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Falcons flying high thanks to Blackhawks

by Brian Compton /
During the course of the summer, the Fresno Falcons were looking to form a bond with an NHL team that would benefit both organizations.

With the Chicago Blackhawks on board, they may have found their match. After announcing their affiliation July 30, Falcons coach Matt Thomas began working the phones to build a team that could contend with the Las Vegas Wranglers. So far, it appears he is doing just that.

Just this week alone, Fresno acquired forward Grant Goeckner-Zoeller from the Dayton Bombers in exchange for defenseman Joe Van Culin. Goeckner-Zoeller, 25, had 15 points in 35 games for the Bombers last season.

And just two days after veteran netminder Jake Moreland announced his retirement, Thomas quickly signed Ryan Nie. In his first ECHL season, the 23-year-old Nie went 29-12-4 with a 2.80 goals-against average for the Johnstown Chiefs. His 29 victories set a club record.

"I think our relationship with Chicago is going to be a real good relationship," Thomas told "I'm excited about it. I think we're going to see right away the benefit in terms of players assigned. But to get a guy like Nie is huge for us. His success is well-documented."

Nie turned pro in 2006, when he joined the Kalamazoo Wings in the United Hockey League. In 35 games, he went 20-8-4 with a 2.02 GAA and .929 save percentage. It certainly was a tremendous way for an undrafted player such as Nie to learn about life as a professional hockey player.

"It was a learning experience for me," Nie said. "It doesn't really get the respect that some of the other minor leagues do, but there were a lot of good hockey players there who played in the American League. It was a good first year of pro for me."

A native of Ontario, this will be the farthest Nie has ever been away from home. Nonetheless, the chance for a No. 1 job, combined with Fresno's new affiliation in Chicago,  was simply too intriguing for Nie to pass up.

"It'll be a little different than playing in the North and far away from home, but I'm looking forward to it," Nie said. "My agent just called me up one day and said Fresno was interested. It seemed like something I wanted to do and it seems like a good fit.

"Anyone where they're going to give you the opportunity to play, that's what I need -- the exposure."

And should Nie play well for the Falcons, there's at least a chance that Chicago will give him a look in the AHL.

"They want to use us," Thomas said of the Blackhawks. "It's not just an affiliation on paper because they need a place. They're excited about putting some good, young players here that they want to see develop."

Nie spent some time recently in Chicago, working out in a camp his agent put together. While he knows it will be a tough road to the NHL as an undrafted goalie, he's willing to give it his best shot.

"I've spent a lot of time here, and I enjoy the city. It's going to be a good affiliation. All you can really do as a free agent is play in the (ECHL) and try to work your way up." -- Ryan Nie

"I've spent a lot of time here, and I enjoy the city," Nie said of Chicago. "It's going to be a good affiliation. All you can really do as a free agent is play in the (ECHL) and try to work your way up."

One thing is certain, Nie will be playing in one of the toughest divisions in the ECHL. With the Ontario Reign now in the mix, it's primed to be even tighter this time around.

"I think it's going to be real strong," Thomas said of the Pacific. "I really like the way Stockton's building their team. Their relationship with Edmonton is tremendous. Bakersfield's always really good. They had a down year last year, but they've always been a really good team. I don't think there's any way Ontario's not going to have a good team, and Vegas happens to get 100 points a year. There's not going to be an easy night."
Christie gets AHL job -- Finally, Jason Christie is in the AHL.

After racking up seven winning seasons as a head coach in the ECHL, the 39-year-old was named the assistant coach of the Chicago Wolves on Wednesday. Christie joins Don Granato behind the bench of the reigning Calder Cup champions, who lost John Anderson to the Atlanta Thrashers earlier this summer.

Christie guided the Utah Grizzlies to the National Conference Finals in 2008. It is believed his assistant -- former New York Islanders forward Kevin Colley -- is the favorite to be the new head coach.

"I'm really excited," Christie told "It's late in the game here, but going to the Wolves … their organization is first-class. You want to make sure you go to the right opportunity, and this is a good opportunity for myself."

Around the ECHL --
The ECHL named Mike Murray as Coordinator of Hockey Operations. … The Dayton Bombers signed rookie goalie Paul Drew. … Cincinnati re-signed defenseman T.J. McElroy. … Defenseman Jeremy Scherlinck signed with the Wheeling Nailers. … The Augusta Lynx signed forwards Dallas Steward and Chase Watson. … Forward Mathieu Roy signed with the Florida Everblades after notching 45 points with Pensacola last season.

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