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AHL graduates to battle for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2010 Stanley Cup Finals are set with the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers preparing to battle for the National Hockey League’s championship, and more than 85 percent of the players, coaches and managers involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

The series comes five years after the same two cities collided in the AHL’s 2005 Calder Cup Finals, a series won by the Philadelphia Phantoms over the Chicago Wolves in four straight. Several participants in that series will meet again, this time with the Stanley Cup on the line.

The Western Conference champion Blackhawks are led by head coach Joel Quenneville, a former player, assistant coach and head coach in the American Hockey League. Assistant coach Mike Haviland guided the Blackhawks’ prospects with the Norfolk Admirals and Rockford IceHogs for three seasons and was the AHL’s coach of the year in 2006-07. Assistant John Torchetti is a former AHL head coach as well, and assistant general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was the GM of two Calder Cup champions with the Chicago Wolves (2002, 2008).

Twenty of the 23 Chicago players to skate in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including 12 who played in the Blackhawks’ system in Norfolk and Rockford. Patrick Sharp, one of five former AHL All-Stars on Chicago’s roster, spent three seasons with Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate (2002-05), and tallied 21 points in 21 postseason games as the Phantoms won the Calder Cup in 2005. Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi, who is 12-4 with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in 16 playoff games for Chicago, spent the 2008-09 season in the AHL with Rockford, posting an 18-14-3 mark in 38 appearances.

Dustin Byfuglien, an AHL All-Star in 2007, leads the Blackhawks with eight goals this postseason and is tied for first in the NHL with four game-winners. Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith played two AHL seasons in Norfolk (2003-05) before becoming one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and Brian Campbell played in two Calder Cup Finals (1999, 2000) with the Rochester Americans.

The Eastern Conference champion Flyers feature 22 AHL graduates among their 26 players to have taken the ice this postseason, including five former AHL All-Stars. Michael Leighton, an AHL All-Rookie selection and All-Star while playing four seasons in the Blackhawks organization with Norfolk, was the AHL’s goaltender of the year for the Albany River Rats in 2007-08 and set a league record with a 1.18 GAA during the 2008 Calder Cup Playoffs, which included a 98-save effort in a five-overtime game against the Philadelphia Phantoms on Apr. 24, 2008. Daniel Briere was the AHL’s rookie of the year with the Springfield Falcons in 1997-98, and Jared Ross, the second-leading scorer on the Flyers’ Adirondack affiliate in 2009-10, was MVP of the 2009 AHL All-Star Game after setting an event record with seven points.

Flyers forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards joined the Phantoms out of juniors for the 2005 playoffs and were instrumental in leading Philadelphia to the Calder Cup championship. Carter was the leading playoff scorer in the league that spring with 23 points in 21 games, while Richards added 15 points in 14 contests. Brian Boucher won a Calder Cup with the Phantoms in 1998, Blair Betts was an AHL champion with the Saint John Flames in 2001, and Braydon Coburn (Chicago, 2005) and Ryan Parent (Milwaukee, 2006) are former Calder Cup finalists as well.

Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, who is already one of six coaches ever to win both a Stanley Cup and a Calder Cup, was the AHL’s coach of the year in 1998-99 when he led the Providence Bruins to the championship. Assistant coaches Joe Mullen, Kevin McCarthy and Craig Berube are all former AHL head coaches as well, and Berube was an assistant with the 2005 Calder Cup champion Phantoms. Flyers assistant GM John Paddock is one of the winningest coaches in AHL history, a five-time Calder Cup winner as a player and coach, and a 2010 inductee into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame.

The 2010 Stanley Cup Finals get underway on Saturday night at the United Center in Chicago.

In operation since 1936, the AHL continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 85 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and the 2009-10 season marks the ninth consecutive year in which more than 6 million fans have attended AHL games across North America. The AHL’s own championship series, the Calder Cup Finals, will get underway June 3 with the Hershey Bears (top affiliate of the Washington Capitals) taking on the Texas Stars (top affiliate of the Dallas Stars).