All-Star notebook: Richard soaking in experience

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

📝 by Patrick Williams

LAVAL, Que. … Laval Rocket forward Anthony Richard’s evening stayed busy even long after he had left the ice following the 2023 Rona AHL All-Star Skills Competition on Sunday night.

With 40 or 50 members of his extended family inside of Place Bell, Richard had registered a time of 13.322 seconds in the CCM Fastest Skater to open his night.

Next he competed alongside Hartford defenseman Zac Jones and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Alex Nylander in the Rona Pass and Score event as they faced Lukas Dostal of San Diego, converting on two of three chances. Richard wrapped up his night in the Upper Deck Breakaway Relay.

But afterwards the native of Trois-Rivières, just a 90-minute drive from Laval, took wave after wave of media questions in both English and French inside the dressing room he calls home 36 nights a season with the Rocket. The room features a gigantic wall photo of the piercing eyes of Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard staring back; the Rocket took their club moniker from the Quebec-born Richard, and Habs imagery decorates Place Bell.

“I knew that playing in Laval was special,” said Richard, who faced the Rocket last season with the Syracuse Crunch before signing with Montreal in the offseason. “But when I stepped in the room the first time, I realized how special it is. There is a great culture. It’s like a big family.

“From the outside you knew it was a first-class organization, but being part of it, I think it makes it even more special to be from Quebec. It’s one of the best places to play in the AHL.”

Richard has seen life at Place Bell as both a visitor and with the home club in front of the passionate Rocket crowd. Last season he came to Syracuse in a midseason trade and picked apart Laval with four goals in five games in the teams’ North Division semifinal match-up.

“I’m really happy that for my first AHL All-Star that I had the [Laval] logo,” said Richard, whose 22 goals tie him with Tucson’s Michael Carcone for third in the AHL.

He did enjoy catching up with former Crunch teammates Gabriel Dumont, Alex Barré-Boulet and Darren Raddysh on the Place Bell ice. Barré-Boulet and Dumont, both Quebec natives, received strong responses from Rocket fans. Richard, however, expects a much different response Friday night when the Crunch are back in Laval to battle the Rocket once again.

“[Dumont is] always a pain [to play against],” joked Richard, looking over toward Dumont’s locker stall to catch his eye. “I was on his side last year. He always gives it to the crowd, too”

Dumont had his son, Mateo, with him on the ice, and the youngster beat Dostal through the pads for a goal in the breakaway relay.

“I hope there are scouts here,” Richard said. “[Mateo is] going to have a good ranking for his first [junior] draft in a couple of years.”

🏒 Toronto Marlies goaltender Joseph Woll can relate to what it is like to face a Laval crowd.

In his fourth AHL campaign, Woll’s Marlies are regular visitors to Laval, where the ancient Habs-Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry fully permeates down to their AHL affiliates.

Woll captured CCM Top Goaltender honors Sunday night, taking care of 15 of 18 shots in three different events to help the Eastern Conference to a 16-10 victory. For one night, at least, he was on the home crowd’s side.

And while Woll did stop 56 of 58 shots from the Rocket in a Jan. 8 battle in Toronto, he has yet to face Laval at Place Bell this season (he did play three times at Place Bell earlier in his career). The Marlies next visit Laval in the final week of the regular season, an April 12 appointment.

Players around the AHL have taken notice of the spectacle. Last spring the Rocket packed Place Bell nightly for their run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Between the light shows, the expansive 10,000 seats, concerts, and animated patrons, it all makes an impression on visiting opponents.

Woll was not dressed when the Marlies last visited Laval on Jan. 21, so he had an opportunity to take in the building’s full flavor. That afternoon the Rocket put 9,925 fans into Place Bell to see a back-and-forth 4-3 shootout victory for the Marlies.

“It was one of the coolest environments I’ve ever seen,” Woll said of that afternoon. “I was getting chills.”

🏒 Hershey Bears forward Ethen Frank has put on a show all season, and that carried right into Sunday night.

And having turned 25 Sunday, he made it a birthday to remember. The rookie’s time of 12.915 seconds in the CCM Fastest Skater competition set a new AHL record, and he also became the first player ever to crack the 13-second barrier.

“I was a little nervous at the start,” said Frank, whose 21 goals tie him with Iowa’s Sammy Walker for the AHL rookie lead. “I had to change my steel before I went out and I didn’t want to fall over anything.

This season Frank is playing on an AHL contract with the Bears that he signed last April following his NCAA career at Western Michigan University, where he stacked up 26 goals in 38 games to lead the nation in 2021-22. After going to rookie camp and training camp with the parent Washington Capitals last fall, he has 37 points in 38 games for Hershey and ranks second to Walker in the AHL rookie scoring race.

Frank faced skeptics who felt that his college game would not transfer to the pro level.

Well, it has, and the hockey world has taken notice.

But he realizes there is more work to do, and that is what this time in the AHL is for as a first-year player. To that end he has worked closely with Bears head coach Todd Nelson and the Hershey coaching staff to iron out those details. He also has soaked up information from veteran forwards Mike Sgarbossa and fellow AHL All-Star Mike Vecchione.

“Wall battles and stick-on-puck details that nobody really thinks about but are extremely important to the game,” Frank said of his focus areas.

“That can be the difference in a game or the difference in your career, to be honest. It’s not easy to fix stuff when you’ve been doing it for so long.”

🏒 Standing next to his locker stall taping a stick Sunday, Coachella Valley Firebirds captain Max McCormick made time to thank a teammate.

McCormick replaced injured teammate Andrew Poturalski, the AHL’s two-time reigning scoring champion. He joins rookie defenseman Ryker Evans representing the Firebirds in Laval.

“It’s unfortunate that he was unable to be here,” McCormick said of Poturalski. “A very deserving guy.”

But so is McCormick, who has 20 goals and 25 assists in 40 games at the All-Star break. He has already hit an AHL career high with his 45 points.

“I’m here because of my teammates,” McCormick said, noting that several Firebirds could have been named to the All-Star squad.

Right now the Firebirds, first-year affiliate of the Seattle Kraken, are locked in a battle with the Calgary Wranglers for the lead in the Pacific Division. Coachella Valley’s .780 points percentage is the best in the AHL.

The Firebirds are also filling Acrisure Arena, their new home that debuted Dec. 18. Since splitting their first two home dates, they have gone on a 10-0-0-1 tear. That is how you make a first impression.

“We have a great following,” McCormick said. “A really good fan base, a lot of energy in the arena every night. So we just feed off them. It’s a ton of fun playing for them.”