ALL-STARS REMINISCE ABOUT BEST SEASON YETMay 27, 2020
By Tom Witosky
When Sam Anas, Kaapo Kahkonen, Gerry Mayhew, and Brennan Menell look back at their American Hockey League All-Star seasons, they’ll be able to talk about how they became the first members of the Iowa Wild franchise to ever get that honor.
But, Anas, the AHL’s point leader, Mayhew, the league’s top goal scorer, Kahkonen, who rang up a league-leading 25 wins in goal with seven shutouts, and Menell, who led all defensemen in assists, each believe that they’ll remember the team’s chemistry and camaraderie the most when talking about the best team since the club’s inception seven years ago.
The four all-stars, as named last week by the AHL, talked about the season and their futures during a virtual news conference from their off-season homes in Finland (Kahkonen), Michigan (Mayhew), Maryland (Anas) and Minnesota (Menell). Each said that the abrupt and early end to the 2019-20 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic will always leave them wondering about just how far the team could have gone.
“It's awesome to see how chemistry off the ice translates to success on the ice,” Anas said. “When you've got such a close-knit group that came together on the ice, it’s unfortunate that we had to end the way it did. It's just a great group and always fun to be around.”
Case in point, Kahkonen remembered, was the moment when Mayhew scored his first NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the closing minutes of his NHL debut. The team had been assembled for a fan event at Wells Fargo Arena, but had congregated in the locker room’s player lounge after it was over.
“I'll forever remember the moment when Gerry scored his first goal,” Kahkonen said. “He scores the goal and everybody just goes nuts in the lounge. They start cheering as loud as anything. That was something.”
Kahkonen, who on Tuesday, was named the AHL’s Goaltender of the Year, complied a 25-6-3 record for the season with a 2.07 goals against average and a 92.7 save percentage. Kahkonen, who played his second season with Iowa, also posted a 3-1-1 record with the Minnesota after starting goalie Devan Dubnyk briefly left the team to attend to a family medical emergency.
Kahkonen said that Iowa’s success over the season has even generated unusual memories for him.
“When you win that many games, you actually remember the games you lost a lot more,” he said. “I never played a season or had a season with a team that won so many games.”
Kahkonen, who is expected to compete for spot on the Minnesota roster next season, said that his improvement from his first year was partially the result of knowing his surroundings better than his first season plus having the opportunity to work with former Iowa goalie Andrew Hammond as well as Dubnyk and former Iowa goalie Alex Stalock in Minnesota.
“All of that helped me to learn each day and to get better,” Kahkonen said. “I just want to keep that going.”
Anas, who won the points title with 20 goals and 50 assists, said the fact that Mayhew, Kahkonen, and Menell each played this season with Minnesota makes him even more willing to work to get to the NHL.
“That’s why we're all fighting right now and why we work out so hard in the summer and take care of our bodies,” Anas said. “All that stuff is trying to accomplish your lifelong goal of playing in the NHL and just doing whatever you can. And it keeps me motivated every day.”
Menell, who finished the season leading AHL defensemen in assists with 42 (in just 57 games) – he had 42 in 70 games last season – said the abrupt end to the season will also be a disappointment in a year when the team was so good.
“This will be probably a team that at the end of our careers, we will look back and say this was one of the best teams I've ever played on,” Menell said. “And, yeah, it is just going to mean wondering about what could have been. Could we have made a deeper run in the playoffs? It’s disappointing.”
With strong chances to make the NHL next season either with Minnesota or another team, all four all-stars may well have played their last game in Des Moines. It’s part of playing in the AHL, but all four said that they will always remember their time in Iowa fondly regardless.
“It was a great three years with the community, the fans, the organization, the coaches and the people I've met,” Mayhew said. “I'd have to say they were the greatest years is my life so far.”
“I really did enjoy Des Moines and my time there,” added Kahkonen. “The fan base we have was phenomenal and it was so good to see it grow as we played better and won more games. You could see the fans get into it.
“It’s four years for me in Des Moines so it's crazy to think how long I spent there. But they are all great memories with unbelievable teammates over the years and just a wide range of guys, a great coaching staff and everything just up and down through the organization has been an unbelievable experience,” said Anas, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent whenever the 2019-20 NHL season officially ends. “I really enjoyed the city and the community atmosphere around there. People are so nice and it's just a great area to live and I was happy to call it home for four years and maybe more.”
“It's been like a second home to me and you know it's a city that does remind me of being home,” Menell said. “I've had so many memories in the three years and I feel like I've grown a lot. I've met so many great teammates and coaches and had so many experiences and these were some of the best years of my life. It's the place that definitely holds a special place in my heart.”