-and-home with the Portland Pirates on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. “There are definitely some things to work on when we have a couple days off next week to get some better practice habits and try to clean up our end a little better before we start on the offense.

“Chad played well and kept us in the game. Even when they got a late one (by Wes O’Neill with 6:56 left), he was able to shut the door for us. It’s good to see, but some a forward’s standpoint, and I think I can talk for most of the defense, we have to be better in our end.”

It was a much-needed victory for the Whale (23-20-2-5), who had lost the first three games of a homestand, as well as four straight and six of seven at home after eight consecutive wins at the XL Center. The victory got the Whale even at home (12-12-2-1) and kept them within one point of third-place Worcester, which beat Atlantic Division-leading Manchester 4-3 in a shootout. But the Whale, now 5-1-0-1 in the GEICO Connecticut Cup against the Sound Tigers, remained only three points ahead of Providence, which beat Springfield, 2-1.

Meanwhile, the Sound Tigers (19-24-3-3) lost their fifth in a row and are 1-10-2-1 in 2011 while falling into the division cellar.

After Williams gave the Whale the early lead, Johnson robbed DiBenedetto at 5:45. But moments later during the Sound Tigers’ first power play, DiBenedetto converted his own rebound 22 seconds later off a deflected shot from the right point by former Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan Reese, reassigned earlier in the day by the parent New York Islanders.

Moments later, a diving Koskinen robbed Evgeny Grachev, whose skate caught the goalie in the face, dazing him. Chad Kolarik picked up the rebound and sent it to the left point to Tomas Kundratek, who passed to the right point to Jyri Niemi for a 50-foot shot into an open net at 7:02 for his first pro goal.

“I thought the referee was going to whistle the play dead,” Koskinen said. “I thought I felt OK, but the next time I saw the puck, it was in the net.”

When asked if he thought a monkey had been lifted off his back, Niemi smiled and said, “Oh, yeah, it’s like a gorilla.” Niemi, a third-round pick of the Islanders in 2008 acquired by the Rangers for a sixth-round pick on May 25, 2010, had the commemorative puck in his locker room after being presented it by Kundratek.

“The guys told me that I would have been fined if I didn’t score,” Niemi said, smiling again. “When Tomas got the puck, I looked down and the goalie was falling down, so I thought I’d take my time and score. Tomas saw me wide open, so it was a good play by him.

“It has never taken me this long to score, maybe 12 games in my last year of juniors (with Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League). In juniors, I used to score a lot, so it’s a big relief to get the one out of the way here.”

Would he being texting his family and friends in his native Finland?

“They can look it up on the Internet,” Niemi said with one final smile.

The Whale got the winner when Redden picked off a Jesse Joensuu clearing attempt along the left boards and fired a shot that Newbury converted with a backhanded rebound at 11:20 after outmuscling All-Star defenseman Mark Wotton in front.

“We haven’t scored a plethora of goals lately, so those are the kind of goals that we need more of,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “We need him to get into those dirty areas either to get second or third attempts net-front or just occupy people in front or create some traffic.”

Johnson kept it a two-goal game with another brilliant stop, this time on All-Star captain Mark Wotton’s wide-open rebound bid from 10 feet in front with 2:48 left in the period.

Koskinen kept the Sound Tigers in the game when he made a right-toe save on Kolarik with three seconds left in the period. Then moments after the Whale killed a Sound Tigers power play, Kolarik blocked a pass in his own and took off on a breakaway but missed the net at 3:10.

At 6:33, Koskinen slid across to rob Niemi breaking in alone off a pass from Newbury, causing the rookie defenseman to shake his head in disbelief. Then Johnson came out to deny DiBenedetto cruising in off right wing with 8:34 left.

But Johnson couldn’t hold off the charging Sound Tigers forever as O’Neill got inside Whale defenseman Jared Nightingale and knocked in Leisenring’s rebound with 6:56 left.

The Sound Tigers pulled Koskinen for a sixth attacker with 1:32 left, but the Whale allowed only one shot on Johnson.

“I thought some guys were pretty sloppy in areas, and part of it was both teams were coming back from the (All-Star) break,” Gernander said. “We could have made better plays with the puck at times, and there were some breakdowns never should have occurred, and both goalies made some good saves, but Johnson was good.

“I’d like to see everybody hitting on all cylinders, and I don’t think our game is where it was before we had the rash of injuries and call-ups. So we have to continue to push until we squeeze out our A game on a consistent basis.”


The Whale signed goalie Dov Grumet-Morris to another professional tryout contract and released goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier from his PTO. Grumet-Morris, a sixth-year pro out of Harvard, played in two games with the Whale in November, going 0-1-0 with a 1.32 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 91 minutes. He returns from the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Road Warriors, for whom he was 15-8-1, 2.32 GAA, .922 save percentage in 24 games. He was tied for the ECHL lead in shutouts (three) and was second in GAA and fourth in save percentage.

Pelletier, signed Jan. 19 from Laredo of the Central Hockey League, played 54 minutes in his AHL debut Jan. 21, stopping 18 of 22 shots, including a penalty shot, in a 7-3 loss to Hamilton. The Whale needs a second goalie because Cam Talbot missed his sixth game with a high ankle sprain sustained in a 6-3 victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 16. The Whale also scratched wing Dale Weise (undisclosed injury), center Todd White (concussion) and wing Chris McKelvie (foot surgery). Oren Eizenman replaced Weise and was on a line with Ryan Garlock and Justin Soryal. The Sound Tigers scratched leading scorer and All-Star Rhett Rakhshani, Tony Romano, Andy Hilbert, Jason Pitton and Jeremy Yablonski.

Meanwhile, Newbury, the Whale’s second-leading scorer (five goals, 31 assists) despite missing six games during two stints with the parent New York Rangers, and Niemi returned to the lineup. Newbury, reassigned after getting one assist and 35 penalty minutes in eight games with the Rangers, was on a line with Jeremy Williams and Dupont.

But Newbury wasn’t forgotten in New York.

“I like what Newbury brought,” coach John Tortorella said before the Rangers lost 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night despite goals from former Wolf Pack wing Ryan Callahan, his second in two games after missing six weeks and 19 games with a broken hand, and Vinny Prospal, playing his first game of the season after two knee surgeries. “He will fight, he’s abrasive. He’s a guy we could call up (again). The staff loves him because of his jam.”

Newbury was flattered but had more immediate things on his mind.

“It always gives you more confidence when a coach like that has good things to say for you,” Newbury said. “But at the same time, I have a different role down here, and I have to play to that to help to help this team win hockey games. It’s a thrill that he’s talking like that about me, but at the end of the day, I want to work hard down to help this team win and hopefully get back up there.”

… Whale mascot Pucky made a triumphant return to the strains of “Rocky” after being tackled and punched by an intoxicated fan during Saturday night’s game against Portland. Pucky entered the ice in a wheelchair, then leaped up, slid head-first across the ice and stood up and pumped his arms as the crowd roared.

Meanwhile, Kevin O’Connell, a 28-year-old from East Hartford, was banned from the XL Center for life for attacking Frank Berrian. O’Connell told police that he attacked Pucky over a bet. He was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree breach of peace. Fortunately, no one was injured on Boy Scouts Night, though several youngsters witnessed the incident.


The Whale play a home-and-home set with Portland Saturday at 7 p.m. in Maine and at 3 p.m. at the XL Center on Super Bowl Sunday. They have split four games, with both Whale victories coming on overtime goals on Dec. 29 and 31 by Tim Kennedy, a member of the AHL all-rookie team in 2008 while with the Pirates. The Pirates (29-14-4-1), who were idle Friday night, have won five of their last six games and are two points behind Manchester.

The Pirates evened the season series with the Whale last Saturday on Derek Whitmore’s power-play goal with 7.5 seconds left, his third of the season against the Whale. David Leggio had 36 saves for his fourth consecutive victory and has allowed only two goals in two wins against the Whale. Wing Mark Mancari, the AHL Player of the Month for January, leads the league in goals (27) and is third in points (53), and the Pirates have the AHL’s second-best home record (17-3-3-1, .792 percent). There will be 2,000 Whale headbands given away at Sunday’s matchup sponsored by XFINITY of Comcast.

Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m., the Grand Rink at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods will host a skate with former Whalers Alan Hangsleben, Doug Roberts and Garry Swain, former Bruins Bob Miller and Tom Songin and Whale mascot Pucky. Fees are $10 for adults with a $5 skate rental, and $6 for children with a $2 skate rental. Hot beverages and photo opportunities are included, as well as the chance to win tickets to the “Whale Bowl,” the featured attraction of the “ Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” on Feb. 11-23 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The “Whale Bowl” pits the Hartford Whalers legends against the Boston Bruins legends at 4 p.m., followed by the Whale Providence at 7 p.m. In case of bad weather, the Whale-Bruins game will be played Feb. 20.


This writer gave major kudos to the NHL for its innovative All-Star Player Fantasy Draft in which Eric Staal of the hometown Carolina Hurricanes and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit helped make it the most interesting All-Star Game in all of pro sports.

The numbers substantiate those thoughts as NHL All-Star weekend earned significant increases in viewership in the United States and Canada, a 42 percent increase in sponsorship revenue over the last All-Star Game in the U.S., an all-time record for video starts on and the best retail performance for a U.S.-based All-Star Game in seven years.

Other than that, it wasn’t a very good weekend.

The city of Raleigh, N.C., and the surrounding area stood out for three days as fans tailgated, flocked downtown and more than 31,000 people attended the NHL Fan Fair. On Sunday, a sold-out RBC Center watched as Team Lidstrom rallied from an early three-goal deficit to beat Team Staal, 11-10.

“By all measures, this was one of the NHL’s most successful All-Star weekends ever with fans and our corporate partners embracing the event in a big way,” NHL COO John Collins said. “Our hosts in Raleigh did a tremendous job and it was gratifying to see the entire community energized around hockey. Our new innovation, the Player Fantasy Draft, was a huge hit. The Skills Challenge and the All-Star Game saw substantial viewership and digital increases. Without a doubt, All-Star Weekend remains one of the league’s most important platforms to celebrate hockey in the host community, promote our best players to a global audience and to provide a pathway for our corporate partners to invest in the sport.”

This success continues the league’s momentum created in part by its big events. The recent Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Penguins and Washington Capitals was the most-watched U.S. NHL regular-season game in the last 36 years and generated a 20 percent increase in sponsorship revenue. The NHL’s big event strategy is driving significant growth and, as announced last week, the league is on pace to set an all-time revenue record for the fifth consecutive year.

The next major event is Feb. 20, when the 2011 Tim Horton’s NHL Heritage Classic, an outdoor game between the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens. It’s also “Hockey Day in America,” a celebration of the roots of hockey, which includes NBC providing regional coverage of a slate of games.

Highlights of All-Star Weekend included the most watched All-Star game in VERSUS history, averaging nearly 1.5 million viewers, a 36 percent increase over the 2009 All-Star Game. The SuperSkills averaged 1.18 million viewers, the most watched such competition on cable since 2003 and a 35 percent increase over 2009 (875,000).

The debut of the NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft on Friday night was also a success as the telecast averaged 624,000 viewers, up 107 percent from the 2010-11 NHL regular-season average on VERSUS (302,000 viewers). The All-Star Game and SuperSkills were record-setters on CBC. The All-Star Game drew an average of 2.389 million viewers, the highest for an All-Star Game on Hockey Night in Canada and a 56 percent increase over 2009 (1.527 million). The previous best was 1.67 million for the 1999 All-Star Game, which is as far back as records have been kept.

The SuperSkills also was a record-setter, drawing an audience of 2.446 million viewers and peaking at more than three million. The average audience was 78 percent higher than the previous high, 1.371 million, that tuned in to the last SuperSkills in Montreal in 2009. TSN’s coverage of the All-Star Player Fantasy Draft averaged 1.5 million viewers for its 90-minute primetime broadcast and won the night on Canadian television in all key demographics.

Here’s what a few others had to say:

“With the sports world raving about the innovative player draft at the NHL All-Star Game, the focus now shifts to other sports that have gotten heat over outdated and uninteresting formats.” –

“Officially the most exciting All-Star format in professional sports.” – Yahoo Sports

“A brilliant innovation.” – Yahoo Sports on the player draft

“There were many good things about the event in Raleigh. Even for the most cynical media types, it was hard not to feel a good deal of affection for the new innovation.” –

Case closed!!!!


Bridgeport      0 1 1 – 2
Connecticut    1 2 0 – 3

First period: 1. Conn, Williams 23 (Dupont, Garlock), 3:22. Penalty: Klementyev, Bri (holding), 18:19.

Second period: 2. Bri, DiBenedetto 10 (Reese, Hisey), 6:07 (pp). 3. Conn, Niemi 1 (Kundratek, Kolarik), 7:02. 4. Conn, Newbury 6 (Redden), 11:20. Penalties: DiDiomete, Ct (roughing), 5:59; Bickel, Ct (hooking), 7:28.

Third period: 5. Bridgeport, O’Neill 4 (Leisenring, Klementyev), 13:04. Penalty: Williams, Ct (tripping), 1:01.

Shots on goal: Bridgeport 10-10-10-30. Connecticut 6-15-8-29; Power-play opportunities: Bridgeport 1 of 3; Connecticut 0 of 1; Goalies: Bridgeport, Koskinen 5-15-0 (29 shots-26 saves). Connecticut, Johnson 15-17-3 (30-28); A: 6,023; Referee: Chris Brown; Linesmen: David Spannaus, Luke Galvin.