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ECHL season opens Thursday

Monday, October 18th
ECHL season opens Thursday

The 34th season of the ECHL begins with Opening Night on Thursday when the Newfoundland Growlers visit one of the two new ECHL teams for 2021-22, the Trois-Rivières Lions. Opening Weekend continues with six games on Friday and 13 games on Saturday before concluding with two games on Sunday.

The ECHL’s other new Member, the Iowa Heartlanders, begin their tenure in the league on Friday when they host Kansas City. Other openers on Friday’s schedule include Idaho hosting Utah, Maine taking on Worcester, Norfolk entertaining Reading and Rapid City meeting Tulsa.

Twelve teams open their home schedules on Saturday as Adirondack entertains Newfoundland, Allen welcomes Wichita, Florida hosts Jacksonville, Fort Wayne takes on Wheeling, Indy entertains Cincinnati, Kansas City welcomes Iowa, Kalamazoo meets Toledo, Orlando hosts Atlanta, Reading meets Norfolk, South Carolina takes on Greenville, Utah entertains Idaho and Worcester welcomes Maine.

In addition to Iowa and Trois-Rivières, the ECHL welcomes back 11 teams who did not play during the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Began in 1988-89 with five teams in four states, the ECHL has grown into a coast-to-coast league that has 27 teams in 20 states and two Canadian province playing 972 games from Oct. 21, 2021 to April 17, 2022. The ECHL is the third-longest tenured professional hockey league behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.

The ECHL has affiliations with 27 teams in the National Hockey League in 2021-22, marking the 25th consecutive season that the league had affiliations with at least 20 teams in the NHL. All 27 ECHL teams are affiliated for the 2021-22 season, the first time that has happened in five seasons.

New faces behind the benches

Eight of the 27 ECHL teams will have a new coach in charge as the 2021-22 season gets underway.

After spending two seasons as Cincinnati’s assistant coach, Jason Payne assumes the head-coaching role following Matt Thomas’ hiring as an assistant coach for Providence in the American Hockey League.

Gerry Fleming returns to the ECHL as the first head coach for Iowa. Fleming, who coached Tallahassee and Florida from 2000-08, has spent the last 13 years as an assistant and head coach in the American Hockey League and an assistant coach in the DEL.

Nick Luukko gets his first head-coaching assignment in Jacksonville, replacing the ECHL’s all-time leader in coaching wins Jason Christie, who was hired as an assistant coach with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Luukko was an assistant coach with Reading in 2019-20 after concluding his four-year professional playing career.

In Maine, Ben Guite moves to the pro ranks after spending the previous eight seasons as assistant and associate coach at the University of Maine. Guite replaces Riley Armstrong, who was hired as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The new head coach in Newfoundland is Eric Wellwood, taking over for John Snowden who was hired as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Wellwood was head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds from 2018-20.

Longtime ECHL player and assistant coach Scott Burt takes over as head coach in Rapid City. Burt, who was the first person in ECHL history to win three Kelly Cup titles as a player (Idaho in 2004 and 2007 and Alaska in 2011), has been an assistant coach with both the Aces and Steelheads, while also serving in an assistant’s role with the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs.

The first head coach in Trois-Rivières history is Éric Bélanger. He played over 800 career NHL games with Los Angeles, Carolina, Atlanta, Minnesota, Washington, Phoenix and Edmonton and has been coaching junior hockey in Quebec since 2016.

After spending three-plus seasons as Utah’s assistant coach, Ryan Kinasewich slides over into the head-coaching role after Tim Branham was hired as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles.

Approaching milestones

Atlanta’s Michael Pelech enters the season third in ECHL history with 396 assists, fourth with 767 games played and 13th with 575 points. He needs 23 games to move into second place in ECHL history and with 25 points, he would become just the eighth player in league history to reach the 600-point plateau.

Chad Costello of Allen returns to the ECHL for the first time since 2016-17 after playing in Europe the previous four seasons. He needs 11 points to become the 11th player in ECHL history to reach the 500-point plateau. Costello enters the season 20th all-time in league history with 343 assists.

Atlanta’s Derek Nesbitt is also on the cusp of joining the 500-point plateau, as he enters the season 13 points shy of reaching the mark.

Justin Taylor of Kalamazoo begins the season 10th all-time with 652 games played. With 48 games, he would become just the sixth player in ECHL history to skate in at least 700 games.

Reading’s Pat Nagle enters the season fifth all-time with 191 career wins. He is nine wins shy of passing Joel Martin, who ranks fourth all-time with 199 wins, and becoming just the fourth goaltender in league history to win at least 200 games. Nagle ranks sixth all-time in appearances by a goaltender (328) and is seventh in shutouts (16).

Several ECHL coaches are also on the verge of milestones in the 2021-22 season.

Allen’s Steve Martinson is 17 wins shy of becoming just the third coach in ECHL history to reach the 500-win plateau. Martinson also ranks second in ECHL history with 99 career postseason games coached and is third with 53 postseason wins, just two behind the all-time leader, Matt Thomas.

Kalamazoo’s Nick Bootland is 19 games shy of becoming just the fifth coach in ECHL history to reach the 800-games coached mark. He is tied for seventh in league history with 401 career wins.

Florida’s Brad Ralph and Tulsa’s Rob Murray look to join the ECHL 400-win club this season. Ralph enters the season ninth in league history with 366 wins while Murray ranks 10th with 363 victories.

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