Sin City 'freeze'

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

It was a playoff series unlike most others.

An odd encounter, but not because the road team found more success, or because the deciding game was decided in triple overtime.

This was a very different showdown because it took place in the two most diverse hockey communities in North America. On one bench were the Las Vegas Wranglers. On the other side were the Alaska Aces.

Vegas and Alaska.

Sin City versus Chilly Town.

"It was definitely a strange situation," said Alaska head coach Davis Payne. "We're in a cold-weather climate and a really great hockey town. Then we leave for Las Vegas and it's 85 degrees, there's slot machines, and people there are partying for all they're worth."

The series featured the two best teams from the ECHL's regular season, and it was fittingly a hard-fought conference semifinal that the Aces pulled out in six games.

But even in Vegas, where the NBA playoffs and NFL draft were capturing most of the sporting attention, the series did cause a little stir with more than 6,000 fans turning out for a weekend game at the arena attached to the Orleans Hotel and Casino.

But being that close to high-stakes poker, hot action in the sportsbook and even hotter scenery by the pool can lead to wandering minds for a hockey player. Smartly, the Aces avoided the temptations.

"We were there during the regular season - on Super Bowl Sunday - and we thought we might be back for the playoffs so we got it all out of our systems," said Alaska forward and Edmonton native Alex Leavitt.

A TON OF DISTRACTIONS

"At the Orleans there are a ton of distractions, so when we came back for the playoffs our ownership spent about $10,000 extra and put us in a secluded hotel off the strip."

Leavitt, a first-year pro after two years at the University of Wisconsin and two in the WHL, made sure his second visit to Vegas was far tamer than his first.

"There were about 100,000 people around and it was constant mayhem," said Leavitt. "We saw the sights, went to a couple of shows and experienced the nightlife. It was unbelievable for me.

''It was so weird - like being on a different planet. We went on a mission to find Paris Hilton, but we never saw her. She was probably somewhere a lot cooler than where we were."

For Payne, a seventh-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 1989, it was the first time in his five-year coaching career that he put an official "lockdown" on his players.

"I was playing for San Antonio in the IHL and we had a long stretch between games. There was no ice in San Antonio, so we just stayed in Vegas,'' Payne recalled.

"You can imagine some of those early morning practices.

''We were out of the playoffs and guys' mindsets were elsewhere. For one memorable practice it was definitely safer to be off the ice than on it."

Even the home team has to be mindful of Vegas's charms.

"It can be a little overwhelming for a kid who played in the WHL and grew up on the farm," said Wranglers assistant coach Brent Bilodeau, a product of Clyde and an Oiler training-camp hopeful in 1999.

"You really need a good group of leaders who can help guys out and remind them that you're there for business.

''We've wanted some guys to come and play here and they've said no because they knew they'd get into too much trouble."

'A REALLY NICE CHANGE'

A typical hockey player might have to look pretty hard to find some trouble in Anchorage, the home of the Aces.

But it's not like the visiting team wasn't anxious to get there.

"It's a really nice change for us," added Bilodeau.

''At the beginning of the year we went up there and it was almost completely dark. Last week it was light until 10 at night, which was really something to our American guys who had no idea about that.

''But I think our guys were more excited about the seafood there, especially the fresh halibut."

"Our seafood is the best. It's not even close," laughed Leavitt.

"A guy up here gives us great deals. He once got us these king crab legs that were about three feet long. And the halibut is amazing."


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