On the Eve of 25: Last Year's WSHL Season

by Manny Brizuela

When the El Paso Rhinos secured their third Thorne Cup championship, they also turned the page toward 25 years of Western States Hockey League excellence.

El Paso, Long Beach, Utah, Ogden, Oklahoma City and Idaho were the league’s best in 2017-2018 and each faced distress at one point in the season. All but El Paso were forced to deal with a permanent blow. Whereas some teams faced troubles early in the season, others faced it at the back end of the season when the sting of a loss carries the weight of a championship. 

Thorne Cup Highlights 

The 2017-2018 Thorne Cup championship rounds were a testament to the level of competition, in the WSHL, that has risen like foam over the years. Overcoming adversity was a key element for El Paso when they lost to Long Beach in the opening round. The Rhinos boasted an immaculate home record and lost only once in regulation all season. But the intensity of the Thorne Cup tainted that record and handed the favorites a rough stretch. It wasn’t easy sailing in game two although the Rhinos found themselves staring at the team they swept in the Midwestern Division Finals.

Oklahoma City ensured back-to-back losses for El Paso and soon enough it was must win for the team who steamrolled into the playoffs. El Paso’s Head Coach, Cory Herman, entrusted back up goalie Kayden Pickles with a tall order in what could have been the final game of the season. Pickles came through with a 24-save winning effort against a hungry Outliers group, and then a 19-save shutout performance in the semi-final game versus the six time champions, Idaho.

On the other side stood the Ogden Mustangs who were skating in their third Thorne Cup on route to their first championship appearance. The Mustangs were playing their best hockey of the year and needed critical wins over the teams that nearly knocked El Paso out of the tournament. After doing so in convincing fashion, it came down to the final minutes of the final game.  El Paso’s Kayden Pickles played to expectation keeping a potent Ogden offense to only two goals. In the waning minutes, Nikita Pintusov’s individual effort sniped home the Thorne Cup while Pickles deflected all that Ogden could dish out.

That was the 24-year culmination of effective player development and growth.

Notable Player Movements from Thorne Cup Teams

Characteristics of the league that mimic play in NCAA can cause for fatigue among rookies, but an overall supplement to players graduating into the college ranks. Last season hit a historical mark as far as player development and advancement. Matus Spodniak (69-77-146) of the Ogden Mustangs became the first player in WSHL history to crack an NCAA Division-I hockey program directly from the league. Spodniak will skate for American International College of the Atlantic Hockey Conference during the 2018-2019 season (feature coming soon).

Griffin Wiencek, who skated for the Blazers last season and played a pivotal role, will suit up for UMass-Dartmouth’s D-III program of the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference. Wiencek tallied 48 goals and 68 assists in a Blazers uniform, and was instrumental through out the postseason registering 10 points (4-6-10). Jared Katz recently skated for the USHL’s Lincoln Stars in a preseason game. Katz owned eight points in 24 games plus four points in the Thorne Cup for the Blazers.    

The Bombers saw signings in Miroslav Rohlik (39-43-82) who will be sporting an Alvesta SK sweater playing in the Swedish Division-II league. Rohlik had four goals and seven assists in post-season play. Anton Ahlin (11-36-47) made the jump to Sweden’s Division-I league for the Surahammars IF. Ahlin played one year with the Bombers but contributed to the post-season effort with 10 points (2-8). Mathew Reyes and Spencer Kozlowski each committed to New Hampshire College. Reyes was acquired from Valencia and manned the blue line for 10 games while Kozlowski defended the net for 12 games with a .949 save percentage.         

Similarly, the Outliers saw a pair of players move onto NCAA D-III and professional hockey. Viktor Burman (1-20-21) joins Ahlin and signed to the Surahammars IF. Gianni Vitali (14-26-40) and Brandon Krumpschmid (23-43-66) enter the D-III Trine University hockey team in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association.   

This is a small list of players—from last season’s playoff teams—who join a greater group of WSHL alumni that developed and found success looking forward. More importantly, it highlights the WSHL’s versatility in developing players for both collegiate and pro hockey.   

Where They Stack Up: Mannon & Kranabetter

 The WSHL had phenomenal point production from many players but it was Daylon Mannon who tops the list with a 150-point season (75-75-150). Mannon’s performance is the new single season record beating Chris Bachman’s 149-points from 2006-2007 under the Capital Thunder. In 51 games played, Mannon places 62nd overall among WSHL all-time scorers just after Lance Herning of Idaho.   

El Paso’s Jakob Kranabetter earned his distinction as the all-time leading scorer (113-238-351) after complete elation in winning his first ever Thorne Cup. Kranabetter started his WSHL career with the Valencia Flyers, in 2013, playing 184 regular season games and tallying 97 goals with 220 assists before being dealt to the Rhinos last year. He surpassed No. 2 Thomas Nemeth who skated for Wichita, Long Beach and Oklahoma City between 2012 and 2016. Of note the 2017-2018 WSHL season featured three of the top four single season point producers in league history as Spodniak and Cody Key’s (53-86-139) performance etches them in the top four.

That season is in the past. The memories of fisticuffs, last minute game winners, glove save robberies and championship celebrations are forever engrained in the memories of all who played in the 24th season. A growing league looks to caress the opportunity of being half way to fifty seasons.