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NHL ties run deep as AHL announces its all-star game lineups

The Canadian Press
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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Erik Westrum (39) drives Buffalo Sabres forward Chris Thorburn (47) high into the boards. (CPimages \'06/Frank Gunn) Author: The Hockey News

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NHL ties run deep as AHL announces its all-star game lineups

The Canadian Press
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That's about all that is clear at this point. The 27-year-old Minnesotan is currently playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL but was named Tuesday as a starter for Planet USA's team at the AHL all-star game, which will be played Jan. 29 at Ricoh Coliseum.

Westrum can't be in both leagues at one time and there wouldn't be much of a decision to make if the choice was left to him.

"It's an honour," he said of the all-star selection. "(But) you always want to play up here (in the NHL) no matter what the accolades are at a different level."

Westrum is far from the only one feeling that way about the game, which is also known as the AHL all-star Classic.

Josh Hennessy (Ottawa), Dustin Byfuglien (Chicago), Matt Lashoff (Boston), Dustin Boyd (Calgary), Kris Newbury (Toronto) and Lawrence Nycholat (Washington) are among those who were on NHL rosters Tuesday and were chosen to participate in the AHL game.

It's a testament to the strong link between the two leagues. There's little doubt that the AHL is the best route to the big time.

"The best players in the National Hockey League have appeared in our game," said AHL president David Andrews. "Of the players being named, they've already played 175 NHL games (this year).

"Looking at the morning skate . . . that number's going up tonight."

That's because Westrum and Newbury each played for the Maple Leafs against Carolina later in the evening.

Fans attending the all-star game will get to watch NHL stars of the future along with a few of the past.

Manitoba Moose forward Mike Keane will captain the Canadian team. That's the same Mike Keane that won Stanley Cups with Montreal, Dallas and Colorado during an NHL career that spanned over 1,100 games.

The AHL says 93 per cent of the 394 players who have appeared in its all-star game since 1995 have also played in the NHL.

One of those guys is Maple Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood, who played in two AHL all-star games before cracking Toronto's NHL lineup last season.

"It definitely was (an honour), especially at that age when it's such a struggle to make the NHL," said the 23-year-old Wellwood. "Getting selected like that really helps your confidence. It really helped me in the second half of the year, too."

That could be a scary thing for the rest of the AHL if it has a similar impact on Darren Haydar. The 27-year-old from Toronto had points in each of Chicago's first 39 games this season - the longest scoring streak in the 71-year history of the AHL.

He'll start at forward for the Canadian team alongside Hershey's Alexandre Giroux and Portland's Zenon Konopka. Nycholat and Hartford's Daniel Giroux were selected to start at defence while Manchester's Jason LaBarbera will get the nod in goal.

For Planet USA, Westrum is tabbed to start at forward with Norfolk's Brandon Bochenski and Chicago's Brett Sterling. Noah Welch of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Richie Regehr of Omaha will be the defencemen and Hamilton's Jaroslav Halak was selected to start in goal.

More than half the tickets have been sold for the game, "but there are still good seats available," says Andrews.

Tuesday's lineup announcement illustrated the many links between the AHL and NHL.

Hours before the Leafs hosted the Hurricanes at Air Canada Centre, the AHL asked a few alumni from each team to stop by.

In walked Wellwood, Eric Staal, Peter Laviolette, Paul Maurice and John Ferguson.

Not bad.

Staal even sat in on the announcement wearing his full equipment before participating in Carolina's morning skate.

Laviolette was pretty much a career minor-leaguer as a player and later coached AHL Providence to a Calder Cup. He was also behind the bench for Carolina's Stanley Cup win in June.

He remembers his experiences at the AHL all-star as fun on and off the ice.

"It was a great experience as a coach and a player," said Laviolette. "That's why it's an honour for me to be here. The American Hockey League is where I came from."

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NHL ties run deep as AHL announces its all-star game lineups