BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Top Feel-Good Moments of 2019-20
Blog #07 – April 14, 2020
by John Peterson
We’re all searching for things to cheer us up right now. As we officially begin our second month without hockey, confined to our homes in an effort to stay safe and healthy, that bright light might just be a rare sunny day, a long-distance call from a family member or a scroll through an old photo album.
This blog is dedicated to that topic: looking back at a shortened 61-game season for some of the best feel-good moments. I’m not necessarily talking about milestones, hat tricks or other box score statistics.
I’m referring to individual accomplishments where the impact was felt by the entire team. Moments that gave us the chills. Redemption stories, comebacks, and memories that could have left us thinking, “is it dusty in here?”
Let’s get to it. Here are the Top 5 Feel-Good Moments of 2019-20:
#5 - MAC IS BACK
The K-Wings were bit by the injury bug seemingly all season, losing a remarkable 273 man games due to injury as a team. Those are strictly games players missed due to injuries and do not include healthy scratches, suspensions or call-ups.
That’s a high number in just 61 team games. Multiple times throughout the season, Kalamazoo was forced to play a man short. During a five-game road trip in November, the team was especially short-handed.
Three games in row, the K-Wings played a defenseman at forward just to fill the allotted 18-man roster. Friday, Nov. 22 at Heritage Bank Center in Cincinnati, the team lost defenseman Eric Kattelus and forward Justin Kovacs to injury, joining Connor Schmidt, Brennan Sanford, Zach Frye, David Pope, Zach Saar and Tyler Ganly on the shelf.
Kalamazoo was scheduled to face Toledo the next night at Huntington Center and in danger of having to play two-men short. On the three-hour bus ride to Toledo, Head Coach Nick Bootland made a phone call, desperate for help in Saturday’s game against the Walleye and Sunday’s contest in Brampton.
The call was to retired forward Chad McDonald, a Battle Creek native who played in 71 games for Kalamazoo in 2018-19 before retiring to go back to law school at Michigan State. Bootland and Assistant Coach Joel Martin stayed in touch with McDonald throughout the summer and knew he could still play. McDonald participated in adult league hockey multiple times each week while in school and wasn’t far removed from pro hockey.
He agreed to meet the team in Toledo to temporarily come out of retirement in an emergency role—on the top line next to Zach Diamantoni and Yannick Veilleux.
That night, the K-Wings fell behind 2-1 in the first period and gave up two more in the second. They were outmatched. Trailing 5-1 in the third period, McDonald gave the team a reason to smile.
He cut in from the half-wall and fired a wrist shot past Walleye goaltender Pat Nagle from the top of the right circle for a goal in his first game out of retirement. If nothing else, it was a special moment for McDonald and his teammates amidst an otherwise frustrating and injury-plagued road trip.
#4 - YOU’RE A WIZARD, BLANEY
Next on our list is a story of a short memory and redemption.
Kyle Blaney was on pace for his third consecutive 40-point season and was leading the team in assists when he went down with an upper-body injury Jan. 18 and missed over a month.
Before his injury, Blaney was also the team’s faceoff wizard, winning a majority of his draws.
The fourth-year pro returned to the ice Feb. 21 against the Indy Fuel at Wings Event Center and picked up an assist. An unfortunate turnover in overtime while trapped in the neutral zone, however, led to Indy’s game-winning goal seconds later.
The next night, Kalamazoo put on the popular Wizards, Wands and Wings promotion and hosted Wheeling with an opportunity to creep closer to the Nailers in the division race.
Dressed in their special Wizards, Wands and Wings jerseys with the players’ nicknames on the back, the K-Wings trailed twice, but found ways to tie the game both times. Trailing 2-1 in the third period, Captain Ben Wilson raced down the right wing wall and flicked a shot past Nailers goaltender Alex D’Orio to even the score.
As the minutes and seconds ticked down, the game seemed destined for overtime. Kalamazoo could not afford to give Wheeling, one of the teams ahead of them in the playoff race, any points. One point was one-too-many.
Joining me on the broadcast that night was K-Wings injured forward Luke Sandler. During a timeout with under a minute to play and the upcoming faceoff coming in the Wheeling zone, the coaching staff sent Blaney, Austin Farley and Justin Kovacs onto the ice.
Sandler said, “This is the line that is going to get it done.”
The K-Wings got possession of the puck with under 30 seconds remaining and worked it down low. Wheeling recovered and tried to clear it down the ice, but Blaney held the zone at the point and chipped it back to the corner for Austin Farley. Blaney cut back through the middle and Farley skipped a pass right onto his stick. Stepping into the right circle, "Bed Bug" Blaney flung a wrist shot into the net with 10 seconds left in the game to give Kalamazoo a 3-2 win in regulation and two huge points.
Redemption for Blaney. He was the hero. And he didn’t need overtime.
#3 - A FITTING FIRST
The date was Jan. 11, 2019. Just days after he was selected to the ECHL All-Star Classic in Toledo, K-Wings forward Justin Taylor suffered a season-ending knee injury in a game against the Brampton Beast at Wings Event Center.
It was a devastating blow. At the time, Taylor led the ECHL with 21 goals. He had 27 points in 35 games and would have to watch from the stands the rest of the season.
Taylor rehabbed all summer and was cleared before Kalamazoo’s 2019-20 training camp started in October. With all the trials and tribulations leading up to the season opener Oct. 12 at Fort Wayne, it’s no surprise Taylor jumped out of the gate, picking up right where he left off.
The veteran forward centered the K-Wings top line flanked by Yannick Veilleux and Matti Iacopelli. Trailing 2-0 late in the opening frame, Kalamazoo broke through during a goal-mouth scramble when the puck was knocked into the Komets’ net.
Taylor and Veilleux were both in front of the net, jamming at the loose puck. Fittingly it was Taylor, exactly nine months and one day after his serious injury, who scored Kalamazoo’s first goal of the 2019-20 season.
#2 – HUNTING GOOSE EGGS
Kalamazoo entered the last weekend in February nine points out of a playoff spot with 18 games remaining and prepared to face the fourth-place Indy Fuel Feb. 28 at Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
It was the biggest game of the season up to that point.
It’s no secret the K-Wings had a tough time keeping the puck out of the net throughout the season, but sometimes too much blame falls on the goaltenders. In some ways, goalies are like quarterbacks. They get all the praise in victories and much of the blame in defeat.
Fair or not, that’s just how it is.
Second-year K-Wings goaltender Jake Hildebrand has never been one to care about personal stats. As long as the team wins, he’s happy. Hildebrand is a competitor. He’s well-liked by his teammates and works hard on and off the ice.
Sure, like most athletes, he appreciates the recognition when he gets it. Players love seeing a big goal they scored or a game-changing save show up on the highlight reels. Hildy was no stranger to making those types of saves.
But the K-Wings goalies didn’t get a lot of recognition during the season. Occasionally they’d face 40-plus shots or win a high-scoring 5-4 game.
Feb. 28 in his old barn—Hildebrand spent the 2016-17 season with the Fuel—Kalamazoo’s goalie stopped all 32 shots he faced and two out of three in a deciding shootout to officially earn the team’s first shutout of the season. The 1-0 result was Hildebrand’s sixth of his career and first since Game 2 of the 2018-19 Central Division Semifinals against Cincinnati.
This one couldn’t have come at a better time. His teammates helped him out the next night in Kansas City, an 8-2 rout against the Mavericks.
#1 - KAT COMEBACK
After playing in all six playoff games in the 2018-19 first round playoff series against Cincinnati, veteran defenseman Eric Kattelus re-signed with the K-Wings with the hopes of starting his ninth season in Kalamazoo on a clean and healthy slate.
A health condition that flared up during the off-season forced the team’s Assistant Captain to start the 2019-20 season on injured reserve. Nobody can relate to what Eric was going through. It had to have been frustrating and a little scary facing the uncertainty of how to control his symptoms to get back on the ice.
The K-Wings coaching staff, players and trainer Scott Allison supported Kattelus throughout the challenge and welcomed him back with open arms when he was finally cleared to make his season debut Nov. 16 against the Utah Grizzlies at Wings Event Center.
He may have missed the first ten games of the year, but the Kat Man made immediate contributions in his debut.
A Grizzlies slashing penalty 1:23 into the game put the K-Wings on an early man-advantage. Guess who was sent out to “quarterback” the power play on the first shift: Kattelus.
Kalamazoo won the face-off and quickly set up. Matti Iacopelli slid the puck to Kattelus at the point, and without hesitation, the skilled defenseman fired a slap pass to the backdoor for Boston Leier to redirect into the net.
A power play goal just 1:36 into the action. A primary assist for Kattelus. Chills.
What made the moment even more special was the reaction of Leier and the rest of the K-Wings skaters. They all swarmed Kattelus. It was his moment. That tells you everything you need to know.
He added another assist before the end of the first period and the K-Wings went on to win 3-2. Four days later in the team’s next game, he notched two more assists.
What’s the saying? “Cats have nine lives?”