As sports fans around the globe prepare to watch the world's most-skilled athletes showcase their talents at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the American Hockey League's best are set to put an international twist on their showcase event for the first time.
The 2014 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Assante Wealth Management will be held Feb. 11-12 in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, with this year's team of AHL all-stars competing against Färjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League in a Skills Competition on Tuesday and the AHL All-Star Game on Wednesday.
Led by Jeff Blashill, head coach of the 2013 Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins, and Rob Zettler of the runner-up Syracuse Crunch, the 2014 AHL All-Star roster highlights 22 of the league's elite players.
Since the modern-day event started in 1995, more than 93 percent of the players who have competed in the AHL All-Star Classic have gone on to compete in the NHL -- a list that includes New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. (Photo Credit: AHL)
Eight months after meeting in the Calder Cup Finals, Blashill and Zettler are eager to work alongside each other in guiding their select roster.
"I'm really excited about working with Jeff and such high-caliber hockey players all in one spot," said Zettler, a long-time NHL defenseman turned coach who took over the Crunch after Jon Cooper's promotion to Tampa Bay last year. "We've got a nice mix of some guys who can play a bit of a grittier game to go along with our skill, which we need to be competitive against a good team."
"One of the unique things in coaching is when you get a chance to work with other guys you don't normally work with," said Blashill, who led Grand Rapids to the AHL championship in his first season after serving as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit in 2011-12. "These guys are all elite players who have not just great skill sets, but really great hockey minds and know how to win as a team."
Färjestad's roster features nine former NHL draft picks, including Ludwig Bystrom, a second-round selection by the Dallas Stars in 2012, and Pontus Aberg, a second-rounder for the Nashville Predators that same year. The club's general manager is former Calgary Flames star Hakan Loob.
"Sweden fields very competitive, highly-skilled and well-coached teams," Zettler said. "Färjestad BK is obviously an elite team. We're going to have everything we can handle with them, because they're going to want to win every bit as much as we do."
The upcoming All-Star Classic will mark the first time that a Swedish Hockey League team has ever competed in North America. Founded in 1932 and based in the city of Karlstad, Färjestad BK is one of the most successful franchises in all of European hockey, playing in 19 league finals and winning nine Swedish league championships, including four since 2002.
After competing in the All-Star Classic, Färjestad will head to Toronto for an exhibition game against the AHL's Marlies on Feb. 15.
"They want to make a mark over here in North American hockey and let people know how they play hockey in Sweden," Zettler said. "Make no mistake -- we want to going in there hitting hard and trying to win a hockey game."
Of the 22 players selected as 2014 AHL all-stars, 21 have National Hockey League experience, including 16 who have played in the NHL this season. Eight skaters on the AHL all-star team are former first- or second-round draft picks, among them Ryan Strome (New York Islanders), Brett Connolly (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues).
Blashill, who has seen 10 players from his 2013 Calder Cup championship team advance to the Detroit Red Wings this season, has some words of wisdom for his predominantly young team of all-stars.
"The biggest thing that I would tell them is similar to when you have a player that gets called up to the NHL," Blashill said. "They were chosen on this team for a reason and should make sure that they are the player who they are -- whatever has made them successful on their individual teams to be chosen to this elite team, do that in this game.
"If each player does that, I think we'll have a real good chance to be a great hockey team."
Zettler recognizes the significance of a cohesive all-star squad, particularly given this year's format.
"It's a great opportunity for these kids to showcase their talents, but the biggest thing we want is to go in thinking that this is a competitive game," Zettler said. "It's not a typical all-star game where guys are doing a lot of fancy one-on-one skill stuff. We hope to see some of that, but we hope to see it within the team game."
This year's unique class of AHL all-stars is in good company. Since the modern-day event was reinstated by AHL President and CEO David Andrews in 1995 after a 35-year hiatus, more than 93 percent of the players who have competed in the AHL All-Star Classic have gone on to compete in the NHL -- a list that includes Ryan Callahan, Zdeno Chara, Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall, Chris Kunitz, Ryan Miller, Zach Parise, Tuukka Rask, Bobby Ryan, Martin St. Louis and Patrick Sharp.
That same track record extends behind the bench. Eight current NHL coaches, including the Anaheim Ducks' Bruce Boudreau, the Columbus Blue Jackets' Todd Richards and the Vancouver Canucks' John Tortorella, have previously coached in the AHL All-Star Classic.
Fans can watch the future stars of the NHL showcase their talents in the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic on Sportsnet ONE across Canada and on NHL Network in the United States. For full broadcast info, click here.
For the latest news, scores and stats from around the American Hockey League, visit theahl.com.