Happy New Year, and welcome to the halfway point of the 2002-03 East Coast Hockey League season.
It's been an eventful first half for the Augusta Lynx, who fired general manager Derek Bundy, moved Jim Burton from coach to GM, made assistant coach/car salesman/former NHL defenseman David Wilkie the second-youngest coach in ECHL history, added a pair of local owners, acquired former league MVP Andrew Williamson, made an unfathomable amount of roster moves and stumbled to the league's worst record.
But the Lynx weren't the only ones making headlines in the first half. Here are some of the highs and lows from the first half around the league:
Most Valuable Player: Florida Everblades goalie Rob Zepp carried his team to the top of the ultra-competitive Southeast Division after a slow start. Zepp leads the league with a .934 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average. He won six straight starts during Florida's league-high 14-game unbeaten streak, which was snapped Friday in a 5-2 loss to Columbia.
Top rookie: Jason Jaffray of the Roanoke Express became the first player in ECHL history to win rookie of the month twice. He won the award in November and December and was runner-up in October. Jaffray leads all ECHL rookies in scoring with 49 points on 22 goals and 27 assists.
Top coach: Fired by the South Carolina Stingrays over the summer after winning the Kelly Cup two years ago, Rick Adduono has guided the Greensboro Generals from the depths of despair to the top of the Northeast Division. The Generals entered Saturday with the league's fifth-best record at 22-9-4, one point behind Atlantic City for the top spot in its division.
Biggest surprise: In their first season after relocating from Macon, the Lexington Men O'War are fourth in the Northwest at 15-14-5, led by rookie goalie Mike Smith, who is third in the league with a .916 save percentage.
Biggest disappointment: Aside from the Lynx, the defending Northern Conference champion Dayton Bombers have fallen on hard times, sinking to last in the Northwest at 12-19-6.
Most unstable franchise: The Baton Rouge Kingfish nearly folded over the summer. They're last in the league in attendance and are going nowhere on the ice. It will be a miracle if they're back next season.
Most unstable individual: Wheeling Nailers coach Jonh Brophy, the second-winningest coach in pro hockey history, challenged Reading coach David Lohrei to a fight in the parking lot after a game in November.
Coach on the hot seat: Dayton's Greg Ireland has a history of alienating players. Now that the Bombers are underachieving, his act may be wearing thin with the team's new owners.
What was he thinking? Lohrei hung goalie Mike Minard out to dry, leaving him in the net for the entire 60 minutes of a 13-2 pasting by Cincinnati on Dec. 27. Lohrei sent captain Brian McCullough out to ask Minard if he wanted to come out. Minard took exception, saying it was the coach's job to pull him, not his. A few days later, he was pulled from the Bombers by the parent Toronto Maple Leafs.
Dumbest move: Referee Max Middendorf and linesman Brad Phillips shouted obscenities at Dayton forward and former Lynx Chris Thompson during a Nov. 22 game. The officials were reprimanded by the league.
Biggest pain in the butt: Referee Patrick Britt, who was hit in the backside by an attempted clearing pass by Trenton Titans defenseman David Schneider. The puck ricocheted onto the stick of Peoria Rivermen forward Tyler Rennette, who passed to teammate Randy Copley for the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win in Trenton in mid-December.
Top quote: Wilkie, on 6-foot-7, 275-pound senior league brawler/bodybuilder John Freeman, whom the Lynx attempted to sign but failed to because of immigration problems - "I've got some buddies of mine who know him. They said he's a really fast skater, but he turns like an 18-wheeler. He's a real knuckle-dragger."
OFF THE MARK: The good news for Greenville Grrrowl coach John Marks was that Atlanta Thrashers GM/interim coach Don Waddell finally returned his call.
The bad news was the conversation didn't go as well as he'd hoped.
Marks contacted Waddell two weeks ago to express his interest in the Thrashers head coach job, vacated when coach Curt Fraser was gassed after 3 1/2 miserable seasons.
Despite Marks' 600-plus career wins, his NHL playing experience and a 2002 Kelly Cup championship, Waddell said thanks, but no thanks. The Thrashers' GM wants a proven NHL coach, and appears to have former Florida Panthers coach Terry Murray at the top of his list.
SNAKE BIT: They are two of the biggest no-nos in pro hockey - physically accosting a referee or linesman and putting a spectator in harm's way. Now, a pair of Columbus Cottonmouths players are paying the price for those transgressions. Right winger Sean McAslan was slapped with the longest suspension in the ECHL this season - 18 games - for throwing his stick into the stands at the conclusion of last Saturday's overtime loss to Pensacola. The league also suspended goaltender Matus Kostur for three shoving a linesman in a 6-1 loss to the Lynx in Augusta on Dec. 27.
ONE-TIMERS: Former Lynx Lars Pettersen of the Richmond Renegades was suspended three games by the league for a vicious slash to Greensboro's Jay Murphy in a Dec. 20 game in Richmond. Reports out of Richmond indicated that Pettersen would get off scot free, but the Generals canvassed to have him suspended after it was discovered that Murphy suffered a broken finger as a result of the slash. The Renegades appealed the suspension, saying Pettersen was going after the puck on what was a partial breakaway by Murphy. ... Roanoke Express radio broadcaster Kevin Reiter will be joined by Greenville Grrrowl play-by-play man David Miller and Mississippi Sea Wolves' broadcaster Jim Kelly to handle the radio call of next month's ECHL All-Star Game in Estero, Fla. ... Former first-round draft pick and Toledo Storm goalie Brian Finley made his NHL debut with the Nashville Predators on New Year's Day. The ECHL Web site listed Finley, who began teh season with Toledo, as the 204th league graduate to the NHL, but he is actually No. 205. Former Lynx goalie Zac Bierk was the 204th when he played in relief for the Phoenix Coyotes on Dec. 22. ... George Roy Hill, who directed the classic 1970s hockey movie Slap Shot, died on Dec. 20 in New York City. Much of the film was shot at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, home of the ECHL's Johnstown Chiefs.
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