Monday, 04.30.18 / 11:12 am CT
The 2017-18 season began with a great deal of promise for the Corpus Christi IceRays. They were coming off their best season and deepest playoff run in junior franchise history, with many of the pieces responsible for getting them there returning for another year. While every team goes through its share of challenges, the IceRays suffered unique, horrific hardships before the season even started.
On August 25th, 2017, three weeks before the season started, a Category Four hurricane terrorized the Coastal Bend. Hurricane Harvey would tie Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone in history, causing 107 confirmed deaths and $125 billion dollars in damages. This tragedy touched the IceRays deeply, as many of them had played in Corpus Christi for years and called the city their second home. The IceRays assisted in community relief efforts and held a Hurricane Harvey Virtual Sellout on their home opener to support affected victims.
At the onset of the 2017-18 season, the IceRays had already lost two players to injury, both of whom were expected to play integral roles. Coltan Wilkie, a rookie defenseman who’d already made his Division I commitment to Colorado College, sustained a severe upper body injury during training camp and would be unable to suit up in what would’ve been his first season of junior hockey. During the preseason, David Thomson, a returning veteran in his last year who’d played every game for the IceRays in the 2016-17 season and was slated to be the team’s number one center, suffered a season-ending MCL sprain and returned to his home in Vaughan, Ontario to recover.
Starting the campaign without Wilkie and Thomson immediately handcuffed the IceRays, but they had no choice but to press on. It took them time to adjust to the losses and for the team to gel, as they entered the month of October with a disappointing 1-5-2 record.
Head Coach Brad Flynn knew something had to be done to strengthen the team’s scoring potential as they embarked on their ten-game road stretch. Fortunately, a number of highly talented players were just filtering down from the USHL and elsewhere, giving Flynn the green light to shore up the roster. Aleksi Peltonen, Rylee St. Onge, Pavel Koreshkov, AJ DiCesare, and Jacob Acton were all welcomed shortly after the showcase. Bringing them on board solidified the IceRays’ depth and made them a tougher team to play against.
Spending so much time away from home so early, the Rays began to find their rhythm and bond as a team during October, and they managed to come out of their ten-game road stretch with a respectable 5-5-0 record.
After what felt like an eternity on the road, the Rays finally returned to the American Bank Center to host their tenth annual Stars & Stripes Weekend on November 10th and 11th. With help from a hat trick by Larry Jungwirth, they cruised to a series sweep over the Topeka RoadRunners on Veteran’s Day and would go on to wrap up a five-game winning streak the following weekend.
On November 19th, defenseman Matt Acciaioli became the third consecutive IceRay to earn South Division First Star of the Week recognition after he had pitched a goal and five assists in a home series against the Lone Star Brahmas. Each of the previous two nominations went to Jungwirth, who broke a franchise record by going on a seven-game goal scoring streak in which he struck a dozen times, propelling him to an NAHL Forward of the Month award for November.
December started out with a bang for the IceRays, who had their first NCAA commitment of the season. Goaltender Chad Veltri, who’d been playing in his first full year of junior hockey, committed to Niagara University (D1, Atlantic Hockey Association) on December 6th. Three days later, with help from a St. Onge hat trick, Veltri backstopped the Rays to a road sweep over the defending champion Lone Star Brahmas. The following weekend they steamrolled the Odessa Jackalopes by a 7-3 final before heading home for their holiday break, which approximately marked the halfway point of the season.
Shortly after their return, however, the IceRays dealt with another blow to their roster. Peltonen, who had filled the Thomson void as the team’s top center, was recalled to the Omaha Lancers of the USHL. Peltonen had been a top playmaker, a shootout specialist, and an overtime hero against Shreveport just a week prior, and letting him go was a bitter pill to swallow.
However, the Rays dealt with Peltonen’s absence impressively, shoring up their defensive game in a strong way to help take some of the burden off the shoulders of the goal-scorers. In the following month, goaltenders Veltri and Jacob Acton each pitched shutout performances for the first time of the season. Acton shut out the first-place Shreveport Mudbugs on January 20th, and Veltri became the first goaltender in junior franchise history to earn a shutout in back-to-back games, blanking both Lone Star and Topeka on home ice.
Though the defensive game improved drastically, the IceRays knew they could not continue to win games with strong defense and goaltending indefinitely. Somebody had to be brought in to fill the voids left by Thomson and Peltonen. With the trade deadline approaching, Flynn and first-year Assistant Coach Ryan Anderson got together in their office and made some phone calls.
While the IceRays spent a Tuesday evening in February hosting a public skate to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Bend, Flynn and Anderson worked tirelessly through the night, trying to finalize deals that would benefit the team’s playoff push. In the meantime, players bided their time as they skated around during the public skate fearing the worst, hoping they would not be called into the coaches’ office to be told they were traded.
Only one player from the roster was moved. CJ Regula, who’d been playing his second season in the NAHL South and first with the IceRays, was sent to the Minnesota Wilderness in exchange for a tender and a second round draft pick. Two players were added. Each of them made an immediate, tangible impact.
Three-year NAHL veteran Grayson Gavin, who’d been a returning player with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, was acquired in exchange for a tender and a conditional draft pick. Another center, Adam Kadlec, was brought aboard from the Sioux City Musketeers. Kadlec brought a wealth of junior hockey experience to the table, having played in two different Canadian major junior leagues and the USHL before joining the IceRays at just 18 years of age. Gavin and Kadlec made the IceRays a more seasoned, talented, balanced team and substantially improved the special teams department.
February had become a month of charitable giving for the IceRays. While they improved their team at the trade deadline, they also improved the lives of many throughout the community. The public skate raised $750 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Bend, they raised $3,500 for the Purple Door (formerly known as the Women’s Shelter of South Texas) on Hockey & Heels Night on February 17th, and they raised $11,105 for the American Heart Association on their third annual Heart Night on February 24th. To cap off the month, 20-year-old forwards Angus Scott and Brendan Miller each made their NCAA college commitments.
Scott, who was playing his fourth and final season of junior hockey and first in the Coastal Bend, committed to the prestigious Tufts University (D3, New England Small College Athletic Conference) in Medford, MA in late February. Days later, IceRays Captain and longest tenured player Brendan Miller became the first player in franchise history to commit to the Air Force Academy (D1, Atlantic Hockey Association).
Nobody was complaining after February, a month in which the IceRays hosted an eight-game home stand, raised thousands of dollars, and committed two of their players. Once March rolled around, however, the stakes intensified as the Rays found themselves in a battle for their playoff lives.
A significant gap was separating the IceRays from the Amarillo Bulls for the fourth and final playoff spot in the South Division. Amarillo had lots of ground to make up, but they would play the Rays four times in a row, giving them an opportunity to quickly close the gap. The first pair of games was played at the Amarillo Civic Center, where each team took a regulation victory.
The following week, the IceRays hosted two public skating events during spring break to benefit the ECF Community Center and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. At the end of the week, they hosted a hostile Amarillo squad in what would be their last meeting of the season. In a repeat of the previous series, the Rays dropped the Friday night tilt but won on Saturday, setting the stage for a potential playoff clinch the following weekend.
In their last road trip of the season, the Rays visited George’s Pond Coliseum in Shreveport, LA, in what they knew might be a prelude to the first round of the playoffs. Sweeping the Mudbugs on the road clinched a postseason berth for the IceRays, who would be going to the Robertson Cup Playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in junior franchise history.
At the end of the month, the IceRays held a golf tournament at Northshore Country Club to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. While there, defenseman Ryan Rosenberg received a phone call from his future coach and made his Division III NCAA commitment to SUNY-Fredonia.
Before they could kick off their 2018 playoff run, the Rays had to host the Lone Star Brahmas on their tenth annual Pack the House Weekend for No Kid Hungry. In front of a combined crowd of 9,288 between Friday and Saturday, the IceRays closed out their 20th anniversary regular season with back-to-back overtime thrillers, though neither of them gave them the result they wanted. Emergency back-up goaltender Will Tragge, who had served as an understudy to Veltri for over a month since coming in from his senior year in high school to fill in for an injured Acton, made his first start as an IceRay that Friday night. Tendered defenseman Tyler Love also debuted on Pack the House Weekend, and little did he know, his services would be needed again soon after.
Though they didn’t end the regular season with a win, the IceRays opened their hearts one last time and wrote a check to No Kid Hungry for $9,400 when it was all said and done.
On a notoriously unfortunate day, Friday the 13th, the 2018 Robertson Cup Playoffs were underway in Shreveport.
In Game One, the Mudbugs quickly asserted control and outpaced the IceRays substantially at the start of the game. With the support of their home crowd, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead and put the visitors in a hole fairly quickly. Despite being overwhelmed at the start by one of the league’s best teams, the Rays kept fighting and scored two goals in the third period to make a statement before heading into Game Two.
The following day, Game Two was on hand at the Bug Pond. It got out of control almost immediately, with a total of 64 penalty minutes being called in the first period alone. Adam Kadlec scored a power play goal to give the Rays a 1-0 lead, but Shreveport would come from behind in the third period and grab a late lead. It appeared as though Larry Jungwirth scored a game-tying goal with 1.7 seconds left, which would’ve forced overtime, but it was waived off due to the net being dislodged.
Entering Game Three facing elimination, the IceRays embraced the feeling of playing at the American Bank Center and steamrolled the Mudbugs with a 5-1 victory, getting contributions from four different players on the score sheet. The day marked the one-year anniversary of a historic date in IceRays history, as they had swept Shreveport exactly one year prior and advanced to the division finals for the first time.
Game Four, win-or-lose, was the IceRays’ last home game of the 2017-18 season. They pressed to keep their playoff hopes alive, but fell behind at two different points throughout the game and found themselves trailing with just seconds remaining and their entire season hanging in the balance. With just 1:08 left, Jungwirth whacked the puck out of mid-air down to Miller at the side of the net. The third-year veteran turned and rifled a no-look shot through Gustavs Grigals, forcing overtime. 11:43 into sudden death, Grayson Gavin had a loose puck skitter his way. Another veteran of three seasons in the NAHL, Gavin whipped it past Grigals before the Shreveport goaltender could position himself, sending the ABC into a frenzy and the IceRays back to George’s Pond for a winner-take-all Game Five.
Mudbugs fans looked on in anxiety, watching a game they had not thought would exist. Late in the first period of Game Five, Jungwirth struck again with a backhand shot from the slot to give the IceRays a 1-0 lead. However, slowly but surely, the Bugs clawed back into the game, tying the score shortly into the second period and gaining a lead early in the third. They suffocated the Rays’ offensive game and exhausted an already winded team which had played five games in nine days and made two round trips from Corpus Christi. The IceRays could not conjure up one more heroic rally, and their season ended with a 2-1 defeat in Shreveport.
Our 20th anniversary season was one worth remembering from all angles. The IceRays created and built upon relationships with the Corpus Christi community, advanced to the playoffs for the second straight season, led the NAHL in average regular season attendance for the fifth straight year, provided financial support to a dozen charitable organizations, and committed five players to NCAA programs. However, if there is one overarching theme that defined the 2017-18 Corpus Christi IceRays, one common denominator that stood out above the rest, it would be their resilience as a team and their refusing to give up. They didn’t give up when they were 1-5-2 heading into October. They didn’t give up when they were down 2-0 in the playoff series against the best team in the league. They didn’t give up when they trailed 2-1 with just over a minute remaining in their season. This team and organization never gave up, and they plan on carrying that philosophy with them into next season and beyond.