Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lady Luck doesn't smile on Busch brothers

Kyle finishes 15th, Kurt ends race in 35th place

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010 |

On paper, all signs pointed to a successful, Sunday afternoon homecoming for the Busch brothers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Shelby American.

Kurt held the pole and four spots back, little brother and defending Shelby American champion Kyle was starting on the third row.

But that’s why they race on a track.

After battling at the top of the field early in the race, both eventually fell out of contention in different fashions.

“Certainly not the day we anticipated,” Kurt Busch said. “We had great expectations starting on the pole here at my home track and Lady Luck wasn’t on our side.”

That much was evident after Kurt Busch found his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge caught up in the aftermath of an accident between Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray.

On lap 93, Kurt Busch was sitting in 12th place, in pursuit of the teammates, when McMurray nudged Montoya, sending him into the wall.

Following in the high lane, the pole-sitting Busch couldn’t avoid Montoya.

“I was a sitting duck for the wreck in front of us,” he said. “That basically ended our day. Do we get collected if we’re on the inside lane? Who knows.”

He finished in 35th place and eight laps behind.

Kyle Busch’s misfortunes, however, were of the self-inflicted variety.

When the field pitted on lap 216, he was flagged for a speeding penalty on pit road and was required to make a drive-through.

Shortly thereafter, he apologized to his team on the radio.

“Our car wasn’t bad all day,” he said. “It just didn’t seem like we had the speed.”

About the penalty, Busch said, “There was too much rear brake and I slid.”

He finished 15th and leaves the weekend without a top-10 finish in either race.

Team turmoil

The McMurray/Montoya tangle didn’t come without its fair share of drama afterwards.

While being interviewed in the No. 9 Target Chevrolet garage after the accident, Montoya had strong words for his teammate.

“He runs straight into my (butt),” Montoya said. “He nearly ran me into the fence in Turn 2 as well.

“He’s not doing himself any favors.”

The incident wasn’t the first between the two, who became teammates in early February.

After a race in Bristol last March, McMurray was angered after Montoya intentionally spun him out.

McMurray was unavailable for comment.

“Sorry that it happened,” McDonald’s Chevrolet crew chief Kevin Manion said. “It’s a terrible day for EGR, it’s unfortunate and hopefully we can be adults, act like a team, pat each other on the back and move on.”

Duel of dominance

When Jimmie Johnson passed Jeff Gordon in Turn 2 with 17 laps to go, it was another example of Jimmie being sneaky.

In four of the past five races in which Gordon has led the most laps, Johnson was the driver to take home the checkered flag.

“You have to give credit where credit’s due,” Gordon said. “They’re strong, a very good team.”

Gordon led 219 laps while Johnson ended up with 18 laps led and his 49th Sprint Cup victory.

“The car was so fast in the long haul,” Johnson said. “At parts of the race we stuck behind Gordon and Kenseth and I just kept putting pressure on Jeff, hoping he would make a mistake.”

The Hendrick Motorsports teammates have won a combined 131 Sprint Cup races; Gordon ranks sixth all-time while Johnson checks in at 12th.

It was Johnson’s fourth win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Gordon’s seventh top 10 finish.

Selling out

Sunday’s race was the ninth consecutive sellout for the Shelby American.

Speedway officials sold the final grandstand seats Sunday morning and the crowd marked the largest of the season.

“In what are still challenging economic times, today’s turnout is a testament to the popularity of LVMS, this great city and NASCAR’s premier racing series,” Speedway president Chris Powell said.

The race was the 13th Sprint Cup race at LVMS.

Wranglers can't contain power play, fall to Thunder, 6-4

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 28, 2010 | 1:41 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers couldn’t contain the Stockton Thunder power play Saturday night.

In the middle game of a three-game set at the Orleans Arena, the division-leading Thunder scored three power-play goals en route to a 6-4 victory.

“It was a game of special teams,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Our penalty kill didn’t step up and we have to be better.”

Oren Eizenman’s power-play goal past Michael Ouzas late in the second period provided the Thunder with the insurance they needed for the victory.

Wranglers left-winger Mick Lawrence pulled the team within one goal early in the third period, but a pair of late penalties and an empty net goal thwarted any chance for a comeback.

“We put in a good effort but we made some mistakes,” Wranglers defenseman Craig Switzer said. “They have the best power play in the league and that hurt us when we took some penalties that cost us.”

Las Vegas accumulated eight minor penalties in the game.

After Adam Miller scored his 19th goal of the season midway through the opening period to give the Wranglers a 2-1 lead, Stockton struck for back-to-back power-play goals just 1:06 apart.

Goals by defenseman Anthony Aiello and right-winger J.F. Caudron gave the Thunder a one-goal lead heading into the second.

In the second, Ned Lukacevic tied the game on the man-advantage with his team-leading 23rd goal of the season, assisted by Miller and defenseman Mike Madill.

“We had our opportunities tonight,” Las Vegas’ Jeff Hazelwood said. “But the late penalties did us in.”

Stockton then struck for two consecutive goals in the second half of the period, chasing Ouzas when Caudron came from behind the net and slipped a pass through the crease to Eizenman, who knocked it home for a one-timer.

Joel Gistedt replaced Ouzas in the third period and, Mougenel said, will start on Sunday.

“I thought he gave us the boost we needed,” Mougenel said. “He was real good.”

With the loss, the Wranglers (23-25-6) miss an opportunity to stay ahead of the Ontario Reign, which is now one point ahead of Las Vegas in the Pacific Division standings.

“We’re pretty anxious to get back out there,” Mougenel said. “We can still salvage a good weekend.”

Three stars: 1. J.F. Caudron (goal, two assists); 2. Oren Eizenman (goal, assist); 3. Adam Miller (goal, two assists).

Heavy hitter: Stockton’s Bryan Young for putting a hard body check on Jason Krischuk halfway through the third period. With the Wranglers on a man-advantage, the defenseman entered the Thunder zone and was promptly floored by Young.

Going for gold: The Orleans Arena will open its doors at noon on Sunday, and to accommodate Olympic hockey fans, will be showing a live broadcast of the game on the arena’s video board.

Up next: A Sunday matinee against Stockton, the rubber match of this series, starting at 2:05 p.m.

Final word: “We will forget about this and get back at it tomorrow,” Switzer said.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Kevin Harvick overcomes pit mistakes to win Sam's Town 300

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 | 8:11 p.m.

Kevin Harvick was angry.

It was early in Saturday afternoon’s Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Harvick’s Rheem Chevrolet crew had just blown a pit stop.

Coasting back onto the track during a caution, an animated Harvick lit up his pit crew during a short, one-sided conversation that ended with the driver telling his crew that they “looked like a bunch of idiots out there.”

But none of that mattered at the end of the day as Harvick coasted into victory lane with a smile on his face after capturing his 35th NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

“It was good in the beginning and good in the end,” Harvick said. “We had a couple of hiccups today, but we were able to overcome them because our car was so good.”

The hiccups came in the form of a jack that didn’t elevate enough and a lug nut that fell off — two pit crew mistakes that came at different points in the race.

“The car was fast, but we definitely have some work to do,” Harvick said. “I get mad. They know how I am, and they know what I expect of them. That’s not what we expect on pit road.

“But they work really hard week-in and week-out to give me cars like this, and it feels good.”

Harvick finished 1.361 seconds ahead of runner-up Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards took home third place while pole-sitter Brad Keselowski finished fourth.

The race was delayed about 90 minutes because of a steady drizzle that covered the track just minutes before the scheduled start.

Harvick led the field with 82 laps led overall and took the lead for good with 25 laps left when he passed Hamlin after the day’s eighth caution flag.

Harvick’s car gained speed as the race went on, and he recorded his fastest lap of the day with 19 to go. He steadily increasing his lead until he had his first checkered flag of the 2010 season and his second career victory at Las Vegas.

The victory bumped Harvick up from 14th to 7th place in the Nationwide points standings, 91 points behind Edwards.

It is his second Top 10 finish this season.

“He passed more guys than anyone else out there, just picking guys off,” Harvick’s crew chief, Ernie Cope, said. “We had the worst day ever and he kept us cool.”

Las Vegas’ Kyle Busch was in the running late but a run-in with the wall on Lap 21 ended any chances of a hometown victory.

Busch, who trailed only Harvick with 43 laps led, immediately radioed his crew, saying, “We’re done.” He finished in 16th place.

There were eight caution flags in the race — one as rain sprinkled down just past the race’s halfway point — and all five rookies who competed were involved in crashes, including Danica Patrick.

Patrick exited the race after colliding with Michael McDowell on the 84th lap of the race.

“It’s a real bummer,” she said. “We were really hooked up out there, and I felt we had a quick car.”

Out of the race, Patrick’s rooting interest was for the eventual winner, who helped her earlier in the race by pointing out the right race line to take.

“Kevin Harvick was great,” she said. “Leading the race, he was telling me to go high with him. That was cool, him taking time to help me out. I learned for sure.”

Harvick’s first win at Las Vegas came in 2004. He is starting in 34th position for tomorrow’s Sprint Cup Series Shelby American.

NASCAR fans know how to tailgate in style

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 | 1:25 a.m.

It’s a cool and windy Friday afternoon at the epicenter of the tailgating at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Six flags fly high in the air, blowing right to left with the smell of charcoal and burgers in the air and the beer flowing freely.

Amidst all of the campers and all of the parties, a group of friends and family are perched atop a motor home, following their favorite NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers as they qualify for Sunday’s Shelby American 427.

“You think this isn’t the best tailgate here?” Darren Gaymen asked aloud to nobody in particular.

They responded with cheers and raised beer cans.

It is here, in the southeastern corner of the infield, that NASCAR’s growth in Southern Nevada is on full display.

Sam Schlientz is Gaymen’s father-in-law, a Californian-turned-Las Vegan and owner of the recreational vehicle-turned-tailgating machine.

Schlientz first started watching races on television in the early 1980s before moving to Las Vegas and staking claim to his customary spot in the infield.

“At first we were outside,” Schlientz said. “But then we started seeing what was going on in here and had to try it out. We did and haven’t left.”

He began tailgating with family when the track was built. Then, it was Dale Earnhardt. Now, it’s Jeff Gordon.

“He’s a sensible driver,” Schlientz said. “All in all, I like the way he drives — hard but not reckless.”

Schlientz’s tailgate is nestled just inside the infield near Turn 2 and from the top features a bird’s-eye view of the entire racetrack — except the finish line.

“We have DirecTV for that,” he said.

Three years ago, Schlientz, a carpenter, thought of an extracurricular reason to put his carpentry skills to use and built a wooden deck — complete with rails, cup holders and a place for a small TV — that can be placed on top of the motor home.

“We talked about it for quite a while,” he said. “We wanted something stable that we could put up and take down easily.”

He made a blueprint and a day later, and it took him another day to assemble the deck.

“A lot of people have come up here just to see what the view is like,” he said.

At any given time, there is a pack of race fans — up to 30 — watching the action from above and cheering for any one of the five drivers whose flags are proudly displayed.

“You can put two dozen people up here,” Gaymen said. “I don’t think anyone else can do that.”

And under the canopy below, they feast on anything from Italian sausage to burgers to jambalaya.

But for Gaymen, a self-proclaimed NASCAR convert, all the tailgating and feasting might not have been had he not married into the family.

“I think I picked the right one,” he said jokingly. “I wouldn’t have got to meet these great people and probably wouldn’t have become a racing fan.”

Gaymen said he thinks the tailgate parties are part of the reason NASCAR is so popular.

“This is the best weekend of the year,” Gaymen said. “If they want to promote the sport, promote the tailgating.”

Wranglers score 3 unanswered goals in 5-2 victory over Thunder

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 | 12:34 a.m.

The second period was the Wranglers’ best Friday night.

Thanks to three unanswered goals in the middle frame, Las Vegas returned from a four-game road trip to beat the Stockton Thunder, 5-2, at the Orleans Arena.

“I thought we played the kind of game we needed to play,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Our special teams showed up tonight, and that was nice to see.”

Jeff Hazelwood’s eighth goal of the season just 1:06 into the second period proved to be the game-winner.

“It’s a big building block for our team,” center Chris Neiszner said. “We played 60 minutes tonight, and that’s what it takes in this league.”

Forward Jerry Pollastrone and center Adam Miller each followed with goals to give the Wranglers a three-goal cushion heading into the third period.

In his return from injury, goaltender Michael Ouzas stopped 32 of 34 shots for the victory in his first game since Feb. 6.

“It felt good to get back into the mix of things,” Ouzas said. “The boys played outstanding in front of me and they put me in good position to make the saves I needed to make.”

After the two teams skated to a 2-2 first period tie, the Wranglers took off from there, out-shooting, out-chancing and out-scoring the Thunder.

“We got a couple goals off the rush, and it just goes to show you that hitting the net is a big part of it,” Mougenel said.

The win inches Las Vegas closer to Stockton, which is four points ahead of the Wranglers in the Pacific Division standings.

The two teams face off two more times this weekend at the Orleans Arena — at 7:05 p.m. Saturday and at 2:05 p.m. Sunday.

Three stars: 1. Alex Bourret (goal, two assists); 2. Michael Ouzas (32 saves); 3. Mick Lawrence (two assists)

Roster report: Back from practicing with the Phoenix Coyotes is goaltender Joel Gistedt. The Wranglers goalie was practicing with Phoenix in light of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov competing with Russia in the Olympics. Mougenel said Jimmy Spratt, who won two games for the Wranglers, “is going to stick around.”

Let’s beat cancer: The Wranglers will team up with the Nevada Cancer Institute on Sunday to help promote the campaign to beat cancer.

Last summer, the team lost former trainer Chris Testino to leukemia. Testino was the Wranglers’ trainer for their Kelly Cup Finals run during the 2006-07 season.

“I think it’s real important to let people know that we have a state-of-the-art cancer facility in our backyard,” Mougenel said. “Creating that awareness is so important, because so many of us are affected by cancer.”

On Thursday, Mougenel, captain Chris Neiszner and defenseman Mike Madill made a trip to the cancer institute to spend time with patients, doctors and nurses to show their support.

“Any time you can do something for the community, it’s fun,” Neiszner said. “Any time you can do something to contribute to beat cancer, it’s a bonus.”

Staff members of the cancer institute will be in attendance for Sunday’s game against Stockton and CEO Jay Ruckdeschel will be participating in a ceremonial dropping of the puck.

Final word: “Every game is a big game right now,” Ouzas said. “We need to win them all.”

Friday, February 26, 2010

Busch brothers mingle with hometown NASCAR fans

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Feb. 26, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

The Busch brothers are everywhere.

As NASCAR unofficially kicked off race weekend in Las Vegas on Thursday, hometown heroes Kurt and Kyle Busch were in on the act as well.

While older brother Kurt was at Pole Position raceway for his second annual Sprint 4 Kids, benefiting the Kurt Busch Foundation, younger brother Kyle was busy signing autographs at a meet-and-greet with fans at M&M's World.

"It's great to be back here," Kurt Busch said. "Everything's comfortable, everything's familiar and it's nice to see everyone you know."

As longtime fans watched on, the 10-year Sprint Cup Series veteran even hopped in a go-kart and took a few laps around the indoor track.

"This brings people back to their racing roots," he said. "This is important to me, to push racing in the Las Vegas Valley. It's where my roots are, where I came from and to come back to create awareness for a good cause, that's what tonight is all about."

The foundation's mission, according to the racer's official Web site, is to "lend meaningful support for the betterment of organizations positively involved in the areas of health care, education, career training and rehabilitation."

A handful of fellow NASCAR racers dropped in on the event to lend their support, including teammate Brad Keselowski, Sam Hornish Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Al Montoya.

"It's nice when us drivers pull together for a good cause," Kurt Busch said.

Over on the Strip, defending Shelby American 427 champion Kyle Busch was signing everything, including jackets, checkered flags and laptop computers.

"It's great to see everybody," Kyle Busch said. "It's always neat to be able to give back to my hometown and see old friends, family and fans that have been watching us for a while."

One of those fans was Bob Fillmore.

A native Las Vegan, Fillmore has a No. 18 Kyle Busch tattoo on his left arm.

"He liked it," Fillmore said of Busch's thoughts on the ink. "This is great for him to do. Obviously he cares for the fans, and it's fantastic."

Fillmore has been following Busch since his rookie year and said following the 24-year-old driver has helped him stay in tune with NASCAR.

"I watch him every weekend," he said. "I keep getting more and more involved, and I think it's because I love the way he drives and represents the area."

About 250 fans waited in line early Thursday morning for tickets to get up close with the up-and-coming NASCAR star.

"They came out early for this," Kyle Busch said. "It's fun to be able to see the fans that watched me as I grew up racing."

Six-year-old Kyle Sickels was one of the many youngsters to meet Kyle Busch. As he approached the driver, Sickels mentioned his name was also Kyle.

"Spelled like mine?" the driver said.

Sickels nodded his head and received a fist-bump from his favorite driver.

"I hope this gives him a good memory of coming down here with dad and meeting his favorite racer," the boy's father, Frank, said.

Frank Sickels started following Kyle Busch when he raced for Hendrick Motorsports fresh out of Durango High School in the American Race Car Association Re-Max Series.

"We need more drivers like him to do things like this," Frank Sickels said. "NASCAR's fan base would be bigger."

And while Las Vegas Motor Speedway only hosts one Sprint Cup Series race a year, Kurt Busch can't believe how the NASCAR community has grown in the valley.

"It's gone straight through the roof," he said. "Before we got our first cup date, it was all about putting your elbows up in the Bullring."

"It's so awesome to see some of the old racers I used to compete against," he said. "It's all about the family camaraderie."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Neon Garage epicenter of NASCAR entertainment

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Feb. 5, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Neon Garage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will serve as the hub of the weekend's activities.

Located in the middle of the track's infield, the garage will give racing fans a unique mix of entertainment, racing and access to the drivers and teams.

"It's been phenomenal," Jeff Motley of Las Vegas Motor Speedway said. "It's something race fans can't get anywhere else."

"The garage draws the fans closer to the drivers and adds some entertainment to the event," he said.

Frank Joseph of Steve Beyer Productions, the man in charge of orchestrating the weekend's entertainment, said an emphasis has been put on spreading the fun throughout the track.

"We took some of the entertainment off the stage and let them wander around," Joseph said. "Instead of Elvis on stage, he'll be meeting and greeting with NASCAR fans."

The same is true for the jugglers, balloon artists, mimes and other entertainers.

"We want them to come to the fans," Joseph said.

This year's live bands will feature more rock acts. But there will be steady streams of country bands, 80s bands and tribute acts.

"We've got a lot of variety," Joseph said. "But we wanted to roll out some more bands, so we'll do some more rock and roll."

The Sprint Cup Series race day will include a 45-minute performance by country artist Sean Patrick McGraw at 9:45 a.m., and Human Nature will take the garage's main stage at 11 a.m.

Kim Kardashian is scheduled to give the honorary command for drivers to start their engines, and Terry Fator will sing The Star-Spangled Banner.

While the atmosphere in the Neon Garage has become that of a three-day music-and-entertainment festival, fan access to the NASCAR teams, their pits and, most importantly, the drivers, is the goal.

"It's all about the fans wanting to get closer to the drivers and teams," Motley said. "It gives them the opportunity to see just what kind of a team sport NASCAR really is and how much work the crews make to their cars."

Joseph said the fans love the pits, and his job is to add to the experience as much entertainment as he can.

"The biggest draw is the cars," he said. "That's where their attention is paid, to see the drivers in the garages. It's why they pay the admission. But there will be no shortage of fun around them."

NASCAR Hauler Parade to kick off race weekend

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

This year's NASCAR Hauler Parade down Las Vegas Boulevard this evening will be bigger than ever.

In addition to the Sprint Cup Series teams that have participated for the past three years, tonight's parade will include Nationwide Series teams. The haulers are the large trucks that carry the race cars and gear to the track.

"It's grown a lot every year," Las Vegas Motor Speedway's John Bisci said. "This will double the participation, and that's a good thing."

The parade begins at 6 p.m.

The haulers will assemble at South Point and head north on Las Vegas Boulevard until Sahara Avenue, where they will turn and get onto Interstate 15 to the speedway.

Bisci recommends fans arrive early and find anywhere on the Strip with a good vantage point.

"This kicks off NASCAR weekend in Las Vegas with a novelty, circus-like feel," he said.

"These haulers are big and they're colorful. They're not the kind of trucks you see on the highway."

Sixty to 75 haulers are expected to participate, traveling in the northbound right lane of Las Vegas Boulevard.

Speedway's Bullring puts Las Vegan's racing aspirations on fast track

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 | 1:50 a.m.

He began as a pony in the Bullring, a preteen kid who happened to get a race car for his 12th birthday.

Justin Johnson hadn't raced before. Not bikes, not go-carts and certainly not anything with four rubber tires and a motor.

"I could barely reach the pedals," he recalled.

That was 12 years ago. Since then, he's reached the pedals and hasn't let up, full throttling his way through a racing career that he hopes one day will lead him to the neighboring Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"It's the heart of racing," Johnson said of the Bullring, a .375-mile track that's part of the speedway facility. "It's a training ground where you learn everything. There's a lot of kids coming out of there that are racing for their careers."

He won 21 of 28 races at the Bullring his first season in the Bandolero car that was a birthday gift from his father, who was an official at the old Craig Road Speedway.

"In the beginning he just wanted to see if I liked the racing stuff because he was interested in it his whole life," Johnson said.

And so the young Johnson raced, week after week, winning more than he lost, until one day he crashed.

"When you get into your first accident, as a racer, that's going to tell you if you're going to be a race car driver or not based on how you respond," he said.

As his car sat idle, battered and bruised from metal and concrete, Johnson realized racing was more of a calling than a passion.

"Basically, I got back on my horse and started racing again," he said. "That's what separates a racer from a non-racer. I knew I had what it took to go further. As a young kid, you can either get scared or you can get going after your first accident."

Johnson raced at the Bullring for a decade. After the Bandolero cars were the Legend cars, then the Late cars, then the Super Lates, where he was trading paint with future NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star and native Las Vegan Kyle Busch.

"Watching those guys, Kyle and Kurt, on television has definitely given me inspiration to make it to the top and race them again," he said.

These days, Johnson races the No. 90 Vision Aviation Racing car and shares his time on the track throughout the West Coast, primarily competing in Irwindale, Calif., and the Bullring.

"What we see in Justin is not just the ability to race a car, but we also see an ability to communicate effectively with a team and represent our sponsors well," said Tom Davis of Vision Aviation Racing.

Davis, who is Johnson's boss, oversees much of the Vision Aviation Racing operations. He's also a man who handpicked Johnson not only to race for his team, but to mentor his son.

"The one thing that stood out to me about Justin is that he's a good person in general," Davis said. "We liked what we saw from him, what we heard, and it doesn't hurt that he has a willingness to get down and dirty to make his car go fast."

Davis' 17-year-old son, Dusty, is following in Johnson's footsteps.

Dusty began racing go-carts while moving up the ranks before crossing paths with Johnson one recent Friday night at the Bullring.

"I didn't know him personally but I had heard of him," Dusty said. "I knew he was good and I knew he won."

So, as Dusty struggled with the jump to the Super Late division — "Is it the car or is it me?" he wondered — Johnson let the youngster take his car for a few laps around the Bullring on the same night Dusty wrecked his car.

"He became my teammate that night," Dusty Davis said. "He was on the radio as I drove around the track, helping me with my lines and turns, and he just made a big impression on me that night."

With a vacant spot on their racing roster, Tom Davis called Dusty and offered him a spot.

"We wanted to grow as a team and we knew Justin could help us do that," Tom Davis said.

Since joining forces, Johnson and his team have their sights set on winning a championship at the half-mile Toyota Speedway at Irwindale before moving up to the NASCAR West series and possibly beyond, to trucks, to stock cars and the Cup series.

"There's a lot of good drivers out there," he said. "You have to keep working hard, keep putting your time in and eventually you'll be at the right place at the right time."

Hopefully, for Johnson, that time will come sooner rather than later.

"It's the competition, it's the adrenaline, it's just something that's in us race car drivers that gives us the want to move forward with our careers and for me, it really all began here," he said.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hayley Lager gets a jumpstart on racing

14-year-old Las Vegas girl trains at speedway with hopes of becoming the next Danica Patrick

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 | 1:30 a.m.

Hayley Lager is 14 years old.

She's a freshman in high school, a self-proclaimed "girly girl" who likes to go to the mall with her friends.

She giggles before she laughs, has highlights in her hair and likes texting.

By all accounts, she's a typical teenage girl.

"I mostly like to do the normal things," Lager said.

She also drives race cars. And fast. Probably faster than you could. And she loves it.

"It's different," Lager said. "But I love it. The adrenaline, the speed and mostly the independence you have on the track. I guess I don't know why I like it so much, but I know I like it a lot."

Lager began her racing career at the ripe age of 11 after watching her current coach, Scott Gafforini, every now and then at the race track.

One day, during a training session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, she wanted to try her hand.

"She was faster than anybody else there, even the adults," said Gafforini, who is a driver himself.

Lager drove the car in, turned with precision, stopped on a dime and drove the car out.

"Wow," he recalls thinking.

Lager liked being behind the wheel and said she wanted to try it.

"I asked her if she thought she could go faster," Gafforini said. "She said 'Yeah,' so I said 'Show me.'"

And she did.

"She's as good as I've seen for her age," Gafforini said. "She takes instructions very, very well and let's face it: She's fast."

As the one who broke NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch's Bullring track time in 2002, Gafforini would know a thing or two about being fast.

"From past experience," he continues, " I can tell you right now a female driver has better reflexes than a male driver. The only thing that holds them back is physical stamina."

For the past three years, Lager has been competing in the INEX division at the Bullring.

Her first year was all about getting used to the car and the track, and gaining the respect of other drivers.

"I was amazed she wanted to keep going," said her mother, Sunday Lager. "I thought her interests would go elsewhere but she's really focused right now, on the track, in the shop — it's fun to watch."

She pauses.

"At times. It's fun to watch at times."

In both her second and third years at the Bullring, Hayley finished second in championship points.

This season, thanks to NASCAR reducing the age limit from 16 to 14 in its Charger division, she will be competing in a division dominated by adult men.

Recently, Lager took her charger out to Lake Havasu, Ariz., for a practice session.

There, what began as a practice session ended as a race.

Afterwards, the black and pink No. 3 Buick Grand National looked the same as it had before — spotless.

"Usually kids will bang fenders and cause everyone to crash," Gafforini said. "There ain't a mark on that car."

Lager raced against a field of adult men and after the race, received a compliment from Havasu's Ralph Stewart, a 69-year-old who has won every race at the track this season.

"He told me I ran a good race," Lager said. "It felt good, coming from someone like that."

The two drivers are separated by 55 years of racing knowledge.

"That kind of respect from elders at a first race is very powerful," Gafforini said. "They usually don't do that."

Before the race, Lager told her mother she wasn't nervous. During the race, Sunday Lager said, she was so nervous she felt sick, and after the race, she asked Hayley if her heart was beating on the track.

"No," she responded. "I was just calm."

Lager works on the car daily — "It's all her work," Gafforini said — and chose the No. 3 because of her April 3 birthday and the pink numbers because, "I want people to know I'm a girl."

And in that same spirit, there's no surprise as to which driver she pays the most attention to.

"I admire Danica Patrick," she said. "And I aspire to be like her when she's older."

As she competes in her first NASCAR series with her trusty Buick charger, Grafforini is getting a head start on building a Super Late model Camaro.

"If she keeps outdriving these cars, we'll keep graduating her to other cars," he said.

And if the 14-year-old Las Vegas native keeps outdriving her competition, she will keep graduating to the next levels.

She won $75 in her first race and, if all goes according to plan, should win more money in more races in the future.

But in the present, as she watches intently as Patrick paves the way for women in stock-car racing, what does she plan on doing with that money?

"Probably go to the mall," she said.

Hayley Lager is 14 years old. What else would you expect?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Late goals down Wranglers, 3-1, on the road

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010 | 9:42 p.m.

A pair of third-period goals on the road Sunday night sunk the Las Vegas Wranglers' quest for a series victory after a 3-1 loss to the Alaska Aces.

Brad Miller and Judd Blackwater each netted goals in the final period to take the rubber match of a three-game series in Anchorage, Alaska.

"This is playoff hockey," said Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner. "It's a 60-minute game now and it's what we've been working for. Tonight was a perfect example of not getting the job done in the third period."

After Las Vegas' Mick Lawrence opened the scoring at the 10:50 mark of the first period, Alaska scored three unanswered goals past Wranglers goaltender Jimmy Spratt.

"We were fine going into the third," Neiszner said. "We showed at times this series we were ready and we showed at other times that we aren't."

Blackwater, a 22-year-old left-winger from Lethbridge, Alberta, has had the Wranglers' number this series, scoring three goals and tallying five points.

After taking a one-goal lead into the first intermission, the Wranglers allowed the tying goal at 1:11 into the second period.

Nick Tuzzolino's ninth goal of the season was on the power play for Alaska, as the Wranglers were unable to kill Jerry Pollastrone's interference penalty that carried over from the first period.

Alaska's Miller and Blackwater then scored just over a minute apart to pad the lead.

"Obviously, it was disappointing," Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said of the third period. "Our best players were our worst players and it was a disappointing end to the road trip."

Las Vegas was outshot for the third consecutive game and ended the three-game trip to Alaska with three points on the road, but still without a road series victory.

"I'm happy we got three points but it's also disappointing," Mougenel said. "Three points is nowhere near what this team is capable of."

The Aces improved on their fourth-best position in the ECHL in penalty killing, blanking the Wranglers on four opportunities.

Las Vegas (22-24-6, 50 points) resumes play Friday against the Stockton Thunder at the Orleans Arena.

"Push is coming to shove for us," Mougenel said. "I'm excited to get back home and get this thing going.

Wranglers come through 4-3 in OT to edge out Alaska Aces

Teams to face off again Sunday for final match in three-game series

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010 | 1:04 a.m

A night after the Las Vegas Wranglers lost a third-period lead that resulted in an overtime loss to the Alaska Aces, the team was once again faced with a similar challenge.

But this time was different. After squandering the late one-goal lead, Josh Prudden’s game-winning goal in overtime lifted the Wranglers to a 4-3 victory Saturday night.

“It was huge,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We found a way tonight.”

The goal was Prudden’s second of the game and was assisted by defenseman John Schwarz.

“Schwarz made a good play to the net, found Prudden and he did a great job tapping it in,” Mougenel said. “Sometimes the overtime heroes come in unlikely packages.”

Prudden’s first goal of the game was near the midway point of the third period, to give the Wranglers a one-goal lead.

The lead lasted for nearly eight minutes before Alaska’s Eric Boguniecki tied the game with a power-play goal from T.J. Fast and Nick Mazzolini.

“It was a see-saw battle tonight,” Schwarz said. “In all, it was just a huge victory to battle and get that overtime win after just coming up a bit short last night.”

Schwarz scored his second goal of the season midway through the first period to answer Judd Blackwater’s game-opening goal for Alaska.

“Things are going well for us on the ice,” Schwarz said. “Not much has changed for me but things seem to be going in now.”

Blackwater scored again in the first period, with 29 seconds remaining, as the Wranglers tried to fight off a two-man advantage.

Wranglers center Adam Miller, who watched Blackwater’s second goal from the penalty box, then tied the score at the 11:43 mark of the second period.

The goal came with the man-advantage and was assisted by Mike Madill and Alex Bourret. Miller leads the team against the Aces with five goals and nine points.

Las Vegas goaltender Jimmy Spratt won his second game for the Wranglers, stopping 36 of 39 shots.

“I’m really pleased with the way he’s come in and energized us,” Mougenel said.

“He’s exactly what we’ve needed, a real boost in the arm. Like I’ve said before, there are lot of great goalies out there but not enough jobs. He fell into that category.”

The two teams face off Sunday at 6:05 for the rubber match of the three-game series.

A win would give the Wranglers their first road series win of the season.

“The two points are critical at this point of the season,” Mougenel said. “But more importantly, we need to show that we can win on the road.”A night after the Las Vegas Wranglers lost a third-period lead that resulted in an overtime loss to the Alaska Aces, the team was once again faced with a similar challenge.

But this time was different. After squandering the late one-goal lead, Josh Prudden’s game-winning goal in overtime lifted the Wranglers to a 4-3 victory Saturday night.

“It was huge,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We found a way tonight.”

The goal was Prudden’s second of the game and was assisted by defenseman John Schwarz.

“Schwarz made a good play to the net, found Prudden and he did a great job tapping it in,” Mougenel said. “Sometimes the overtime heroes come in unlikely packages.”

Prudden’s first goal of the game was near the midway point of the third period, to give the Wranglers a one-goal lead.

The lead lasted for nearly eight minutes before Alaska’s Eric Boguniecki tied the game with a power-play goal from T.J. Fast and Nick Mazzolini.

“It was a see-saw battle tonight,” Schwarz said. “In all, it was just a huge victory to battle and get that overtime win after just coming up a bit short last night.”

Schwarz scored his second goal of the season midway through the first period to answer Judd Blackwater’s game-opening goal for Alaska.

“Things are going well for us on the ice,” Schwarz said. “Not much has changed for me but things seem to be going in now.”

Blackwater scored again in the first period, with 29 seconds remaining, as the Wranglers tried to fight off a two-man advantage.

Wranglers center Adam Miller, who watched Blackwater’s second goal from the penalty box, then tied the score at the 11:43 mark of the second period.

The goal came with the man-advantage and was assisted by Mike Madill and Alex Bourret. Miller leads the team against the Aces with five goals and nine points.

Las Vegas goaltender Jimmy Spratt won his second game for the Wranglers, stopping 36 of 39 shots.

“I’m really pleased with the way he’s come in and energized us,” Mougenel said.

“He’s exactly what we’ve needed, a real boost in the arm. Like I’ve said before, there are lot of great goalies out there but not enough jobs. He fell into that category.”

The two teams face off Sunday at 6:05 for the rubber match of the three-game series.

A win would give the Wranglers their first road series win of the season.

“The two points are critical at this point of the season,” Mougenel said. “But more importantly, we need to show that we can win on the road.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wranglers suffer 4-3 overtime loss to Alaska Aces

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010 | 12:19 a.m.

Down a goal heading into the third period, the Alaska Aces scored two unanswered goals Friday to beat the Las Vegas Wranglers, 4-3, in overtime.

T.J. Fast’s ninth goal of the season with just over a minute remaining in the extra period gave the Aces their third straight win over the Wranglers.

“I though the guys played really well,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t get the two points, but we managed to get a point and I thought the guys played well and battled hard for each other.”

Las Vegas held two leads in the game.

Captain Chris Neiszner opened the scoring and Adam Miller scored his 16th goal of the season with 18 seconds remaining in the second period to give the Wranglers a final-frame lead.

Aces defenseman Bryan Miller pushed the puck past goaltender Jimmy Spratt at the 13:31 mark of the second period to tie the score and send the game to overtime.

In the overtime period, Alaska earned the extra point on Fast’s goal, assisted by Eric Boguniecki and Judd Blackwater.

“It’s not a victory; it’s an overtime loss,” Mougenel said. “We’ll take the positives from it and I liked how we competed, but there’s still some things we need to shore up.”

In his second game for the Wranglers and the first since shutting out Bakersfield in his ECHL debut last Saturday, Spratt stopped 33 of 37 shots.

“He played solid, real well,” Mougenel said. “He made the saves he needed to make.”

Mougenel said Spratt would start in the second game of the series Saturday night.

The Wranglers were 1-2 on the power play, their tally coming on Ned Lukacevic’s 22nd goal of the season, a second-period goal from Alex Bourret and Miller.

Bourret recorded three assists on the night.

Newcomer Mat Deschamps, acquired this week, made his Wranglers debut in the loss and recorded one shot.

The overtime loss increases the Wranglers (21-23-6) points-streak to three games, and they have recorded at least one point in three of their past four games, as they try to distance themselves from fourth-place Ontario in the Pacific division.

“We played well. We just need a better effort from everyone across the board,” Mougenel said. “The guys are anxious to get back at them tomorrow.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

CSN pitchers share common goal -- reach Grand Junction

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Feb. 19, 2010 | 2:10 a.m.

They stood in the dugout, shoulder-to-shoulder, two sophomore, right-handed, College of Southern Nevada starting pitchers with one thing on their mind — winning — and one goal in common — winning it all.

"How close to that point are you?" they were asked as coach Tim Chambers walked past.

"A long way," Chambers playfully interjected.

And that's where the similarities ended.

Donn Roach, true to form, laughed. Joe Robinson, also true to form, didn't.

Together, the two form the front-end of the Coyotes' pitching rotation and sit atop a staff that has plenty of experience, depth and a misfit amongst them.

"We have quite the mix," Chambers said. "Old guys and young guys, funny guys and serious guys, short guys, tall guys, we have everything."

Roach and Robinson are two crucial parts of that mix.

Roach pitched for three state championship teams at Bishop Gorman High, while Robinson didn't pitch until his senior year at Green Valley High.

Roach plays loose, cracks jokes and hollers at teammates from the mound and the bench. Robinson is tight-lipped, straightforward and hollers at his teammates through his work ethic and steely resolve.

But both are leaders on a team whose sights are set squarely on Grand Junction, Colo., home of the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series.

"We've pitched pretty good so far," Robinson said. "Everybody's stepping up trying to do their job, making sure we get wins."

The Coyotes are 10-2 this season, with the pitching staff allowing opponents just more three runs per game.

"Pitching wins games," Roach said, "No matter who you are or what teams you're playing, if you don't have pitchers, you're not going to win."

Which could, in part, explain why the Coyotes split four games in last weekend's Coyote Classic, with all four starters exiting thanks to season-worst performances. CSN allowed its three highest run totals of the season.

"We expect a lot from the staff for sure," Chambers said. "Last weekend, we weren't really good. We left a lot of pitches up and walked way too many guys but we know that will happen on occasion."

As will injuries, which is why the head coach tabs the health of his pitchers as the biggest priority in getting the team back to the World Series. CSN won the national title in 2003, its only appearance in Grand Junction.

"Our most important goal is to keep our pitchers healthy," he said. "If it costs us some ball games to keep their pitch count down, then that's what we have to do so they're fresh at the end."

Already the Coyotes are missing starting pitcher Chasen Shreve and utility arm Gentry Croft because of injuries, which puts more pressure on the top of the rotation as Scenic West Athletic Conference play nears.

"A lot of the guys getting the brunt of innings are sophomores," Chambers said. "And you expect more from guys with that kind of experience."

And the guys with that kind of experience expect one thing: winning.

When Roach laughs, it's because he's winning. When Robinson doesn't laugh, it's because he wants to win.

"He's a competitor and a leader," Robinson said of Roach. "He'll get on guys and let them know what they're doing wrong; at the same time, he knows what he needs to fix and get better at."

Roach, a first-year CSN player after transferring from Arizona, sees a different kind of leadership from his counterpart.

"His work ethic is the best on the team," Roach said. "He's a little more reserved but he gets at it every day and I respect that."

But the pitcher that Chambers said "could take up shop at a comedy store downtown," and the pitcher that he affectionately calls "Johnny Serious" might be more alike than meets the eye.

Alphabetically and numerically, the two are neighbors on the CSN roster. Roach gives an inch to Robinson, Robinson spots Roach 10 pounds and, occasionally, they answer each other's questions.

"Where do we want to be at the end of the season?" Robinson wonders aloud.

"Grand Junction," Roach responds, "is where I want to be."

And if the former keeps quiet and the latter keeps laughing, the Coyotes will like their chances.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wranglers' John Schwarz scores winning goal in 6-5 victory over Condors

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Feb. 12, 2010 | 11:54 p.m.

John Schwarz' first professional goal couldn't have come at a better time for the Las Vegas Wranglers.

With just over two minutes played in overtime and the Wranglers offense furiously trying to end the game, Schwarz slapped home the game-winning goal in a 6-5 victory over the Bakersfield Condors at the Orleans Arena.

"I just dove at the puck and tried to smack it as hard as I could," Schwarz said. "I don't score that many goals, so it's always nice when you get one."

Schwarz connected on the goal thanks to a cross-ice pass from Adam Miller.

"He found me in the middle of the ice and couldn't have made a better pass," Schwarz said.

The goal put an end to a back-and-forth game that saw Las Vegas cough up two-goal leads in each of the first two periods.

Six different Wranglers tallied goals on the way to outshooting the Condors, 40-36, including a 9-0 run in overtime.

"I'm happy for the win, that our guys found a way," head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "But we could have played a lot better."

Las Vegas' victory halts a two-game losing streak at home, the longest of the season. The Wranglers also outshot their opponents for the first time in nine games.

"It says a lot about guys like Chris Neiszner and Kyle Hagel," Mougenel said. "When they're scoring goals for you, it really gives the team a boost."

Neiszner and Hagel opened the scoring with two quick goals within the first six minutes of play, giving the Wranglers an early two-goal lead, but the division-leading Condors responded with back-to-back goals of their own from Mathieu Aubin and Matt Pope.

After the two teams traded goals again in the second period, with Las Vegas scoring the first two of the period before Bakersfield answered, the game entered the third period knotted at four.

On the man-advantage with 7:46 left in the game, Mick Lawrence netted a power-play goal to give the Wranglers a late lead.

"The puck just kind of came to me," Lawrence said. "It felt good. I haven't scored in a couple games."

But the late lead was not enough, as the Condors floated the equalizer past Ouzas just under two minutes later off of an Eric Regan wrist shot from the point.

Joel Gistedt, in relief of an injured Michael Ouzas, stopped 31 of 36 Bakersfield shots.

"We need to make our routine saves," Mougenel said. "And Joel knows that."

After a blistering start to the overtime period, where Ned Lukacevic and Miller each nearly connected on scoring chances, Schwarz' unlikely goal ended the game.

"With Schwarz getting his first goal, everyone's real happy, especially for him," Lawrence said.

The defenseman was greeted with chants of "MVP!" from his teammates in the post-game locker room.

"It was huge," Schwarz said. "We needed that point. You look at the standings, we're battling for a playoff spot and to take two from the top team in our division was big."

A dozen Wranglers tallied points in the victory, as the team leapt the Ontario Reign for the third spot in the Pacific Division with a 20-23-5 record and 45 points.

Defenseman Jason Krischuk scored a goal and added an assist, leading the way against Bakersfield this season with seven points in six games.

Three stars: 1. Alex Bourret (goal, two assists); 2. Bakersfield's Mathieu Aubin (two goals); 3. John Schwarz (game-winning goal)

Injury update: Right-winger Alex Bourret was injured with 6:25 left in the first period after taking a hit just in front of the Wranglers bench. Bourret, who was helped off the ice by a trainer and teammate, returned in the second.

Roster reports: Center Justin Bernhardt and forward Andrew Orpik were reassigned to AHL San Antonio on Thursday, and Gistedt, fresh off a very brief stint with the Rampage, was reassigned to San Antonio once again after Friday night's game.

Ouzas out: For the first time in four games, Michael Ouzas was not in goal for the Wranglers because of a concussion. Mougenel did not know who would start in Bakersfield on Saturday night.

Up next: The Wranglers travel to Bakersfield on Saturday for the second half of the home-and-home series.

Final word: "I think everybody in here has their confidence," center Josh Prudden said. "It's just a matter of playing our style."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Z Gorres to attend first fight since collapsing in ring

Fellow Filipino boxer Nonito Donaire says seeing his injured friend was a life-changing experience

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 | 8:13 p.m.

Z Gorres’ eyes are open.

Once shut, as he lay motionless on a canvas inside of a boxing ring after collapsing, those same eyes today see a new life.

“I’m feeling better,” Gorres said. “I can walk now with the walker.”

Walking again is something the Filipino boxer was unsure of in the immediate aftermath of a Nov. 23 victory over Juan Melendez at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay.

After his unanimous decision over Melendez, Gorres took a lap around the ring, waving his country’s flag in celebration.

But moments later, he lost his legs and fell to the ground. The left side of the 27-year-old’s body was paralyzed.

After spending the past two months under the watchful eye of fellow Filipino Dr. Benito Calderon, Gorres will take in a boxing match for the first time since his injury Saturday night.

He will do so in support of his friend Nonito Donaire (22-1, 14 KO), who will defend his interim WBA super flyweight title against Manuel Vargas (26-4-1, 11 KO) at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Their friendship began in the most unlikely of ways, as Gorres defeated Donaire’s older brother, Glenn. Naturally, little brother Nonito wanted to exact his revenge.

“I was so angry,” Donaire recalls. “I wanted to kill him.”

The two later met in the Philippines, getting to know each other and earning respect for one another. The night Gorres was injured, Donaire happened to be in Las Vegas and rushed to the hospital the following day.

“It was a picture that can inspire you or turn you away from boxing,” he said. “It wasn’t pleasant, to see a man filled with dreams, courage, discipline, and who worked hard for everything he had. To see him like that it hit me hard.”

But Gorres' injury has inspired Donaire.

“For this fight,” Donaire said, “I’m going to give him something that in the very least can help him, because I know he can't go in there again.”

It has been a long three months for Gorres, but the difficult time was not completely devoid of hope.

“He went from a paralyzed left side to a wheelchair to walking with a walker,” said UNLV assistant boxing coach Frank Slaughter, who has helped raise funds for Gorres.

“It’s very heartwarming to see a guy we could have lost come along so well.”

It's a big change, Calderon said, since the first time he left University Medical Center and could barely stand up.

Gorres spent more than a month at the hospital after undergoing emergency brain surgery the night of the fight. He suffered a form of hemorrhaging on the left side of his brain.

“The progress he’s shown us has been very good,” Calderon said. “Getting him to walk is our main goal and he might be able to start walking in the next three months.”

That is a welcome synopsis for Gorres after doctors first speculated it would be between six or eight weeks before Gorres would see those kinds of results.

The doctor said a full recovery, however, is still in question because of a stroke he suffered during the collapse.

“He’s been able to gain his left arm back, but we’re still working on his lower left leg,” Calderon said. “When I first saw him, he could barely move it. But after some rehab, he can already start to move the leg.”

“That’s a good sign.”

But the best sign of Gorres’ recovery comes from his eyes.

On Sunday, he will fly back to the Philippines to be with his family and, most importantly, his four children.

“I can’t wait to see the kids when I get home,” he said slowly. “I’m really excited.”

But Slaughter said "excited" isn’t the word.

“When he talks about the kids,” Slaughter said, “his eyes light up. His smile stretches from ear to ear and you can see it in his mood, in his conversation. The kids are a big part of that.”

Calderon will accompany Gorres on the trip, back to his hometown of Cebu and has already communicated with a doctor in the central Philippines who will continue his rehabilitation.

“The biggest thing for him right now is to be with his family,” Calderon said. “That will push him to work harder to be able to walk.”

“He says he’ll probably be able to walk when he sees his children.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wranglers send Matt Kang to Johnstown Chiefs

Las Vegas to receive future compensation for 21-year-old forward

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, Feb. 8, 2010 | 6:25 p.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers have traded forward Matt Kang to the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL American Conference for future considerations.

"We just think he's a young guy that needs a chance," Chiefs interim head coach and owner Neil Smith said.

The 21-year-old Kang tallied five points in 24 games this season for the Wranglers.

"This league is all about giving people chances," Smith said. "We think he has a chance to blossom here."

Kang is a first-year professional who played parts of six seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with three teams.

Smith, formerly general manager of the New York Rangers for 11 years, noted Kang's quick hands and offensive skills as traits that enticed the Chiefs to acquire him.

Kang is a former teammate of current Chiefs goaltender John Murray. The two played together for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs during the 2007-08 season.

"We're expecting a guy that's excited for a fresh start that will inject our lineup with his character and enthusiasm," Chiefs general manager Bill Bredin said.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wranglers struggle on power play, lose 4-2 to Idaho

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010 | 11:38 p.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers allowed their third hat trick in four games Saturday night, losing 4-2 to the Idaho Steelheads at the Orleans Arena.

Steelheads left-winger Mark Derlago scored three goals in the victory, giving him eight points in the three-game series.

"Our game plan was to try to get low and tire them out," Derlago said. "It worked out for us in this one."

Derlago and teammate Tyler Spurgeon provided Idaho with all the offense they needed, as the Wranglers once again struggled with the power play, going 0-6 on the man-advantage.

"I didn't like anything we did tonight," Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "We had every opportunity to win the game on the power play and we didn't."

The Wranglers took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, courtesy of back-to-back goals from Alex Bourret and Ned Lukacevic, responding to Derlago's game-opening goal.

"We came out and did all the little things we wanted to," left-winger Mick Lawrence said. "But we came out flat and got away from some of the things we were doing in the first period and never got on track."

Derlago's back-to-back goals in the second period put the Steelheads ahead for good.

With under two minutes played in the period, he scored the equalizer on Wranglers goalie Michael Ouzas, and seven minutes later he completed the hat trick on the most unlikely of goals.

With seemingly the entire two teams jumbled together in front of Ouzas' net, the puck bounced around as players tried to gain possession.

"I think everyone was in the crease," Derlago said. "Maybe seven, eight guys were there. My helmet came off and then the puck just came to my stick and it went in. It was one of the funnier goals I've scored."

Derlago emerged from the pack without his helmet but with his eighth point of the series, which extends his points streak to 12 games.

In the three-game series, Derlago and Spurgeon, who scored to ice the game with just over two minutes to play, combined for nine goals and 16 points.

The Wranglers inconsistencies on the power play reached a boiling point with the Orleans Arena crowd midway through the third period, when Idaho's Cody Lampl was whistled for a high-sticking double minor.

On the power play for four minutes, Las Vegas only mustered two shots and drew boos from the 4,653 in attendance.

"I have nothing to say to the fans," Mougenel said. "I worry about the team."

The 0-6 power play night came just a day after the team tallied two power-play goals.

"Our power play is not good enough, and it's got to be the difference in the game in a positive way and not a negative way," captain Chris Neiszner said.

The Wranglers were out-shot 35-24 in the loss, and Ouzas, who leads the league in minutes played and saves, stopped 31 of 35 shots.

"This is definitely a missed opportunity," Lawrence said. "Nobody in here is happy with three points over the weekend."

Three stars: 1. Idaho's Mark Derlago (hat trick); 2. Idaho's Mark McCutcheon (four assists); 3. Idaho's Tyler Spurgeon (goal, two assists)

Back in black: After donning their red jerseys the first two games of the Idaho series, the Wranglers took the ice in black on Saturday night.

Feelin' blue: Blue Man Group made appearances during the first and second intermissions, entertaining the crowd by painting a Wranglers logo using their paint-filled drums.

Up next: A home-and-home series with the Bakersfield Condors starting Friday at the Orleans Arena.

Final word: "Obviously I don't have the right people on the power play," Mougenel said.

Tough times behind, Saints fans bask in Super Bowl glory

Die-hard Saints loyalists know where to go to watch their team

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010 | 2 a.m.

It wasn’t about football.

It wasn’t about a pigskin, 1,744 miles away, splitting a pair of uprights in New Orleans and sending the Saints to their first Super Bowl.

It wasn’t about the hugs and the kisses, the Whos and the Dats, and it certainly wasn’t about a guy named Brett or a team named the Vikings.

No, as a jam-packed clan of Saints fans celebrated with every possible emotion two Sundays ago at 7-11 Bar and Grill, it was about being at home and most importantly, with family.

“This means so much to us,” native Louisianian Monetta Henson said after the game, fighting back tears.

“Just being here, with the spirit of New Orleans, this is our home,” she said. “It’s something I can’t even describe.”

They screamed, they danced, they sang and they cried. They chanted “Who dat!” and asked “Who dat say gon’ beat ’dem Saints?” and even grubbed on some authentic Louisiana gumbo.

They made it, at long last. The Super Bowl, football’s holy grail.

“If you think this is crazy,” Henson said, “you wouldn’t believe what the Dome is like.”

But now, the once-starved Saints fans want more. That boisterous gathering two weeks ago proved just a warm-up, a dress rehearsal, for what’s in store Sunday.

It’s been, by some measure, a tortuous wait.

Brad Huffman, a New Orleans native and owner of 7-11 Bar and Grill, has watched his Saints, week after week and season after season, through the losing, more losing and Hurricane Katrina.

Born in the same year as the franchise, he’s watched fans pour into his family’s bar this season and pour their hearts and souls into the team.

“Saints fans like being around Saints fans,” Huffman said. “They like being at home, standing in a packed bar celebrating with their family. It goes back to that Southern hospitality, down-home atmosphere.”

Huffman brought the down-home atmosphere to the 7-11 Bar and Grill two seasons ago, following a tradition that began at his family’s first establishment, the now-closed Sand Dollar.

Each year, he’s noticed a steady growth that he attributes to a post-Hurricane Katrina contingent in the Las Vegas area, finding a lot of new regulars from the South, especially Louisiana.

“It’s like going to the bar down the street back home,” he said. “Everyone enjoys each other’s company and we live and die together with the Saints.”

This weekend they are living, and living large, and for good reason.

Five years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, most of them didn’t know what they would be doing. Their homes were flooded, their loved ones were hurting and the concept of watching their Saints in the Super Bowl didn’t rank too high on the list of priorities.

“I definitely didn’t think I’d be here, watching this tonight,” Chris Colletti of River Ridge, La., said two weeks ago, watching the TV at the boisterous 7-11 as the Saints won the NFC championship game that delivered them to the Super Bowl. “And I definitely didn’t think I’d end up in Vegas.”

Colletti remembers his father, who works in the Army Corps of Engineers, telling him to get out of the area because the storm was going to be big.

“The night it hit, it was rough,” he said.

Without power for five days, Colletti’s trek to Las Vegas began when a friend joked that it was time to go on vacation. He went, and didn’t see the aftermath until six months later.

“Seeing my mom look at the house she grew up in flooded with water, that was tough,” he said. “Just seeing everyone in pain was awful.”

Colletti was here, at 7-11, during the Saints’ first game back in the Louisiana Superdome after Katrina. He was here for the New England and Dallas games this season and he’ll be here Sunday afternoon.

“I remember tearing up while chills ran down my spine that first game back,” he said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

“This is my family. It’s the closest thing to home.”

And so on Sunday, Colletti and Saints fans throughout the valley will cram into their shared home at Arville Street and Sahara Avenue, to be with their family.

Win or lose, they will chant, they will scream and they will cry. And win or lose, they will be there for the one thing that has kept them going since Hurricane Katrina — each other.

“Just a Super Bowl berth isn’t good enough for me,” Colletti said. “This family, this city deserves everything that’s coming for them.”

Now it’s about football.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Wranglers lose to Idaho, 3-2, in shootout on home ice

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Feb. 5, 2010 | 11:45 p.m.

Leave it to Tyler Spurgeon to finish the Wranglers.

The Idaho Steelheads forward's second goal of Friday's game — and his seventh in his past three contests against the Las Vegas Wranglers — was the only score of the shootout, giving Idaho a 3-2 victory at the Orleans Arena.

"It seems to be going well for me against them," Spurgeon said. "Our line has worked hard, guys have been finding me and it's worked well."

Spurgeon put the game-winner past the left shoulder of Wranglers goalie Michael Ouzas, giving him more goals against the Wranglers than he has against the rest of the league (6).

"I was just trying to get a move in there as I crossed the net," he said of the goal. "I didn't get the puck exactly where I wanted to, but a goal's a goal."

The 23-year-old opened the scoring just more than a minute into the game, pushing a feed from Matt Derlago past Ouzas to give Idaho an early first-period lead courtesy of the power play.

"We need to stay out of the (penalty) box," Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "He hasn't scored a 5-on-5 goal against us."

After a scoreless second period, Las Vegas battled back in the third period to tie the game on the 50th goal of forward Ned Lukacevic's career.

Lukacevic said he was unaware of the milestone until after the play.

"It's nice, but I didn't know until the ref told me," Lukacevic said. "When he passed me the puck, I was like, 'What? What is this puck for?'"

The Steelheads responded three minutes later with Derlago's 18th goal of the season at the 15:30 mark of the third period, assisted by Steelheads Marty Flichel and Kevin DeVergilio.

Nearing the midway point of the final frame and down a goal, Lukacevic came calling again, deflecting and lifting an Alex Bourret shot from the left point into the back of the net for the tie.

"We didn't have a good start in the first period, but we worked hard like last night to get a point," Bourret said.

After a scoreless overtime, Spurgeon's goal gave the Steelheads the victory, while none of the Wranglers shooters could figure out Idaho goaltender Rejean Beauchemin, who improved to 4-0 in his last four starts.

The Wranglers were outshot for the eighth consecutive game, tying their season-low total of 15 shots set Jan. 6 in Ontario.

It also was the first time since Jan. 6 that the Wranglers have scored multiple power-play goals, going 2-for-8 with the man-advantage Friday night.

"Quality shots are more important to me," Mougenel said. "Did we have quality shots? Not really. We weren't great, but at the end of the day, shots don't have any bearing on me as a coach, and it doesn't bother me."

The nine first-period shots between the two teams — six for Idaho and three for Las Vegas — was also a season low.

"It was a heck of an effort," Mougenel said. "We stuck with it, scored two big goals in the third, and I thought we did a good job of rectifying some things."

Three stars: 1. Idaho's Matt Derlago (goal, assist); 2. Ned Lukacevic (two goals); 3. Andrew Orpik (two assists).

Ned on fire: Lukacevic has nine points in five games against Idaho this season, tallying three goals and six assists.

Splurgin' Spurgeon: The Idaho center extended his points-streak to five games, posting a total of nine goals and three assists during that span. He's recorded 15 points in his past 10 games (nine goals, six assists).

Up next: Idaho on Saturday night for the rubber match of the three-game series.

Final word: "Every point is good for us right now," Bourret said.

Wranglers down Idaho, 5-4, in shootout

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Feb. 5, 2010| 12:25 a.m.

This was the kind of homecoming the Las Vegas Wranglers had in mind.

After a poorly played road trip, the Wranglers returned home and staged a dramatic third-period comeback against the Idaho Steelheads, defeating them, 5-4 in a shootout Thursday at the Orleans Arena.

Ned Lukacevic's wrist shot past Idaho goaltender Ronald Bachman's short side in the fifth round of the shootout gave the Las Vegas the victory in front of 3,651 frenzied fans.

"I waited, waited and waited, faked him a little bit to get that side open, and luckily it opened up and we won," Lukacevic said.

"It was kind of a (Pavel) Datsyuk/(Ryan) Getzlaf move that I've been practicing for a while and it worked."

Down four goals heading into the third period, Las Vegas wasted no time igniting their comeback, as forward Andrew Orpik scored just 29 seconds on a tic-tac-toe goal from Lukacevic and defenseman Chris Frank.

Adam Miller scored just less than ten minutes later, on a highlight-reel, breakaway goal that saw him slipping to the right of Idaho goalie Richard Bachman, but managing to keep his balance and slide the puck past Bachman's left pad.

Lukacevic then drew the Wranglers within one at the 13:44 mark, pushing home a puck that caromed around in a crowd just in front of the net.

With 2:19 remaining in the third period, the Wranglers were awarded a two-man advantage. Mired in an 0-for-17 power-play slump, things didn't necessarily look good for Las Vegas.

However, Orpik blasted a low one-timer just inside the left circle off a feed from Alex Bourret and beat Bachman for the equalizer.

"I got a nice feed from Alex and put it home," Orpik said. "Going into the overtime, we weren't satisfied with one point and we battled hard for those two."

The Wranglers now have scored points in 11 straight games at home, where they haven't lost in regulation since Nov. 13.

"Coach told us to play Wranglers hockey for one period and see what happens," Lukacevic said of the second intermission. "And he was right, we did see what happened."

Mougenel said he was brutally honest with the team at the intermission.

"I was honest with them and sometimes honesty hurts," he said. "I just wanted them to know how much I care about them and that they should care the same way about each other."

In the defeat, Idaho center Tyler Spurgeon once again had the Wranglers' number, netting a natural hat trick with three consecutive goals in the second period.

Spurgeon scored his first goal of the game on the power play at the 7:29 mark of the second period. He followed that up with another power-play tally exactly three minutes later and completed the feat with 46 seconds left in the period as he poked a rebound past Wranglers goaltender Michael Ouzas' left pad.

The hat trick is Spurgeon's second in as many games against the Wranglers. He scored three goals the last time the two teams met in Boise, Idaho, on Jan. 24 and has 12 goals on the season.

Mark McCutcheon had three points for the Steelheads, including the game-opening goal at the 14:40 mark of the first period, assisted by Spurgeon and Mark Derlago.

On the man-advantage after an Ouzas interference penalty, Spurgeon walked in from the left of Ouzas and fed the puck in front to McCutcheon, who flipped one past the goaltender's glove into the top shelf.

Ouzas stopped 30 of 34 shots including three out of four shootout attempts for the victory.

"This just shows you how we can play if we get going," Ouzas said. "That's a great team over there and if we don't work as hard as them, we're not going to win. In the third, we outworked them and we were able to get the win."

The Wranglers (19-22-3-1) win marks only the second time Idaho has lost this season when scoring more than three goals. Both of those losses have come to the Wranglers.

"This was obviously a big win for our team," head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "But there were deficiencies in our game and we're a team that needs to shore those up."

Three stars: 1. Andrew Orpik (two goals); 2. Idaho's Tyler Spurgeon (hat trick, assist); 3. Ned Lukacevic (goal, two assists)

Heavy hitter(s): Idaho's Steve Olesky and Wranglers defenseman John Schwarz, for going toe-to-toe at center ice five minutes into the second period. After a post-whistle scrum, the two got down to business right after the ensuing faceoff and traded blows until both fell to the ice.

Housewarming: Right-winger Alex Bourret made his home debut Thursday. Bourret, who leads the team with eight points against Idaho, recorded an assist in the win.

Double trouble: Steelheads Evan Barlow and Derlago entered the game fresh off winning a pair of ECHL accolades for the month of January. With 21 points in nine games (11 goals, 10 assists), Barlow was named the league's Rookie of the Month. Derlago tallied 24 points (8 goals, 16 assists) and was named the league's Player of the Month.

Up next: The Wranglers host Idaho for two more games Friday and Saturday at the Orleans Arena.

Final word: "This could be a playoff matchup," Lukacevic said. "So we want to show them we're for real."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Athletic commission gives Floyd Mayweather Jr. green light for May 1 fight

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 | 5:19 p.m.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission on Thursday afternoon gave its approval for Floyd Mayweather Jr. to fight Shane Mosley in a welterweight bout May 1 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

All events contested in Nevada, regardless of the magnitude, are required to go through the commission's sanctioning process.

"We thank them for bringing this fight here," commissioner Bill Brady said during an afternoon meeting at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building. "I know it's been a lot of work and we appreciate it."

While the fight will pit two of the sport's more notable pound-for-pound fighters over the last decade, it's not the match-up the majority of fans wanted to see.

However, that fight — Mayweather against Manny Pacquiao — never was finalized after the two sides couldn't agree on pre-fight drug-testing methods. Ironically, Mosley has admitted using steroids before his victory against Oscar De La Hoya in 2003.

Mosley (46-5, 39 KOs) has agreed to pre-fight urine and blood drug testing at anytime leading up to the fight as long as Mayweather (40-0, 25 knockouts) undergoes the same test on the same day. Pacquiao refused to have his blood tested.

Pacquiao is fighting Joshua Clottey on March 13 in Dallas. Mayweather initially targeted March 13 for his next fight, but couldn't secure an opponent.

The commission also approved the date of April 3 for the Bernard Hopkins-Roy Jones Jr. rematch at Mandalay Bay.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Garic Wharton II signs with Arizona

Valley High speedster to play football, run track for Wildcats

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010 | 6:41 p.m.

Valley High senior Garic Wharton II remembers the first sheet of paper that mapped his path to a college scholarship.

He was a freshman and it was a report card, decorated from top to bottom with C's.

And his father, Garic Wharton, was having none of those grades.

"He threatened to take me off the team," Wharton II said. "So I had to step my game up. If he didn't do that, then I don't think I'd be here about to sign these papers right now."

In front of a small gathering of friends, family, coaches and teammates Wednesday afternoon in the Valley library, Wharton II put his signature on a national letter of intent to play football at Arizona.

"It's almost like an unreal moment," he said after putting on a red Arizona hat. "You always think about signing, but it's crazy when you get to sign the papers and it's done."

Wharton II is a two-sport star during his time with the Vikings, winning three state championships in track in addition to his football accomplishments as wide receiver, quarterback and defensive back. This season he rushed for 691 yards, passed for 466 yards and caught 12 passes for 255 yards.

"He's an amazing athlete and it's a pleasure to see him earn this scholarship," Valley football coach John Elwell said.

He plans to participate in both track and football at Arizona, something that Wildcats head coach Mike Stoops and his staff have given their blessings to.

"They had an early belief in me, and I feel comfortable with them," Wharton II said.

He said that in addition to playing wide receiver in the slot, something that benefits both the Wildcats spread offense and Wharton's best trait — speed — that the coaches have expressed interest in using him for kick and punt returns.

He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season, including a memorable runback during Valley High's homecoming game.

"We took him off of the return team at that time because he was playing quarterback," Elwell said. "So when we're walking out onto the field, he asks if he can return the opening kick if we win the toss, because he's going to run it back for a touchdown."

"And sure enough, he ran it for a touchdown and did exactly what he told me he would do."

Elwell was an assistant for Wharton's first practice as a freshman, helping him line up at wide receiver for the first time.

"He has an uncanny ability to learn fast," Elwell said. "He understands what coaches are trying to teach him and he's a natural competitor."

Wharton II set a state record in the 200-meter dash as a sophomore in 2008 with a time of 21.1 seconds and followed that up with a record-setting performance in the 100-meter dash, clocking in at 10.39 seconds as a junior.

"He's a competitor," Valley track coach Mark Salzman said. "When there's someone ahead of him, he wants to get them. He does a great job of preparing to compete."

The 5 foot, 11 inch, 168-pound senior said that in addition to having family in Tucson, the Arizona coaching staff convinced him by wanting him.

"I wanted to go somewhere that wanted me as much as I wanted them," he said. "And I could tell Arizona is that place."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wranglers end road trip on a familiar note with loss

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, Feb. 1, 2010 | 10:02 p.m.

Monday night was a symbolic ending to the longest road trip of the season for the Las Vegas Wranglers.

The Wranglers dropped their second straight game — and eighth out of their last 10 road matches — losing 4-1 to the Utah Grizzlies.

"I can't explain our inability to win on the road," head coach Ryan Mougenel said.

"It's about having pride and competing. The bottom line is you have to win on the road and if you don't, you're not going to have a long professional career."

The loss in West Valley City, Utah, drops the Wranglers to 5-19 away from the Orleans Arena.

Four Grizzlies recorded multiple points in the victory — the team's sixth in seven tries at home against Las Vegas.

A.J. Perry's 17th goal of the season opened the scoring with 8:10 left in the first period, and Vlady Nikiforov's late-period tally gave Utah a lead it never would relinquish.

"We had a lot of opportunities to score and we didn't," Mougenel said. "I liked how we competed but we're not finding ways to win and that's got to be identified this week."

Andrew Orpik scored the Wranglers' goal just 26 seconds later, with assists by Adam Miller and Ned Lukacevic.

Grizzlies goaltender Beau Erickson blanked the Wranglers from there, stopping 25 of Las Vegas' 26 shots on the night.

"We're just not finding ways to put pucks in the net," Mougenel said.

For the seventh consecutive game, the Wranglers were outshot and failed to score a power-play goal for the fifth consecutive game.

"Our power play is non-existent," Mougenel said.

Lance Galbraith scored his second goal of the series in the second period to put Utah ahead by two, followed by Tony Romano scoring on a power play at the 11:56 mark.

Galbraith added an assist, which marked his seventh point of the series against Las Vegas. He totaled two goals and five assists.

The loss keeps the Wranglers in the basement of the ECHL Pacific Division, where their 40 points rank last in the National Conference, one point behind the Ontario Reign.

The team next plays Thursday, hosting the Idaho Steelheads in the 7:05 p.m. opener of a three-game weekend series at the Orleans Arena.