One of the biggest storylines throughout last season was the
Arizona Redhawks rise to power in the Valley of the Sun.
Over their first two seasons in the Western States Hockey
League, the club operated in the shadow of the eight-time Thorne Cup Champion
Phoenix Polar Bears and were never able to build any momentum, in terms of both
recruiting and in-season success.
Last season marked a huge change however, as the Polar Bears
were sold and subsequently became the Knights and went through a true
rebuilding year, opening up the door for the Redhawks to finally establish
With Phoenix on the mend and a large group of returners coming
back to the Redhawks, Head Coach Robbie Powell couldn't wait to get the season
Arizona began the year just as Powell had hoped, with a
three-game sweep of the first-year Dallas Snipers.
The Redhawks then returned home for six "measuring stick"
type games; three against the New Mexico Renegades and three with the San Diego
After taking two of three from New Mexico, the Redhawks
opened up with an upset in game one against the division rival Gulls, before
dropping the next two and losing their first series of the year.
The Redhawks were then plagued by inconsistency throughout
two more divisional series with the Long Beach Bombers and Valencia Flyers,
before clashing with the rival Knights for three games.
Despite being the better team most of the series, the
Redhawks were only able to pick up three of the possible six points and allowed
the Knights, at least for the moment, to continue their dominance.
After winning one of three the next weekend against the
Dallas Ice Jets, the Redhawks headed to the All-League Showcase in Las Vegas looking
to rekindle their winning ways.
Aside from the team's leading scorer Theo Campe and goaltender Andrew
Barletta, Powell wanted more from his group of returners, which he believed
had it in them.
In four tight games in Sin City, the veterans stepped their
game up a bit and helped the Redhawks to a respectable record of 2-1-1 against
four solid teams.
Coming out of the holiday break, Powell made a huge move
with the Helena Bighorns of the America West Hockey League, bringing in hulking
forward Ryan Brown but in return,
had to give up Campe.
The move paid dividends immediately, as the Redhawks came
storming out of the gates to win five of six against the Park City Moose and
Long Beach Bombers to begin 2012.
The next weekend, the league-leading Fresno Monsters came to
town and what transpired over three games wasn't a whole lot of hockey.
The two teams combined for nearly 200 penalty minutes in 180 minutes of
regulation game time and the fiery Andrew Barletta, who was one of the top
goaltenders all season and a huge reason for the Redhawks success, was given a three-game
suspension amidst all the chaos.
After losing two of three in San Diego the next weekend, the
Redhawks returned home for their final three meetings of the regular season with
the hated Knights.
Unlike their previous series with Phoenix, the Redhawks were
ready this time and didn't take their foot off the accelerator for a second.
The newly acquired Ryan Brown notched a goal and three assists
in the opening game, continuing a torrid start to his WSHL career, as the
Redhawks ran away with a 10-4 victory.
Despite outshooting Phoenix 62-31 in the middle game of the
series, the short-benched Knights were somehow able to force overtime, before
defenseman Sean Stahlnecker scored
unassisted, giving the Redhawks the 4-3 win.
In the finale, it was Brown leading the way once more, with
two goals and an assist in a 7-3 Arizona win, marking the first time in
franchise history that the Redhawks had won an individual and season series
from the Phoenix franchise.
The three big wins in Chandler set-up six monumental games
to end the regular season.
The Redhawks made the trip to Valencia the next weekend for
the first three with the Flyers, who were just a couple of points back of
Arizona. Powell told me at the time, that the series was the biggest in
Game one lived up to all the hype and came right down to the
wire, with the Flyers winning by a goal, 5-4.
The next night, the Redhawks fell flat on their faces and
Powell attributes that to his team's lack of preparation. He was not happy with
the way they came into the series overall and felt they were more concerned
with sightseeing than playing hockey that weekend.
A newly re-tooled Flyers lineup took it to the Redhawks over
60 minutes of play, scoring seven times on Barletta, before he was eventually
pulled from the game and won by a score of 11-1.
The loss hurt but the bigger story for the Redhawks was that
of injuries, as three key players were all hurt during the first two games of
Rugged defenseman Evan
Alexius sustained an injury from a fight in the opening game, while both
Ryan Brown and defenseman James Takacs
went down during the second contest.
Despite all of the adversity they faced over the first two
games, the Redhawks fought back in game three. Veteran forward Ivo Dimitrijevs' scored five times in
that game, as the Redhawks pulled out a 7-6 overtime win,
tying them with Valencia for third place in the Western Division with only
three games to go.
The Redhawks made the trip back to California the next
weekend but this time it was to face the Monsters, who had thoroughly abused
them in Arizona just a few weeks prior.
Short-benched and all, the Redhawks fought hard but lost
each game and wound up fourth overall in the division.
Despite the rough end to the regular season the Redhawks
found themselves heading to the playoffs for the first time in franchise
history, with the Knights on the outside looking in for the first time as well.
The joy didn't last long however, as the Redhawks opening
round matchup was in Fresno, where they were to face a team they hadn't bested in
18 all-time meetings.
With only 15 skaters in the lineup, the Redhawks took the
Monsters to the edge in the opening game but wound up losing on a late goal.
They weren't the same the next night and you could tell the
team was already defeated before the puck dropped, as the Monsters cruised to a
4-0 win, ending the Redhawks season in the opening round of the playoffs.
It may have been a hard way to end the year but if you look
at how far the team has come in just three seasons in the league, you couldn't
call it anything other than a huge success for the Redhawks organization.
I vividly remember watching them stumble in the Showcase in
their inaugural season, while being thoroughly out-skilled and out-played by everyone
Just a couple of years later, they are a team that competes
every night and has the talent and coaching to stick with anybody in the
Surprisingly though, Powell didn't quite share the
excitement I had for his team's big year.
The "should have been" consistently gnaws at him.
He acknowledged that the team has come a long way and that
he's happy about the recent success but also explained to me that he had very
high hopes for last season.
With 16 returners on his roster and one of the best
goaltenders in the league, he felt the team could have done far better.
He said that some veterans didn't want it as badly as they
should have, especially in big games down the stretch, which set the tone for
Combine that bit of complacency with the team being in a
position they had never been in that late in the season and it's hard to win
big hockey games.
In my four seasons around the league however, the Redhawks
are by far the most improved and have now cemented themselves as a player in
the hockey hotbed of Arizona.
It may have taken a while to get away from the vacuum that
was the Polar Bears but now that they've established themselves, I see them
being a contender for years.
Players Moving Up:
With an older roster last season, many Arizona players had
opportunities to play college hockey in the fall but only a few have decided to
continue their hockey careers. Goaltender Andrew
Barletta will play at Monroe Community College in New York, while forward Denis O'Hara will play for New York
James Takacs and Matthew Melhaff are going to stay in
state and play for Northern Arizona University, while defenseman Cam Maceau turned down a couple of
Division III college hockey offers to play and go to school at Colorado State
Ryan Brown will
return to the team in the fall and should be 100% healthy after breaking his
collarbone during the late-season series in Valencia.
The big forward had notched 20 points in his 17 games with
Arizona before suffering the season-ending injury.
Kyle Pavlack and Mitchell Lyons will both return for
their third season in the desert.
Pavlack does it all for Powell, even playing defense late in
the season due to the barrage of injuries. He's a solid role player who is
responsible at both ends of the ice and due to that, he should see an increased
role this year.
Lyons is a big "banger" who gets in on the fore-check and
likes to throw his weight around. He forces turnovers and is good in the
corners and also isn't afraid to standup for his teammates.
Drew Daley and Danny Bello will also return, after
seeing limited playing time last season.
Both are guys that Powell expects to compete for a third line
spot, where they'll be expected to play the body on every shift and shut down
the oppositions top forward line.
There are also three new faces that Powell expects big
things from on offense.
and Oscar Hagborn-Olsson are two
Swedes who posses the top end skill that will help put the Redhawks over the
top. The two 18 year-olds played in the second highest junior league in their country
last season and should make a smooth transition to the North American game.
Lastly, Tanner Vallon
is a Texas kid who Powell put it, "simply loves to play the game of hockey." He
will attempt to outwork everyone and never stops moving his feet. He also has
the kind of attitude that Powell covets in his players.
Powell has another handful of guys already signed that he
expects will help make this the most talented group of forwards he's had in
Ryan Haar is the
only returner to the back end, as many of last year's defenseman have aged-out
of junior hockey.
He is a "spark-plug" that likes to throw the weight around
and is steady in his own zone.
Joining him will be a cast of first-year Redhawks, which
include a couple more Swedes that Powell spoke very highly of.
Patrik Birath and
Joakim Lovgren are both big, highly
skilled defenseman that came to America because they want to follow their dream
of eventually playing college hockey.
Also coming in is 17 year-old Johnny Drummond, who played AAA hockey in Utah last season, while
also appearing in five games for the Park City Moose.
Powell described Drummond as a kid that makes plays every
time he is on the ice and a guy that he expects will move on to higher levels
as soon as next season.
The blue line will be an inexperienced one (at least in
terms of North American junior hockey experience) but should be more skilled
than we're used to seeing from the Redhawks.
It's no coincidence that the Redhawks best season in the
league coincided with them having one of the top goaltenders in the entire
league, with Andrew Barletta in net most of last season.
He has moved on however and his departure leaves the door
open in the Arizona crease.
Nick Carroll is
the only returner and despite being a reliable backup, isn't expected to be
named the number one guy.
Coming in are two imports that are expected to battle for that
is, well let's call him Scandinavian (mother is from Norway, father is from
Sweden) that has played junior hockey in both Norway and Sweden.
He's a big kid, who is in exceptional shape and will work
hard to get the job.
crosses the border after playing prep school in Quebec last season and is known
as a "battler."
He isn't as big as Johansson but works just as hard to make
very save, regardless of where he is in the net.
Powell hopes to find a goaltender that he is able to stick
with all year, much like he did with Barletta. In the two seasons prior, the
Redhawks goaltending situation was problematic throughout and Powell doesn't
want that repeated.
This season, the Redhawks will make the move from the
Western Division to the Mountain, where they'll be joined by the Phoenix
Knights, El Paso Rhinos, New Mexico Renegades, Boulder Bison and Cheyenne
In a recent interview, Cheyenne Stampede General Manager
Mark Lantz told me that the Mountain Division should be the toughest in the
league, from top to bottom and characterized it as a "dog fight."
Powell shared the same exact sentiments and feels it will be
another solid challenge for his club, with every divisional series having that,
He even went as far as saying that if Mountain Division team
gets swept in a divisional series, it could take months to recover.
The Redhawks will also host out of division series against
the San Diego Gulls and Tulsa Jr. Oilers and travel for series against the Valencia
Flyers and Dallas Ice Jets.
All things considered, if you're Robbie Powell, you can't
help but be excited about the upcoming season.
It seems the Redhawks can finally take a breath without the
Phoenix organization hovering over them and swooping up all of the top area
The Redhawks have finally found some success, some solid
recruits and seem ready to continue their push to the top.
I expect the 2012-2013 season to be another momentous year
for the Redhawks and I feel that they will not only make the playoffs but make
some noise while there.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League