On Thursday afternoon, Mark Isherwood and his Alaska Aces teammates hopped on a plane and took a sight-seeing flight around Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America.
It was a fitting end to what was an ascendant hockey season for the 22-year-old defenceman from Abbotsford.
Isherwood was a key cog as the Anchorage-based squad won the Kelly Cup championship, emblematic of ECHL supremacy.
The Aces were ridiculously dominant in the playoffs, going 12-1 to set a league record for fewest losses in a single post-season. They clinched the title last Saturday, defeating the Kalamazoo Wings 5-3 to seal a five-game series win.
Isherwood’s first season of professional hockey was also highlighted by individual accolades. He led ECHL rookie blueliners in goals (15) and points (35) in 70 regular season games, and was named to the league’s all-rookie team.
“I don’t think you can ask for much more,” Isherwood enthused, speaking to The News via cellphone. “I mean, I love winning, and I got to do a lot of that here.
“This has been one of my best years of hockey. I may never play with these guys again, but I’ll always remember this team. It was a special team, and going 12-1 in the playoffs is pretty sweet.”
The last time Isherwood celebrated a championship was back in 2007, when his Medicine Hat Tigers edged the Vancouver Giants in seven games for the Western Hockey League crown. But Isherwood was a youngster on a veteran Tigers squad, and didn’t dress for any playoff games.
This time around, he was a key contributor in the Aces’ championship run, which made it more meaningful.
“I was a big part of it – on the ice, and wearing my jersey when we got to lift up the Cup,” he said. “It was pretty special.”
Upon returning to Anchorage this week, Isherwood and his teammates have been experiencing Alaskan culture to an extent they might not have been able to during the season. In addition to the McKinley flight, Isherwood said the squad is slated to do some halibut fishing this weekend before dispersing for the summer.
They’ve also taken the opportunity to celebrate the title.
“All the young guys on the team live in an apartment complex together,” he explained. “So we brought (the Kelly Cup) back to the apartment the other day and just sat at the side of the road, letting fans come by and take pictures with it. We had fans honking all day.”
Isherwood suited up for one season (2005-06) with the junior B Abbotsford Pilots, and played four full WHL campaigns with Medicine Hat before turning pro.
He signed a one-year deal the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen last summer, and attended rookie camp with the NHL parent St. Louis Blues in September before being reassigned to the Aces.
Isherwood is a free agent this summer, and while he’d like to move up to full-time AHL duty, he’d be open to a return to Alaska.
“I’ll wait and see how it goes,” he said. “I’ll come back home and see my family and friends, and make a decision from there. “My goal is to keep moving up, because I want to make a living playing hockey. I definitely want to move up, but if I can’t, Alaska’s definitely a place I’d come back to.”
• Isherwood’s run to the Kelly Cup is among a series of impressive post-season accomplishments by Abbotsford hockey prospects.
Nathan Lieuwen, a goalie with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, is at the Memorial Cup in Mississauga, Ont. this week. He backstopped the Ice to a 1-2 record during round robin play at the national junior hockey championship tourney. Kootenay plays the Owen Sound Attack in a tiebreaker game on Thursday evening, with the winner advancing to the semifinals.
• Derek Grant’s first taste of pro hockey has yielded a trip to the Calder Cup finals. The Abbotsford forward signed his first pro contract with the Ottawa Senators in early March, following his sophomore season at Michigan State University. He was assigned to the Binghamton Senators, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, and has helped the team make its way to the league finals, where they face the Houston Aeros. The series opens on Friday in Houston.
Grant has suited up for just seven of the Senators’ 17 playoff games, posting one goal and one assist. But he made his goal count – it came at the 4:03 mark of overtime, during Game 2 of the Senators’ first-round series against the Manchester Monarchs, lifting Binghamton to a 4-3 win.