The week leading up to the holidays is a relatively slow time for hockey fans. Junior teams are winding down their first-half schedules before players head home for a couple of weeks and college teams have hit the semester break. But for the Western States Hockey League, that week before Christmas is quite possibly their biggest week of the year. That week, the WSHL welcomes all of their teams plus hundreds of people to Las Vegas for the annual Western States Shootout, their showcase event.
The WSHL sure knows how to host a showcase. The league’s most recent edition of the Western States Shootout brought some changes to the overall structure and a venue change, but it didn’t stop college coaches, professional scouts, and fans from spending the week in Las Vegas watching the league’s talent on display.
Held from December 17th to the 20th, each of the WSHL’s 21 teams plus a representative all-star team from the CJPHL came to Las Vegas for three and a half days of highly-competitive hockey. Joining them were fans from almost every WSHL market and over 100 college coaches from the NCAA Division I, II, and III and ACHA Division I levels.
The Western States Shootout is arguably the premier event of the season for the WSHL next to the Thorne Cup Playoffs. It’s the preeminent source for college exposure with the event uniquely designed to maximize the number of eyes placed on their players.
The WSHL’s geographic footprint has inherent challenges when it comes to college exposure. The teams are located in unconventional hockey markets in the western half of the United States and Canada. Their fans are passionate and the communities they’re in support the teams immensely. But when it comes to exposure, it’s much easier for a coach to drive an hour or two away to a game when teams are based in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, it’s just the nature of the college hockey landscape.
Given that reality, the Western States Shootout is vital to achieving the goal of the WSHL. They’re in the business of developing junior hockey players to the point where they can use their talents to continue playing at the collegiate level.
This year’s Western States Shootout was played exclusively at the Las Vegas Ice Center after two years of the event being split between City National Arena and SoBe Ice Arena. Not having two venues pushed the event’s length a little longer, adding half a day of games to the docket. But aside from a slightly longer showcase, having one venue was perfect. All the college coaches and scouts were in one place soaking up the competition. They lined the glass and sat in the stands to watch potential recruits play. Connections were made throughout the week as coaches found players post- game to talk about future opportunities before watching other games going on or heading back to the hotel to take advantage
From my point of view, the overall competition on display this year was better than it was last year. The players were faster, more skilled, and the competitiveness of the schedule led to great and entertaining hockey games.
The schedule is created in the two weeks leading up to the Western States Shootout and pits teams against each other based on their division standing. It helps to balance out the competitiveness of each game and also allows teams to play non-divisional competition. And if teams have played inter-divisional games against each other prior to the Western States Shootout, they don’t play at the showcase.
College coaches from NCAA Divisions I, II, and III were in attendance, as were some from ACHA Division I schools. There were over 100 in total in attendance, a number that reflected fewer invitations sent out by the WSHL as they became more selective in who to offer their travel package to.
The most recognizable coach in attendance this year, as he is most years, is long-time Air Force Academy Head Coach Frank Serratore. Serratore has been a good friend of WSHL Commissioner Ron White and has championed the WSHL’s talent for some time. He has a couple WSHL alums on his current roster and is a staple at the Western States Shootout. This year, Coach Serratore hosted two college seminars at The Strat, the showcase’s host hotel, talking to athletes and their parents about what opportunities are out there when it comes to higher education and post-junior hockey. The sessions occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and added element to a week of exposure and high-quality games.
Speaking of the games, we certainly had some good ones each of the four days. There were a few games each day that stood out from the others, but all the games brought something that kept even the casual fan interested.
The opening day brought a mix of high-scoring and low-scoring games, but almost all of them had compelling drama for the enjoyment of the fans in attendance. There were six games played Tuesday with the on-paper matchup of the day featuring the Edson Aeros and Utah Outliers. Two of the top-5 teams in the WSHL based on points accumulated, the Aeros and Outliers did not disappoint.
The Aeros pushed the pace early and often, looking to exert their high-scoring prowess, as the highest-scoring team in the Provincial Division, on the Outliers. Edson took advantage of that pace to find the back of the net early in the first half, but Utah settled in and stuck with them the rest of the way. Despite nearly 40 shots on goal between the two teams, this game ended with just the lone goal scored as Edson won their 21st game in a row by beating Utah, 1-0.
That was the game of the day in terms of magnitude and performance, but there was another one-goal game that day, a 3-2, come-from-behind win for the Wichita Jr. Thunder. The Thunder, trailing 1-0 at halftime, scored three straight goals, capitalizing on penalties by Cold Lake Hornets, to pull out a 3-2 win.
A few of the other games were on the complete opposite spectrum of those two, with a high number of goals scored and large margins of victory.
The Dallas Snipers opened up the showcase with a high-flying, 7-2 win. They put 51 shots on net and allowed only 14 en route to the victory. The Fresno Monsters also netted seven goals in their 7-3 win over the Bellingham Blazers, a game that featured a hat trick by Petr Philippov. That contest saw Fresno pull away with four goals in the second half after Bellingham fought to tie it at 3-3. Northern Colorado pulled out a 4-1 win and lastly, the Canadian All-Star Team, the CPJHL, showed improvement with a win in their first game.
With hockey all day, fans were coming and going every hour. But for the coaches and the fans that stayed at the Las Vegas Ice Center for the duration of the day, they were treated to a number of exciting hockey games. The first game of the day went to overtime, then consecutive games in the middle of the afternoon ended up in shootouts. For me, as a fan just soaking it all up, the games on Wednesday were the highlight of the trip.
I had circled two games on the schedule that I wanted to see Wednesday, the Thorne Cup Semifinals rematch between the Edson Aeros and Ogden Mustangs and an early afternoon battle between the El Paso Rhinos and Utah Outliers, but I had non-stop action going well into the evening.
Ogden jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half, which sparked memories of the 8-2 victory they posted in that Thorne Cup Semifinal. But Edson showed the progress they’ve made in year two and came back strong. They cut the score in half, but Ogden netted an insurance goal to snap Edson’s WSHL record 21-game win streak.
Then, a couple hours later, fans were treated to a hard-hitting, fast-paced game between El Paso and Utah. A back-and- forth first half saw the Rhinos take a late 2-1 lead. Then, in the second half, they pulled away with two goals in the second half and stout defense.
As the El Paso-Utah game was wrapping up, the Dallas Snipers and Ontario Avalanche game was well underway. Another low-scoring, but competitive affair saw the showcase’s first shootout. I had been watching the start of the Northern Colorado Eagles and Fresno Monsters game before rumblings of the shootout reached the other rink. I was able to catch the final two attempts and saw Dallas net the game-winner sending their contingent in the stands into celebration.
I left the Eagles-Monsters game with Fresno leading 2-0, but upon return that lead had stretched to 3-0 at halftime. It was clearly a game of two halves, though, as the second half belonged to Northern Colorado, with the Eagles tying the game and forcing overtime. That game became the second-consecutive shootout game, with Northern Colorado scoring twice compared to Fresno’s once.
The most exciting game of the week came on Day 3, but it was one no one anticipated when the schedule was released. Early in the morning on Thursday, the Cold Lake Hornets and Southern Oregon Spartans faced off. The two are towards the bottom of the league in conference points, but they put on a show.
Cold Lake led 3-1 midway through the first half, then in a 10-minute span, the game completely flipped and Southern Oregon scoring two of the next three goals to make it 4-3. The Spartans continued their hot stretch and scored three straight goals to take a 6-4 lead, then led 7-6 in the final minutes. Cold Lake forced overtime, but after a scoreless overtime, Southern Oregon won in a shootout.
There were two afternoon/early evening games I wanted to see on Thursday, El Paso vs. Edson and Seattle vs. Pueblo.
Last year’s matchup between El Paso and Edson delivered one of the best games of the week. The Aeros had a four-goal lead and were a half away from pulling off one of the more surprising results of the week, an expansion team beating the defending champions, but El Paso came racing back and won that one. This year, that didn’t happen. El Paso came in focused, limited Edson’s chances, and used four-straight goals to win 7-2.
I was quite interested in seeing Pueblo play. One of the league’s expansion teams this season, the Bulls have been around a top-10 team in terms of points all season long. They didn’t look like an expansion team on the ice during their game against Seattle.
The Bulls were fast, sharp, and in attack mode from the opening face-off. If it wasn’t for a standout performance by Seattle’s goaltender, the Bulls would have easily had four or five goals in the first half. Instead, it was a 2-1 game and the talk of the rink at halftime. Coaches and scouts whispered amongst each other about the performance they were seeing, and Coach Serratore remarked to Commissioner White that Pueblo didn’t look like a first-year program at all. There wasn’t any scoring in the second half, just a number of saves, as Pueblo held on for their second win of the week.
It was a half day of games to wrap up the showcase, but it had the most sought after matchup of the week, a rematch of the 2019 Thorne Cup Championship Game. The game was El Paso vs Ogden. The two teams have met in the Thorne Cup Championship in consecutive years, with the El Paso Rhinos winning back- to-back titles. The Rhinos maintained their recent dominance over Ogden with a 3-1 win at the Western States Shootout. It was a close contest, the two teams displaying the talent and execution that has led them deep into the playoffs each of the last two years, but El Paso took the lead early in the first half and led the rest of the way.
The WSHL did fans a favor with the schedule and the teams delivered with purely entertaining games. You had a Thorne Cup Championship rematch on Day 4, Edson vs. Ogden on Day 4, and a number of other possible playoff- implicating games throughout the week. Even games that people wouldn’t think were going to be entertaining, were entertaining. That’s how good this year’s event was.
The move to the Las Vegas Ice Center encouraged more college coach and scout interaction. Last year, at City National Arena, coaches were often in the back tunnels and on the second floor to watch games. This year, they lined the glass around the two rinks and were making connections with players in the concession area. They were far more visible and the event is better for it.
The WSHL continues to be a league on the rise. The skill level on the ice was far higher across the board and with the investment of the teams in coaching and development, the trend should continue. The WSHL is working towards getting more players placed on college teams and that will help.
The Midwest-Mountain Division may be the best division in the WSHL. There were three teams to win three games in regulation and four teams to go undefeated on the week, all of which came from the Midwest-Mountain Division. The El Paso Rhinos, Pueblo Bulls, and Wichita Jr. Thunder all won three games in regulation while the fourth team, who had two regulation wins and one overtime win, was the Dallas Snipers. El Paso will be looking to complete the three-peat this year, but they’ll have stiff competition from their own division to get to the Thorne Cup Semifinals.
Keep an eye on the WSHL for the second half of the 2019-20 season and make sure to mark your calendars for next year’s Western States Shootout!