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AHL grads set to battle for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2011 Stanley Cup Final is set with the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins preparing to battle for the National Hockey League’s championship, and more than 90 percent of the players, coaches and managers involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

The Western Conference champion Canucks are guided by head coach Alain Vigneault, a former player and head coach in the American Hockey League. Vigneault won a Calder Cup skating for the Maine Mariners in 1984 and later spent the 2005-06 season as bench boss of the Manitoba Moose, guiding the club to the first 100-point showing in franchise history.

Twenty-four of the 26 Vancouver players to skate in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including 11 who came up through the Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Manitoba. Ryan Kesler, one of five former AHL All-Stars on Vancouver’s roster, was a 30-goal scorer for Manitoba in 2004-05 and ranks second on the Canucks with 18 points in 18 playoff games this spring. Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who is 12-6 with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 18 playoff games for Vancouver, cut his teeth with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters during the 1999-2000 campaign. Cory Schneider was the AHL goaltender of the year for Manitoba in 2008-09 and reached the Calder Cup Finals that year along with forward Cody Hodgson.

Christian Ehrhoff, an AHL All-Star in 2005, ranks second among NHL defensemen with 11 points so far this spring. Forward Alexandre Burrows spent two seasons (2004-06) in the AHL before becoming one of Vancouver’s top offensive threats. Burrows, Kevin Bieksa and Alexandre Bolduc all played in Manitoba under coach Vigneault in 2005-06. Dan Hamhuis was an AHL All-Star in 2005 with the Milwaukee Admirals; Raffi Torres appeared in two consecutive Calder Cup Finals (2002, 2003) during his AHL days; and Manny Malhotra (2000, Hartford) and Maxim Lapierre (2007, Hamilton) are former Calder Cup champions.

Canucks associate coach Rick Bowness is a former AHL center who later served five years as a head coach in the league before embarking on his NHL coaching career. Assistant coach Newell Brown spent four seasons (1992-96) coaching the AHL’s Adirondack Red Wings, and general manager Mike Gillis played parts of three seasons in the AHL, ranking fourth in the league scoring race with 113 points in 1982-83.

The Eastern Conference champion Bruins boast 18 AHL graduates among their 21 players to have seen game action in the playoffs, including four former AHL All-Stars and four who have appeared in the Calder Cup Finals. Top point producer David Krejci, whose 10 playoff goals and four game-winners both lead the NHL, was a 31-goal scorer with the AHL’s Providence Bruins as a rookie in 2006-07. Vezina Trophy nominee Tim Thomas played four AHL seasons in Hamilton (1998-99) and Providence (2002-04, 05-06) before becoming one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, and Patrice Bergeron was an AHL All-Star with the P-Bruins in 2005.

Johnny Boychuk, who spent his first five pro seasons (2004-09) as an AHL regular, won the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top defenseman in 2008-09 playing on a Providence team whose roster also featured Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid and Tuukka Rask.

Norris Trophy nominee Zdeno Chara appeared in the 1998 AHL All-Star Game as a rookie defenseman in the New York Islanders’ organization, and current defensive partner Dennis Seidenberg won a Calder Cup title in 2005 with the Philadelphia Phantoms. Rich Peverley reached the 2006 Calder Cup Finals as a rookie with the Milwaukee Admirals, and Andrew Ference, a 2001 AHL All-Star in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, appeared in the Calder Cup Finals with the Penguins that spring.

Boston head coach Claude Julien guided the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs from 2000 until his promotion to the Montreal Canadiens midway through the 2002-03 campaign. Julien shared AHL coach of the year honors that season with Geoff Ward, who took over that Bulldogs upon Julien’s promotion and is now his assistant coach in Boston. Ward is in a league Finals for the first time since 2003, when he led the Bulldogs – a squad which included current Canucks forward Raffi Torres and current Bruins forward Michael Ryder – to with Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals.

Current Boston assistant Doug Jarvis succeeded Ward as head coach in Hamilton and spent two seasons (2003-05) at the helm of the Bulldogs, and assistant Doug Houda was a defenseman on the 1996 Calder Cup champion Rochester Americans and also played in the 2000 Calder Cup Finals. And Boston GM Peter Chiarelli spent seven seasons with the Ottawa Senators, where his responsibilities included overseeing the AHL’s Binghamton Senators.

The 2011 Stanley Cup Final gets underway on Wednesday night at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Celebrating its historic 75th anniversary season in 2010-11, the American Hockey League continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 87 percent of all players competing in the NHL are AHL graduates, and through the years the American Hockey League has been home to more than 100 honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. The AHL’s own championship series, the 2011 Calder Cup Finals, continue on Wednesday with the Binghamton Senators (top affiliate of the Ottawa Senators) hosting the Houston Aeros (top affiliate of the Minnesota Wild). The series is currently tied at one game apiece.