Not all tales get a storybook ending, but that makes them no less worthy of telling.
A young, talented, upstart 2021-22 Stockton Heat squad soared to heights unmatched in the team’s history, winning a regular season Pacific Division crown, besting the rival Bakersfield Condors and soaring past the Colorado Eagles in the postseason before meeting their match in the Western Conference Finals.
In the best-of-seven to earn a chance to play for the Calder Cup, the final tally: Chicago Wolves 4, Stockton Heat 2.
“If you look back at the series, we had opportunities,” said head coach Mitch Love. “We had some leads early on and just weren’t able to close out a good hockey team in those games. If you’d ask some of our players, we could look back at even getting a split in Chicago (in the first two games) and is it a different series? Yeah, maybe, but ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ on those things this time of year.
“It doesn’t go for anything. They’re still playing and we’re not. But it was a great learning experience for our group, especially our younger players who are continuing on with us.”
Stockton and Chicago were neck-and-neck atop the AHL standings all year, and the series played out as expected. There were four one-goal games, three requiring overtime, and the remaining two tilts were scoreless draws through the majority of the contest. A bounce here, a bounce there, that’s the difference.
Put that lesson in the back pocket, attack the offseason and move forward better for it.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a long list to be proud of this year, both on an individual note and as a team. Dustin Wolf and Jakob Pelletier both earned AHL All-Rookie team honors. Wolf went on to win the Aldege ‘Baz’ Bastien Memorial Award, given annually to the league’s most outstanding goaltender, and was a first-team All-Star. Love earned Coach of the Year honors. Matthew Phillips set Stockton records for goals and points in a season.
The team set club records for wins and points, didn’t lose consecutive games until March and boasted the league’s top penalty kill in the regular season for the second time in three years.
“This year could be really valuable,” said Love. “At this level it’s about development. For our young prospects to go through what they did this year, have a great regular season and a good playoff run, learn what it takes to win, that’s a big part of development, too.
“To blend the individual growth with going into a tough time of year to win hockey games, I only see that as a valuable thing moving forward for them in their careers.”
Many of the faces were familiar, and the continuity undoubtedly played a big role in the team success enjoyed by the final iteration of the Stockton Heat, but blending those same pieces with career years, such as the ones offered by Phillips and Justin Kirkland, with an infusion of young talent like rookies Wolf, Pelletier, Connor Zary and Walker Duehr, and you get a special season.
Point to the roster, point to the X’s and O’s, there are still ways that a season, no matter how promising, can go sideways. Each player who was asked about what stood out to them about this group had the same answer, and the bench boss echoed that sentiment when pushed to point to the driver of the record-setting season.
“Togetherness,” said Love. “That’s a big thing looking back at (the season) now a week later. At this level it’s challenging to string things together consistently because of the movement with your parent club, adding and subtracting guys to the locker room, and that’s a real credit to our veteran players of bringing people in to the group and showing them ‘this is how we do things, this is what makes us successful as a team.’ That’s not easy at this level. I thought our guys did a really good job of that this year.
“I didn’t know what to expect (this year) and I talked about that throughout the season. For me, I’m no different than the players, I’m learning on the fly here as I go (as a first-year coach in the AHL). I learned a lot about where I can improve on to better serve our players, that’s the biggest thing. But I’m really fortunate to have had really solid people around me, from the coaching staff to support staff, the volunteers, front office, and the players. My job is easy when they execute the blueprint like they did. It was a lot of fun to be a part of this year.”
The season comes to an end as suddenly as it starts, and only one group gets to be truly happy about how it closes. For Stockton, a promising year may have ended in heartbreak, but the 2021-22 campaign can be remembered as one of closing a chapter in the Port City with an unforgettable year.
As the page turns, it’s on to Calgary for the Flames’ primary developmental affiliate. A fresh start, sure, with new opportunities, new challenges, but the same standard still in place after the foundation was laid this past season.
“It’ll be different,” said Love. “There’ll be a little more attention on them than they’re used to. All of our pro scouts and management have watched diligently through AHLTV and live viewings throughout the year, but to see them every day whether it’s practice or games, that’s great for the guys. It’s great for them to see people watching them and how much goes into this.
“To go to Calgary and get a little more attention, it’s teaching for those young players. There’s nowhere to hide your performance and progression throughout this league. It’ll only help the players and their progression as they move forward to becoming NHL players for the Flames one day.”