By: Kelcee Kent (4/2/2018)
As the hockey season beings to wind down and the Gamblers continue to pursue a playoff spot, we look back to the 2011-2012 season when they last raised both the Clark and Anderson Cups.
Under Head Coach Derek Lalonde and current head coach Pat Mikesch, then serving as Associate Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel, the Gamblers captured their third Anderson Cup in the last four years. Their 98 points (47-9-4) set a USHL record for points in a season, breaking the old mark of 97 points held by the 1997-98 Des Moines Buccaneers.
The team consisted of several notable Green Bay Gambler alumni including Andy Welinski, who was named the 2011-2012 Dave Tyler Junior Player of the Year, 2011-2012 USHL Defenseman of the Year and All-USHL First Team Honors.
Before all the accolades, Welisnki was just a young Minnesota kid playing the sport he loved. The Duluth native first learned to skate as a toddler at his local outdoor rink. A few years later his parents enrolled him into the local hockey program right down the street from his house.
From there, Welinski’s youth and early high school careers got him noticed by the USHL. During his sophomore year of high school, he received a surprising call from the Green Bay Gamblers notifying him about the USHL Futures Draft.
“At that time, I didn’t know the USHL had a league and I didn’t even know they had a Futures Draft,” said Welinski. “So it was interesting to get that call, and it took me by surprise – and something I wasn’t honestly thinking about at the time.”
After being drafted by Green Bay in 2010, a humble Welinski quickly learned of the opportunities that the league could offer him.
“I looked into it more at that time and went day-by-day at the point to learn all of the new things,” said Welinski. “My first year was definitely a learning experience. It was the first time I was out of the house at 16 years old – and I was still enrolled in high school that first year, so that in itself was a learning experience outside of hockey.”
With the commitment of playing in the USHL comes the task of adapting to a new city, community and team, but Welinski quickly familiarized himself with his new surroundings to prove his place on the Gamblers squad.
In his first season, the defenseman skated in 51 games posting six goals and eight assists, while helping his team make to the Clark Cup Finals. Unfortunately for Welinski and his Gambler teammates they fell to the Dubuque Fighting Saints in four games.
“We had a lot of success, won a lot of games, and had a lot of great teammates in that first year,” reflected Welinski.
That June, Welinski was invited to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in his home state of Minnesota. Held at the Xcel Energy Center, he was selected in the 3rd round (83rd overall) by the Anaheim Ducks.
“Just to go through that whole process, even leading up to it, and the day of, was pretty special,” said Welinski. “I do take the credit – it was my name getting called, but all of the support from my family and friends who were able to drive down and be there for me was unforgettable. That weekend was huge for me and to be able to enjoy that with them in my home state. That was so special.”
As Fall of 2011 neared, Welinski prepared to suit up for year two with the Gamblers.
“I went into the second year a little more comfortable. Feeling that taste of playoff hockey we had in my first year definitely gave me more drive and passion into my game as a hockey player, and that translated into that second year,” said Welinski.
And translate it did. In season two, he helped the Gamblers to the Anderson Cup and the #1 seed in the Clark Cup Playoffs – posting 15 goals and 22 assists in 54 regular season games. Collectively the Gamblers won a franchise record 47 games, never once losing back-to-back games.
In the playoffs the Gamblers defeated the Youngstown Phantoms and Indiana Ice in the quarter and semi-finals, before moving on to play the Waterloo Black Hawks in the finals.
“The part that I think I’ll remember the most is that we didn’t just squeak by as a playoff team. We really dominated and played our best hockey of the year and that’s obviously how you want to be playing it,” said Welinski.
On May 23rd, 2012, game five of the finals returned to the Resch Center where the Gamblers in front of 7,007 fans, defeated Waterloo 5-2 to hoist the Clark Cup.
“It’s something that I will never forget,” said Welinski. “That group of guys and the caliber of that team was the type of situation where we knew we had the team to do it. Coming together and accomplishing that ultimate goal at the end of the season was huge for us.”
Following the massive on-ice accomplishment, Welinski’s junior career wrapped up and he was soon headed back home to play Division I hockey at the University of Minnesota – Duluth.
“I definitely had conversations with other colleges at that time, but when the option came through my door to play at UMD, it was a pretty quick decision for me,” said Welinski. “I don’t want to necessarily say that I was waiting for that offer, but once it presented itself to me, I was definitely jumping at the opportunity. Growing up in Duluth, having the opportunity to play at home was special not only for me, but also my friends and family, and it was something that I couldn’t pass up.”
At UMD, Welinski skated in 38 games his first season – an opportunity not many freshmen obtain.
“Being in my hometown and stepping on that ice the first time as a freshman in college is something that I will not forget,” he said. “The comfort of being able to play at the collegiate level in my hometown made for an easier transition for me.”
In junior and senior seasons at UMD, Welinski was recognized for his leadership, serving as assistant captain in 2014-2015 and team captain the following year. During his senior campaign, Welinski was also named UMD’s Most Valuable Player.
“As my development progressed through school, again I slowly became more comfortable and improved my development within both hockey and my academics,” he said.
During the course of four seasons with the Bulldogs, Welinski appeared in 154 games, posting 24 goals and 53 assists.
Upon the completion of his senior season, Welinski reflected on his collegiate career and the future that lay ahead. That April, he signed with the Anehiem Ducks and finished his season skating for their AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls, in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“After weighing my options, it worked out really well for me to sign with them right away. It all moved pretty quickly, but if definitely was beneficial to go right away and finish up that season with the Gulls. It really helped in the transition of the season following,” he said.
Currently, Welinski is in his second full season with the Gulls. Welinski leads all Gulls defensemen and ranks 10th among all AHL defensemen in scoring (10 goals & 24 assists).
“The coaching staff has been really good. I attribute a lot to them. They do a lot to make us better and to have a cohesive team. We’re in a battle here right now for the playoffs. My experience is that it has been a really good year, but it also it a development league for the NHL and I think they’ve done a really good job developing players,” he said.
While on the road in Des Moines this past December, Welinski got the call that every player who has ever laced up the skates dreams of – a call from the NHL.
“It’s one of those things that you never really know if and when it’s going to happen, and so you have to try and prepare yourself as best as you can until you actually get that call. I flew out early the next morning. I was able to talk to my parents that night – I probably woke them up” joked Welinski. “But they were definitely very excited about it, as was I. Putting all that work in, it was a dream come true to get the call-up.
On December 11th, Welinski made his NHL debut with the Ducks against the Carolina Hurricanes. Welinski recorded a pair of assist in four games with the Ducks, before being sent back to San Diego.
“The atmosphere is something that you can’t really replicate,” said Welinski of the NHL. It’s hockey at his highest level, so my first couple games the nerves were definitely setting in. But the guys did a good job of helping to make me feel comfortable in that atmosphere and I was able to play my game.”
On March 20, Welinski was recalled again by the Ducks. Anaheim currently sits in the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Andy Welinski’s hockey journey seemed to begin just a few years ago when he and the Gamblers hoisted the Clark Cup in 2012. Today, Gamblers past and present relish the accomplishments of alumni like Welinski, who under the California sun, is well on his way to hoisting Lord Stanley one day.