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AHL Stepping Stone For Many NHLers

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
by Mike Ulmer

January 9, 2007

Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette and Toronto Maple Leafs boss Paul Maurice interrupted their pre-game preparations to be there.

The Hurricanes young star Eric Staal came in with his blades on, listened to the speeches and then dashed to the pre-game skate.

Staal hit the ice as an AHL All-Star in 2004-05. See the new school of talent coming up at the Rbk AHL All-Star Game in Toronto this season.

Kyle Wellwood came in from wherever injured players come in to be there.

Steve Thomas briefly interrupted his retirement to do a turn as an honorary captain. Andy Bathgate, resplendent in his Hockey Hall of Fame blazer, brought an air of august dignity to the affair.

In lending a hand to announce the teams for the 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic, AHL alumni acknowledged a league that had been instrumental in each one of their career paths.

Some 394 players have appeared in the All-Star Classic since 1995. Ninety-three per cent of that group, including Marc Savard, Rick DiPietro, Martin St. Louis and Jason Spezza, have gone on to play in the NHL.

The event is a two day affair, set for Sunday Jan. 28 and Monday, Jan. 29 at the Ricoh Coliseum. It will pit players from Canada against Planet USA.

The Toronto Marlies would be represented by forwards Kris Newbury and Erik Westrum should both those players still be in the AHL. Right now, both are skating with the big club.

On display Tuesday, aside from the AHL's staggering rate of graduated talent, was the affection players and coaches held for the league in which they learned the elements that would take them to the NHL.

"I think when you talk to players, their best  moments were back when they were scratching and clawing, when four of them were sharing a pizza after a game and they threw in money to carpool," said Maurice, who coached the Marlies for one year.

"This is part of the American Hockey League's charm.  It's the defining time, a make or break time."

"It's a great time, we all had fun playing there," said Wellwood, who played in 2004 and 2005 All-Star Classics as a member of the St. John's Maple Leafs.  "It's such a great league to play in."

"I spent my entire playing career in the minor leagues," said Laviolette. "I played 12 games for the New York Rangers but mostly I spent my career in the American Hockey League. I had the great opportunity to end my career in Providence, Rhode Island. I played in front of my Mom and my family, met my wife there.  It's been a special place for me," he said.

Laviolette played as well as coached in the Classic.

"The American League is where I came from," said Laviolette, whose Carolina Hurricanes were in Toronto to play the Leafs. "It's a great event and I'm happy to kick it off. I just want to say thank you."

"You don't have to ask any of these guys twice" said AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews. "Probably you could say that for 500 in the National Hockey League today and the thousands who have come through the AHL and gone to the NHL and have since retired. All of them have a warm place in their heart for where they spent time developing."

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