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ECHL memories front and center for Michaels

Wednesday, December 14th
ECHL memories front and center for Michaels

For the better part of a decade, Jack Michales has had a bird’s eye view for the offensive explots of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers, first as the team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster, and for the last three seasons as the club’s television voice on Sportsnet.

But, before that, he had a distinguished seven-year run in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces, where he served as the television broadcaster for five All-Star Classics, in addition to being named ECHL Broadcaster of the Year in 2003-04.

“I broke into hockey in the old West Coast Hockey League, and it was just a league that, try as it might, just couldn’t expand and was running out of steam,” Michaels said. “So, when we got into the ECHL in 2003, all of a sudden, there was more of an upward mobility, not only for the players, but coaches and staff too, and it was very exciting to be a part of.”

Michaels’ time in Alaska saw a resurgence for the Aces on the ice. In the team’s last season in the WCHL, they won only 12 games, but the first season in the ECHL saw the team not only qualify for the Kelly Cup Playoffs, but sweep Brabham Cup champion San Diego 3 games to 0 in the Pacific Division Semifinals.

“We brought in Davis Payne as our head coach, and he had a lot of success in the ECHL with Pee Dee prior to joining us, and he was an aggressive recruiter,” Michaels recalled. “He was able to use his experience in the league to find ways to get guys to come to Alaska, which at that time, was not easy to do. The exotic nature of Alaska, and the opportunity to play for a winner, was a big factor in that.”

After reaching the second round of the playoffs in that first ECHL season, the Aces reached the Conference Finals in 2005, buoyed by Anchorage native Scott Gomez suiting up for the team, and winning the ECHL Most Valuable Player Award, during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

“Scott Gomez playing for the team gave Alaska some street cred in terms of, hey, this is an operation that not only is attracting some quality minor league players, but here’s a guy who was Rookie of the Year in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup and he wanted to play in the ECHL rather than go to Europe,” Michaels said. “So, he’s there, then you see Chris Minard, Chris Beckford-Tseu and Charles Linglet get NHL opportunities, all of a sudden you see guys with real potential and it just opened the doors for players who wanted to play there and follow in their footsteps.”

The Aces continued their upward climb, capturing a Kelly Cup championship in 2006, defeating Gwinnett in five games in the Kelly Cup Finals. Thee years later, Alaska returned to the Finals series, where the Aces met South Carolina in one of the most memorable postseason series in ECHL history.

“With the turnaround we had engineered in Alaska over the previous six years, the Aces really became a cornerstone team in the ECHL, and South Carolina had enjoyed a lot of success and already had two championships in its past, so it really was two top-notch clubs meeting in that series,” Michaels said.

“That 2009 series certainly was the peak for Alaska, and you have another powerhouse team in the league with South Carolina, it really brought a lot of attention to that series. You have these two teams, over 4,500 miles apart, meeting to determine the champion, and it was great hockey over those seven games, it brought a lot eyeballs and attention to the ECHL.”

Even though Michaels and the Aces fell short of the championship that season, looking back and realizing the talent that was on the ice and behind the bench in that series is something that he will always remember.

“The talent on the ice in that series was amazing,” he recalled. “James Reimer playing goal for South Carolina and winning Game 7 in Alaska as a rookie fresh out of the Western Hockey League, and now he’s still playing strong in the NHL with San Jose. Spencer Carbery played for them, and now he’s an assistant coach in the NHL, Jared Bednar was their head coach, and that paved the way for his success and becoming the only coach to win a championship in the ECHL, AHL and NHL and the assistant coach was Cail MacLean, and now he’s on an NHL bench in Calgary.

“On our side, Keith McCambridge was the head coach, and he would go on to the AHL as an assistant coach the next year, and he’s had a great run in that league as a head and assistant coach,” Michaels continued. “In retrospect, that series was a bit of a crowning moment for the league and, and a real signal that, you know, this league has talent that is going to make it to the NHL and succeed.”

After one more season in Alaska, Michaels achieved his lifelong dream when he was hired by the Oilers prior to the 2010-11 season.

“I had everything in the ECHL that you have possibly hoped to have. I was in a good city, in a good organization, working in a good league,” he said. “I don’t think of the ECHL as a league below in the American Hockey League, other than in the hockey structure. My situation was much better, quite frankly, than most in the AHL, so that league didn’t appeal too much to me.

“I never really thought of the move from the ECHL to the NHL as this quantum leap because I wasn’t coming from some Mickey Mouse operation. It is a professional league that deserves the same amount of respect as any league in the world,” he said.

What the ECHL provided to Michaels was not only a proving ground for his broadcasts, allowing him to reach the NHL, but also lifelong friendships that he is able to continue to enjoy today.

“Glen Gulutzan was the head coach in Las Vegas when I was in Alaska, and now he’s an assistant coach in Edmonton, so I get to talk to him every day. We mentioned Davis Payne earlier, and now he’s in Ottawa. Even the referees and linesmen who you see on a regular basis too. I have relationships with these guys that now go back 20 years, and it’s always great to catch up and reminisce. You’re never too far from having an ECHL connection with someone on the other team.”

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