by Arch Ecker
The 2009-10 NAHL season officially came to a close on a recent Sunday night at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, Washington when the Bismarck Bobcats shut out the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 3-0 to claim their first ever Robertson Cup Championship.
For the Topeka RoadRunners, sights were set high in 2009-10, and despite a heartbreaking Game 5 loss in the Division Finals the team had numerous reasons to regard the year as a success.
It was the first season under the stewardship of Don and Barb Stone, who acquired the team in May of 2009. Right out of the gate, the Stones were committed to making the right moves in as many areas as possible. The first step was to demonstrate a commitment to Topeka by signing a long-term lease with the Kansas Expocentre, a lease for three years with a two-year option added on. After a pair of one year leases and the constantly swirling rumors of the teams impending demise, this helped the Topeka community feel secure in embracing it\’s still relatively new hockey team. The next move was to secure the services of Head Coach / GM Scott Langer for two more seasons. Langer\’s successes on the ice, professional demeanor and dedication to the growth of his players were all contributing factors in the signing. A dedicated sales team was put together, with Tiffany Logue and Jen Montgomery providing a fresh look and approach to marketing the team. The Stones also secured a radio deal bringing the RoadRunners games back to the local airwaves, and all of this was done almost immediately. It\’s fair to say the new ownership hit the ground running.
The summer flew by and the before long, the ice was in at the Expocentre, heralding the arrival of the new players along with some familiar faces. The Labor Day Weekend Homecoming FanFest was a smash hit, featuring the First Annual RoadRunner Alumni Game. The younger group of players, with a solid week of practice under their belts peppered Alumni goalie Nick Hopper but it was Alumni Randy Swank who scored the game\’s only goal, and the \”Smack Pack\” emerged victorious, 1-0. The following evening, it was the \”Blue White Classic III\” as the players engaged in a free intersquad battle. After sweeping through a brief exhibition schedule with a pair of wins over the WSHL\’s Tulsa Rampage and the Oklahoma University ACHA team, the 2009-10 RoadRunners headed off to the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, MN to start their season.
The bar had been set pretty high by the prior years team, winning a franchise record 42 games. The 2009-10 season would be a special one, as the RoadRunners set a stunning number of records en route to winning their second NAHL South Division Regular Season title in three years. Their final record of 44-9-5 sets the new high water mark for wins in a season. Other team records achieved during the season include number of points (93, tied for most in NAHL), winning percentage (.802, tied for best in NAHL), goals scored (254, most in NAHL), assists (419, most in NAHL), total points (673, most in NAHL), power play goals (81, most in NAHL), power play percentage (23.01%, 1st in NAHL), and set a franchise record win streak of 11 games without a loss, eclipsing the old mark of 7 games that had been reached in 5 separate occurrences. The team also set records in the turnstiles as nearly 60,000 fans took in games, including an NAHL-record 7,777 seat sellout on the final game of the regular season, a night buoyed by support of the city\’s efforts to attract Google to bring their fiber optic network to Kansas.
On the individual level, a number of records were attained as well. Forward Erik Higby, acquired after being released by the USHL\’s Youngstown Phantoms quietly but methodically assaulted the RoadRunners record book, becoming the first RoadRunner to lead the NAHL in scoring, putting up a total of 80 points (27 goals + 53 assists) and also leading the league in plus / minus with a solid +35. His 80 points and 53 assists are both team single season records. He was named the teams Offensive Player of the Year, as well as Team MVP. The NAHL awarded Higby a number of accolades as well, naming him to the NAHL All-South Team, then to the All-NAHL Team. He was named NAHL MVP NAHL Forward of the Year, and also designated as the league\’s lone nominee for the USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. Other RoadRunners receiving league honors include defenseman Kevin Ryan (NAHL All-South Team) and Bryce Johnson (NAHL All-Rookie Team). Johnson, along with Ryan and forward Tony Thomas played in all 58 games for Topeka, earning \”Iron Man\” status. Forward Michael Hill became just the fifth ‘Runner in history to hit the 30-goal mark, finishing with 31 on the year.
After dropping Game 1 in the South Division Semi-Finals on home ice to the fourth seeded Springfield Jr. Blues, the RoadRunners asserted themselves by winning three straight to close out the series, moving on to face the St. Louis Bandits in the South Division Finals. Over the course of two seasons, these two evenly matched teams sported identical regular season records of 86-20-10. Topeka held a slight edge head to head, winning 12 of 22 regular season games but St. Louis had ended Topeka\’s season in 2008-09 en route to winning their third consecutive Robertson Cup. This year, Topeka had narrowly claimed home ice advantage. The teams split the first four games, and the decisive Game 5 was played in Topeka. The game was a disappointing, anticlimactic finish to a great season and a great series as Topeka spent an inordinate amount of time killing penalties and ended up on the wrong end of a 5-0 score in a game that left the RoadRunner Nation with a bitter taste in its mouth. St. Louis went on to represent the NAHL South at the Robertson Cup Tournament, but finished fifth out of five teams.
The NAHL is by design a developmental league, and moving players on to college or higher levels of play is the ultimate goal. At press time, six members of this year\’s RoadRunner squad have made their Division I college plans, while another two have selected Division III schools. They are Kevin Ryan (Niagara University), Cole Schneider (University of Connecticut), Tony Thomas (Air Force Academy), Erik Higby (Northern Michigan University), Nickolas Gatt (University of Alabama – Huntsville), and Bryce Johnson (St. Cloud State University). Additionally, Martin Sundstedt and Jeff Burke will both skate for the Division III University of Wisconsin – River Falls Falcons in the fall.
For head coach Scott Langer and assistant coach R.J. Enga, the task to rebuild has been underway since before the season ended. A May tryout camp near Dallas will be followed by camps in Somerset, WI in June and Woodridge, IL in July. With the RoadRunners hosting the National Tournament in May 2011, there is a lot of work to be done. With a strong core staff and a solid, dedicated ownership group in place, expect good things in the coming months from the Topeka RoadRunners.