"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Bat Droppings 1/28/03

By Jason Cohen

Thinel steals show
Jackalope rookie dazzles in CHL all-star tilt

Faceoff.com correspondent

Chris Grenville got four goals. Joe Burton got the hometown love. But Sebastian Thinel stole the show.

The 21 year-old Odessa Jackalope, the only rookie in the 2003 Central Hockey League All-Star Game, broke a 1-1 tie with two beautiful first-period goals, then added a couple of assists as Austin coach Brent Hughes' Southern Conference squad took a huge early lead, then hung on for a 10-6 win.

The point of these shinny-like exhibitions is to showcase explosive talent, and Thinel's fancy moves made him the guy to watch. His teammates were clearly pulling for the hat trick. They rose from the bench every time he got the puck, and kept looking for him on the ice.

"He got us going," Hughes said of the Lafontaine, PQ native, "He made some great plays, and wasn't selfish. I think there were three or four times in tight that he could have shot the puck."

The MVP was in the bag. Then Grenville got his second tally of the night with one second remaining in the second period, plus two more in the third.

The Laredo player/assistant earned himself a pair of watches, having also won the "hardest shot" skills competition with a 93 mph reading.

Grenville is third in the league scoring race with 59 points, though he's been slightly overshadowed by teammate Eric Schneider, who received more All-Star votes than any other player and would lead the league in scoring if not for call-ups to San Antonio of the AHL (he trails Memphis' Don Parsons by six points, with 11 fewer games played).

Austin netminder Matt Barnes was also a standout player, allowing just one goal on 16 shots in half a game.

Trailing 7-1 after two, the North won the final period, beating Odessa's Mike Gorman five times on 28 attempts. Parsons, who had two goals on the night, said Tulsa Oilers coach Garry Unger got the squad going at the second intermission with a story of his NHL days, "when he played in Edmonton, back in, I don't know, 1940 or something."

Actually Unger, who also joked that "7-1 is the worst lead in hockey" during an in-game interview, recapped 1982's "Miracle on Manchester," in which the Oilers blew a 5-0 lead against the Kings in Game 3 of a first-round series L.A. went on to win, delaying the Gretzky dynasty a year.

"He took a five minute major that cost them the game," Parsons said. "After he told us the story, someone said, 'So you're saying we have a chance?'"

Not quite, but Burton gave the crowd of just under 10,000 reason to cheer, capping off a 12-shot night with two late goals. An all-star in 10 of his 11 CHL campaigns, "Smokin' Joe" is the league's career leader in goals (519), points (901) and games played (644). Earlier this year, he skated with the Phoenix Coyotes in an exhibition game, and is currently fourth in the league scoring race with 58 points.

Burton has said this will be his final season, though his #19 already hangs in the Ford Center rafters from a previous "retirement." In a populist gesture, Unger sent the right wing out to the blue line as a starter, replacing the injured Hardy Sauter.

"He probably should have been voted as a starter anyway," Parsons said. "He was trying hard. He wanted to score in his last all-star game. But between you and me, I don't think this is his last all-star game."

CELLAR TO PENTHOUSE. The game was especially enjoyable for players like Wichita's Travis Clayton, Fort Worth's Chad Woollard, El Paso's Jeff Scharf and San Angelo's Chris Peach, all toiling for last place teams.

"I think Peachy was just happy he was plus," Hughes said of the Saints veteran, who is among the league's top scorers with 53 points, but dead last with a plus/minus rating of -40 (and in truth, he was even at the ASG).

For Scharf, it was a welcome respite from the troubled Buzzards, who made headlines all over North America when the team got locked out of the County Coliseum for non-payment of rent. The players had to chip in five bucks each to practice during public ice time.

The CHL, hoping to take over the franchise, had picked up a month of of player salaries, but got outmaneuvered when owner William Davidson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, delaying any resolution.

According to reports, El Paso coach Craig Coxe has not been paid since mid-December, and the team has no equipment budget. Scharf's teammate Russ Guzior told the El Paso "Times" that some players won't take slap shots, because they can't afford to break a stick. So naturally, the Southern players teased Scharf throughout the morning practice, saying he should head home with a suitcase full of gear.

"It's good to get back to just enjoying the game" Scharf said. "There's never been a year like this. I'm so proud of the players I play with -- through all this adversity we go out and play hard every night. We're usually a goal short, but we're competitive. 'Coxey''s been the glue keeping us together."

STILL THE ENEMY. The Ford Center's NHL-worthy scoreboard broadcast video messages that were mostly friendly taunts.

"Remember, the next time these other guys come to town, they're not welcome," Oklahoma City coach Doug Sauter said, while Barnes, who's 2-0 with two shutouts against the Blazers this year, said that maybe some day he'd allow the club to score.

It was a theme Parsons also touched on at the press conference, joking that the North players didn't mind the outcome, "because maybe if the home team loses, that will start a losing streak for [the Blazers]."

THE FAMOUS GUNNER WIT. On the Southern bench, Austin equipment manager Gunner Garrett was his usual understated self.

"Hey, did you strain your groin?" he taunted one Northern player at the face-off after Thinel spun him off his skates.

Ice Bats players were not immune from the abuse: "You shouldn't have given [defenseman Mike] Gaffney number 4, he thinks he's Bobby Orr," Garrett complained to Hughes.

"Let him, for one night," the coach responded.

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