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“THE ALL-STAR EXPERIENCE”

Thursday, January 30th
“THE ALL-STAR EXPERIENCE”

I’ve been taught my whole life to be ready for anything, which is why on January 18th in Cincinnati, I didn’t know what to expect when Coach Tetrault called me into his office. During the season, especially at the midway point, a call to come into Coach’s office could be for a number of things. I could be told a refresher on a faceoff play for the upcoming game, or that I got called-up to the AHL, or even that I was traded to another team in the ECHL. An invitation to Wichita and being named to the ECHL’s Western Conference All-Star Team never even crossed my mind, so when Coach told me I was going, I was literally speechless.

“Come on,” I said in shock.

“Congratulations, Brennan. You’re going to the All-Star Game,” Coach Tetrault replied. “I have faith in you to represent us well. You’re fully deserving of this opportunity, and you’re going to do a great job.”

In that instant, a number of thoughts and emotions flooded my head. For starters, I was grateful; grateful that my organization believed in me and vouched on my behalf. Flashbacks of the grind from the start of the season came into my mind, starting with training camp, and having to make a team as a rookie in the league. Then I made the team and had to establish myself as a staple, and someone that Coach can rely upon. While I earned a spot on the top line, I was still learning every day how to keep that momentum moving forward, balanced with trying to be the best teammate that I can be. All of that led to an invitation to the 2020 ECHL All-Star Game, and after that brief reflection, all I could feel was joy and excitement that not only did I earn the chance to play with the league’s best, but that I could represent my organization on one of the biggest stages our league has to offer.

Earlier this year, Mark Binetti, our team Broadcaster, did a story on my sister, Jill, and her dream of making the Olympics. I told him that I stressed to Jill that I wanted to be the first one to know when she got the call from Team Canada saying that she made it. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot, right? In this case, she was definitely the first one I texted once I got the news that I was heading to the All-Star Game. Jill didn’t respond immediately – she’s busy in her career as she works with other Olympians to form a viable women’s professional hockey league. After I texted Jill, my dad was the next person I reached out to. He has been instrumental to my success and a great supporter. He watches every game of mine, and even he didn’t anticipate my All-Star nod coming. Then it was teammates and friends that got a message. Overall, it was a great moment for my family, and I was very proud to share this moment in my career with them.

I was fortunate for this experience to have members of our front office in Wichita for the All-Star Game. Team President, Todd Mackin, and Vice Presidents, Jared Reid and Valerie Persinger were there, and with their guidance, the whole experience was really smooth for me. When you go to major events like this, its easy to be anxious and excited, but their presence was calming. They were able to point me in the right direction for certain events and were a huge help to me. We represented the Rapid City Rush organization extremely well.

Prior to the game on Wednesday, January 22nd, the All-Stars had quite a busy agenda. I arrived in Wichita on Tuesday morning, January 21st. That morning and afternoon, I met some of the other players, which was fun because I got to meet some new faces in the League, and swap stories about everyone’s experience in the ECHL. Tuesday evening was the ECHL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which enshrined the 2020 Class into the ECHL Hall of Fame. Derek Clancey, Dany Bousquet, Glen Metropolit, and Jared Bednar, the latter of which currently serves as the Head Coach of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, all addressed the crowd and spoke on their time in the ECHL and their time as players. Across the board, each speaker contributed to one overarching theme as I listened to their words. They all said, in their own way, to work hard every day, believe in yourself, and don’t let the stresses of playing or suffering injuries creep into your mind. Appreciate every day for how fortunate you are, don’t take it for granted. If you keep your mindset on where you want to be in your career, you can accomplish whatever you want to. It was a powerful message, and a great way for the All-Stars to begin their week.

Then we started Fan Fest, which was very professionally executed by the Thunder and ECHL staff. We had our jerseys on and signed autographs for the fans that came out to the Drury Hotel for the event. There were historical exhibits from the Hockey Hall of Fame, interactive games for kids of all ages, and even the Stanley Cup and Kelly Cup were there as well. As a matter of fact, the whole place was packed! In particular, there was a line that felt like it circled the whole building just to see, touch, and take a picture with the Stanley Cup.

For me, that was the best part of Fan Fest. Seeing the Stanley Cup in person like that was powerful. It’s the “Holy Grail” of our sport. As a player at this level, you’re reminded of your goal to get to the NHL to even have a chance to play for it. But with the Kelly Cup sitting right next to it, that was just as special. That’s the goal for this team this year at this level. In seeing it, I envisioned hoisting it over my head at the end of the year and passing it on to 20 of my teammates and brothers, then my coaches, and front office staff members. That is the ultimate goal. It was a moment in my head that I hope to turn into a reality this season.

The next day, January 22nd, was the big game. I was so excited to play! The day seemed like a slow build up to the game, but we were finally in the room putting on our pads, then taking warmup. I caught Val taking a few pictures of me, which was really cool that we had someone from the team covering us on social media from the game. I shot a quick video with her, and told the fans how happy I was to be representing them. Then it was time for the introductions. I hear the PA Announcer’s booming voice say “Representing the Western Conference from the Rapid City Rush, #8, Brennan Saulnier!”. In that instant, all I could think of were flashbacks of those days when you’re a kid starting this whole journey, and then fast forwarding to now when I’m wearing a Western Conference All-Star Jersey. It was too cool, and a very proud moment to have our organization’s name called out.

I’m sure all of you reading this have watched an All-Star Game of some sort before. It’s not a game where players are going too hard and ticking people off out there on the ice. That being said, there are still a lot of important people in the crowd from the NHL watching, and even more watching the game nationally on the NHL Network, so you still want to be noticeable out there. As the games went on later in the semifinals and the finals, it got way more competitive. In the semifinals against Team Hammers, made up of half of the Wichita Thunder, I had a few chances to score, and I knew if I got the puck on my stick that I would bury it. Plus, I thought it would be cool with our staff there to score in front of them, having come this whole way to watch me. I had 2 goals and an assist in a big win for the Western Conference, and it was all so exhilarating.

When we got to the final Championship Game it was the Eastern Conference vs the Western Conference (in typical rivalry fashion, of course), and everyone wanted to win. Everyone’s competitive nature truly kicked in, and we made one heck of a show out of it. Unfortunately, we came up short to the East. Late in the game,  one of the game’s referees kicked the puck to Kali Flanagan, one of the women from Team USA that played in the game with us, and she scored on that “assist”, if you can call it that, into an open net to make it 3-1. Despite a valiant comeback (and another assist from me), we were just bested by a 4-3 score. Though we didn’t take the ultimate prize for the Western Conference, the game was an amazing event to be a part of.

When I look back on the week that was, it was an overall outstanding experience. I’m going to take going to the All-Star Game as a building block in my career. I’ve had a great month of January to earn a chance to go to the game, and on top of that, the team has been winning games. It’s all about using this to keep the snowball going in the right direction here in the second half of the season, and hopefully I can continue to be a big part of this team as we push on to make a deep run in the playoffs.

I’d like to thank everyone from the Rush front office, especially Todd, Val, and Jared for being there at the game and being great with me the whole time if I needed anything. I want to thank our owner, Jeff, and all the support he’s provided our team throughout this season. I especially would like to thank Coach Tetrault for pushing me to get there and represent our team. Lastly, I want to thank my sister, Jill, for always being there for me and being an inspiration for me, my mom, and my dad for always watching our games and supporting my journey.

Rush Nation, I was so proud to represent all of you at the 2020 ECHL All-Star Game! Let’s keep winning games, playing great hockey, and lets make the playoffs and make some serious noise! Thanks for everything!

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