Monday 22 August 2016

Wearing #13: Grizzlies Main Camp Preview

In just a matter of a few hours the Victoria Grizzlies will open their 2016 Main Camp at Westhills Arena in Langford, BC and if any of the anecdotal indications run true to form, I would suggest that this will be one of the most competitive and promising camps we have seen in years.  But more on that in a few moments.

I wanted to first take a quick moment before we begin and acknowledge the sad news concerning the loss of former Salsa player, Eddie Samuels.  Eddie was lost on 6 Aug, 2016 to heart failure at the young age of only 30.  Eddie was a just s fabulous young man and its funny because for reasons which I will soon explain, I remember him so well from that 04/05 Victoria Salsa team.

The first thing I remember about Eddie was that he wore #13, which as we all know is somewhat rare for most hockey players who are about as superstitious a demographic as any you will find.  Eddie was also on a team with teammates who would later become established NHL talents, Tyler Bozak and Jordie Benn.  I used to talk to Eddie on a lot of nights when he really shouldn't have been in that much of a mood to talk and be pleasant.  You see Eddie's jersey number often described in a literal way his position on the team's depth chart.  In many ways, Eddie was that proverbial thirteenth forward for the Salsa that season.

#13 Eddie Samuels, a player who always had a smile for anyone, regardless of his position in the lineup
I would often find Eddie in a business suit leaning against the blue railings along the south end of the brand new Q Centre (known then as Bear Mountain Arena), watching the Salsa warmup.  On night's when Eddie and I would chat, he was usually a healthy scratch and the truth is that he was unfortunately enduring those circumstances about half of the nights he played for the club. And that's hockey.  I always remember that he had tons of time for both me and any of my three sons on any given night and you could always count on him to be open and honest and quick with a smile.  He never once felt sorry for himself for being a scratch and on the contrary he would muse about the joy and honour about being a player in the BCHL.  He was way more than stoic on those occasions, Eddie Samuels was down right dignified.

Almost ten years later, my eldest son would end up playing his first regular season game in the BCHL and I remember thinking of Eddie Samuels when I saw him on the Grizzlies bench wearing the #13 without a name bar. I remember thinking how cool it was that a player of Eddie's skill and dignity would later have his jersey number worn by a local 17 year old who once looked up to #13 as a player and even more so as a role model.  Eddie was very special and he will be missed.  I can only wish his family well in these difficult times and may God Bless.

It's a bit strange, because the theme of the 13th forward is perfect for this Main Camp preview because this season's Grizzlies camp may in fact feature a few forwards in the potential role of that dreaded thirteenth forward.  Obviously there is the depth of this year's core group attending Main Camp.  But secondly and perhaps as no small point is the fact that 98' born forward Spencer Hunter will likely start the season on the IR as he recovers from an injury from last season.  This will allow Coach Craig Didmon to likely leave camp with a 23 man roster until Hunter returns. At least that's what the tea leaves tell me as I dissect this club on paper.

What this camp will see in my view is a very rare thing, a completely established position in goal with two returning 19 year olds in goalies Mitch Benson and Matthew Galajda, both returning in net.  That is a huge advantage for the Grizzlies.  They are backed up by an equally impressive returning core of defensemen in Cody Van Lierop, Jake Stevens, Brett Stirling and Drayson Pears. Add to that mix Nico Somerville of the VIJHL Champions Victoria Cougars and you suddenly have what I think could be the most formidable back end perhaps in the entire Island Division and maybe more.  Just sayin...

What surprises me is what I have read on line in many of the various social media sites about how the Grizzlies may not be rated that high this season.  From what I have read and heard from some fans in the off season, the big questions are around the forwards and there is concern.  Not for me there is.  I think the forwards will be just fine.

From what I can see of the returning group, I think that the often maligned position on forward for the Grizzlies may have an up year in 2016/17.  First off is the big news that Nathan Looysen has decided not to play for his SJHL club after all and has instead decided to complete his junior career back home in Victoria and I for one am very happy to see that is the case. Looysen, with 101 points for the aforementioned Cougars last year had just two call-up games for the Grizzlies, both on the road and he was fantastic in my opinion. With almost zero prep time to adjust to BCHL speed, he played in Penticton vs future 2016 NHL First Round draft picks and I thought he looked just fine. The next day he dominated the Langley Rivermen on the road with a nice tidy two point game.  In short, the return of Looysen in my view is about the best bit of news to come by way of the Q Centre in quite a while.

Looysen lead the entire VIJHL last year with 101 points and lead his club to a league championship in 15/16
Now there is the obvious problem that Looysen is another 20 year old and Coach Didmon suddenly found himself last week with no less than eight 20 year olds in camp.  But as we just saw a few days ago, the Grizzlies elected to move 96' forward Mitchell Barker to the West Kelowna Warriors for futures.  I am a bit sad to see such a great PK expert like Barker go, but room had to be made for squeezing 8 players into 6 spots.  Now there is but a single 20 year-old decision for the GM to make and while tough indeed, one difficult decision sure beats two in this case.

A WK Warrior since the 19 Aug trade, Barker was always a stalwart on the PK for the Grizzlies
Forgive me, but it is probably safe to say that core veterans Cole Pickup, Bret Stirling, Jake Stevens, Cody Van Lierop along with Looysen will all make the club as twenty year olds.  Could it come down to a decision between two solid and gritty forwards from last year's squad, Nick Guiney or Alex Peck?  The local newspaper seems to think so, but I wonder is there another shoe to drop? Could there be another surprise in store before the BCHL start deadline?

I just don't know.  Frankly likely very few know for sure, but one thing is for sure, this year's Grizzlies squad will not be like the team we saw last September which iced only 7 returning veterans from the 14/15 playoff squad.  This season the Grizzlies will be thick with returning vets and frankly I think that any opinion which sees the Grizzlies wallowing down near the bottom of the Island Division is one which is simply ill informed.

With The Shock and Awe Line of Keyvan Mokhtari and Tyler Welsh returning, the question I have is who will be the lucky forward who gets to join those two stellar playmakers for a full season?  I am picking Welsh to finish in the top 5 in the entire BCHL in assists for the season and if anyone cares to lay a wager on it, I drink Tim Hortons Medium Black.

Who will be the lucky forward who will join the speedy Mokhtari in 2016?
I mean here is a serious question:  If you were an attacking forward on an opposition club, how would you like to get a mouth full of Stirling, Stevens, Van Lierop and Pears shift after shift?  And even if you got through those veteran D-men, what shape would you be in and where would the puck be on your stick as you prepared to shoot on either Benson or Galajda?

Could this be the look of opposition forwards after facing 3 straight periods of Stirling, Stevens, Van Lierop and Pears
The newcomers could be very good and even if they take time to develop, I think this year, unlike 2015 will be much easier on the rookies.  Last year the rookies were simply asked to do cross a Bridge Too Far in my modest opinion.  There just was a touch too much pressure for the rookies to score and it hurt the club throughout the year.  Again, my opinion only. 

But this year the fresh faces of 98' (F) Brett Parker (44 points with Hanover High School), Arizona native 97' (F) Sage Eglund (14-6-10-16 Boston Jr Rangers), 97' (F) Lucas Clark (39-16-20-36 Port Perry MoJacks of the COJCHL), Vermont native (F) Adam Peck (26-17-31-48 Selects Hockey and younger brother of Alex), 98' (F) Jett Jaraczewski (19-8-20-28 Notre Dame USHS), 98' (F) Jamieson Rome (31-10-8-18 Calgary North Stars Midget AAA)  along with highly touted (D) Dayne Finnson (24-5-12-17), a former teammate of Brett Sterling form Salisbury School could all have enjoy that coveted "time to gel" and not be thrown directly into the fire on Day 1.  That could be huge in terms of the youngsters' development in the toughest Jr. A league in the country.

Then you have some of the locals and a few of the camp invites who I am really interested in seeing.  Frist there is VIJHL Rookie of the Year in 98' (F) Cam Thompson (45-23-21-44 Peninsula Panthers) .  But then there is the player I like to call "The Greatest Hands in Langford", 97' (F) Cory Hatcher (36-16-26-42 Westshore Wolves) who if it was up to me I would put on the Shock and Awe Line on Day 1 then get myself a big bag of popcorn and just sit back and watch the fireworks.

To sum up, I think the Grizzlies are going to be more than OK.  Yes I do also think that Coach Didmon will have some very tough decisions to make over the next two weeks, full stop.  But these decisions and issues are what I like to call "Quality Problems".  And I will just bet that there are a lot of coaches and GMs from across the league who would like to be in his shoes going into Main Camps which break out all across the league in a matter of minutes, not hours from now.

Why we all play this game: for each other
All I know is that for whomever those players are who are left in Coach Didmon's team by the end of camp, there will almost certainly be a jersey #13 available for name bar stitching from veteran Head Equipment Man extraordinaire, Mel Smith.  And while those days for me are nothing but a distant memory if I still wore the shoes of a seventeen year old hockey player, I think I know exactly what I would say if I was fortunate enough to make the 2016/17 Grizzlies:  "Hey Mel, is that #13 still available back there?  I think I might be able to give it a good home."

See you along the glass. -CC

Sunday 15 May 2016

Grizzlies 2015/16 Year End Wrap Up

With the West Kelowna Warriors now officially crowned as the 2015/16 Fred Page Cup Champions, the time has now come to close the books officially on the past season of the Victoria Grizzlies.  Let's first properly congratulate the Warriors on a BCHL Championship with a special shout out to former Grizzlies forward, Garrett Forster who was traded to the Warriors last June for Brayden Gelsinger.  Now here is a really interesting but probably completely useless trivia question:  Which former original member of The Hands Line has won a Fred Page Cup?  It's not Brett Gruber or Matt Kennedy.  Nope, the answer is of course that third member of The Hands Line, Garrett Forster.  So congrats to Forsy who also just signed a DIV III scholarship with the St. Norbert College Green Knights of DePere Wisconsin. 

Living Room Trivia: "Bubble Hockey #9 Forsy" now has a  Fred Page Cup
And let's not forget about that other connection to Victoria in former Salsa Head Coach Rylan Ferster who of course lead the Warriors to the BCHL Championship this season.  So let's all wish Coach Fertser and the Warriors good luck as they play in the 2016 RBC Cup which at the time of publishing of this blog already had the Warriors 1-0 in the tournament.

A very happy WK Warriors squad after qualifying for the 2016 RBC Cup
Now in this episode we will attempt to dissect the latest season for the Grizzlies and of course I will attempt to discern what I can about the upcoming campaign.  But before I do that, I want to take a final moment and finish off talking about that plucky Jr. B team which made national headlines over the last month, a team which I talked at length about when we last spoke, the 100 Mile House Wranglers of the KIJHL.  Not only did they upset the host Victoria Cougars in the Cyclone Taylor Cup, but as most of you know by now, they went on to win the Keystone Cup the following week.  And they did it in typical thrilling fashion in the Championship Game, a 3-2 OT win over the much favoured Quakers.  What a season of Junior Hockey in BC for 2015/16.  First, West Kelowna wins the Fred Page Cup.  Next, in Jr. B the Wranglers, against all odds, won both the BC Championship and then the Western Canadian Championships.  What a year indeed.

I guess what I am really saying is that if the Grizzlies were ever going to pick a year to fail to qualify for the post season, well maybe last year was as good as any.  What I mean by that is that after the wild post season we just witnessed, not to mention the incredible year in Jr. B, few I doubt will recall that small detail about the Grizzlies non-playoff berth any time soon.  After all of the dust settled, it suddenly seemed to me in both Jr. A and in Jr. B that there were certain clubs with almost preordained destinies.  With that said, let's take a moment and pull out the box scores and review this past 2015/16 season.  For one final time let's look back at what was one of the most unusual and tumultuous seasons of Grizzlies Hockey.

I have tried to remind fans of the Grizzlies to step back and look at the bigger picture when they contemplate the past season and the somewhat disappointing end to the year.  What people often forget is that at this time last year, that the franchise was embroiled in a fairly heated lease negotiation with West Shore Parks and Recreation (WSPR) concerning their tenure at the Q Centre.  There were reports in the media about the Grizzlies possibly "turning out the lights" on the franchise. There was speculation all over the place about the club relocating to Campbell River.  Well as we all know, none of that ever happened.  WSPR came to an agreement on the lease and the Grizzlies now have 4 more years left on the current lease which will keep BCHL hockey in Colwood for the foreseeable future.  Then later in the year, there were some changes in the club's ownership model which would help simplify how the club would be run moving forward.  Best of all was attendance.  In spite of a losing season and a failure to qualify for the playoffs, the Grizzlies averaged over, 1,100 fans/game.   The "So What Factor" in all of this is that the Grizzlies organization averted what could have been certain disaster last season and attendance improved.  Now for the first time in many years they enjoy a much more stable future and steady ownership model.

New Q Centre 5 year lease signed in June 2015, potentially saved the Grizzlies franchise
So let's now talk specifics on Grizzlies hockey.  Losing 10 out of your first 11 games for any club would normally spell disaster.  Despite that, the Grizzlies nearly pulled off the impossible by going a huge winning streak in January.  At one point they had won 8 in a row.  Then on 29 January, the Grizzlies would defeat the Nanaimo Clippers at The Frank Crane for their only win of the season vs the eventual Island Division Champions.  Nobody knew it at the time, but that win would prove to be the Grizzlies' high water mark on the season.  After that however, the team would somehow manage to lose nearly every remaining game in their schedule and miss out on a playoff birth by the smallest of fractions to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.  It would be the first time the Grizzlies had failed to make the playoffs since 2011-2012.

From my perspective, it spite of some great leadership from players like PJ Conlon and Cody Van Lierop, it was a season which never seemed to gel for the Grizzlies.  Now every year you will have a player or two who just doesn't seem to work out. Those players usually move on to other opportunities, sometimes at lower leagues.  But last season it seemed that there was just an unending line of Grizzlies players who played a considerable amount of games, but unfortunately were just not able to remain at the BCHL level.  Here is just a small sample of the names of some of the highly touted players who only played a fraction of the season and were soon to move on.  Sage Fleming, Cal Walker, J.D. Falconer, Luc Soares, Corey Iapalucci and Colby Livingstone were all highly touted new arrivals last year.  Yet each player for one reason or another just were not able to finish the year with the club and ended up moving on.  That's six players who helped to make up the spine of the team but ultimately had to be let go.  In my humble opinion it was one of the key factors which really hurt the club last year.  Frankly, there just were not enough Dane Gibsons, Matt Kennedys or Meirs Moores in last year's Main Camp and it just became too much of a hill to climb for the seven returning veterans to manage.  In retrospect, it was probably just too big an ask of the veterans to try and carry the team throughout the season, a season which witnessed winning records in only the months of November and January.

Then there was the goal scoring.  While it certainly improved, there was a point in the first few months of the year when it looked like the Grizzlies might set new record lows in terms of goal scoring.  Thankfully, Coach Didmon and the staff managed to right the ship in that regard and certainly by the end of the year, the Grizzlies were scoring at a very healthy rate.  But that slow start left a mark on the season unfortunately.  In the end, the multitude of one goal losses spelled disaster; there just wasn't enough room to manoeuvre in terms of points and the club fell short of the playoffs.

With that said, the goals against were well down in 2015/16 and this represented a major improvement from the previous year.  The 210 goals against which the Grizzlies shipped in the run and gun high octane 2014/15 season, were well down this past year.  The team which was anchored by rookie 18 year old goaltenders Matt Galajda and Mitchell Benson were hard to score upon on most nights and the defencemen were all uniformly solid last year.  That figure of 210 goals surrendered from the season before was down to 178 goals against in 15/16, a significant improvement indeed.

When it came to Special Teams this year was really a bit of "A Tale of Two Cities" for the Grizzlies.  Here is what I mean by that.  When it came to the Power Play, the Grizzlies were #1 in that stat in 2014/15.  Fast forward one year and the club sat pretty much rock bottom all season long.  Even with the addition of Dante Hahn mid-way through the year, there was only a modest improvement in the PP percentage.  In my opinion, that was almost entirely a function of the fact that the Grizzlies returned not a single player from their league leading PP from the year before.  The opposite was true of the PK which lead the league for a considerable portion of this past season and ended at a respectable fifth in the league at 83.0%.  It was a PK system with almost all of the 2014-15 PK specialists returning this year, players like Mitchell Barker, Kevin Massy along with Conlon and Van Lierop,   The efficient PK combined with the anemic PP might leave some fans in a state of bewilderment, but for me, I found none of this surprising for the reasons mentioned thus far.  This was a club with tons of experience on the PK and it showed all year long.  But that was not the case when it came to the man advantage; the Grizzlies barely scrapped into second last position by year end at a measly 15.0% PP efficiency.

In summation, I would grade the Forwards with a C+.  It was a case of doing more with less in the early going but the in the end, all the forwards improved and that's what is important.  The defence I would give an A- in view of the major improvement in terms of goals allowed on the season.  Goaltending gets a nice A- in my opinion based largely on the fact that both goalies were BCHL rookies and at 18 years old held up remarkably well while under huge pressure, especially early on with all those one goal losses.  Special Teams gets a C- and that's largely a function of a PP which regrettably just wasn't up to it this past season.  Coaching earns a B+ for me. The big surprise for me was the quality of all of the rookie coaches who really got their first real taste of coaching both behind the bench and on the ice; Coach Didmon will have much more experience to help him in the next campaign.  General Manager and Ownership also gets a B+ on the year.  I liked the restructuring of the ownership model and the infusion of some new blood while selling off some smaller pieces of the pie.  But saving the franchise with the new Q Centre deal was the biggest takeaway on the season as far as I am concerned.  It was a season which might not have been had that deal turned pear shaped last summer.

And last but not least is the future.  Multi-talented forward Nathan Looysen (ex-Victoria Cougars)  who lead the VIJHL in points this past season will be back in his rightful place as a BCHL player next year.  I look to him to lead the offense as a 20 year old.  To me it was a shame he didn't feature in a Grizzlies shirt more than just twice last season.  Another ex-Cougar gifted D-Man, Nico Somerville along with VIJHL Rookie of the Year, Cam Thompson (ex-Peninsula Panthers) will be big pieces for the future and I look to both players to make an impact.  Much like Drayson Pears did last season with a full season of VIJHL hockey behind them, these players could all take big steps in 2016/17. 

A glimpse of 2016/17: from left, Cam Thompson, Nathan Looysen and Nico Somerville. Photograph By BRUCE STOTESBURY, Times Colonist 
As far as returning players go, the Shock and Awe Liners of Keyvan Mokhtari and Tyler Welsh should both have huge sophomore years in Jr. A.  The strong goaltending as we discussed should be stellar and if Coach Didmon can return both Galajda and Benson, the Grizzlies may just possess the best goaltending pair in the Island Division.  But for me the brightest outlook rests with this stalwart defensive corps.  Just listen to the names of these returning D-Men:  Jake Stevens, Cody Van Lierop, Brett Stirling and Drayson Pears.  Those four veteran blue liners, three being 20 year olds, may very well end up representing the very best top two D pairings in the entire league.  With an ultra-strong back end anchoring a more veteran bench in 16/17, this might finally be the year where Coach Didmon can ice a team built entirely by him. This team could have a serious chance of going deep in the playoffs next spring in my humble view.  Until then, enjoy your summer and we will talk to you next as Main Camp approaches in August. -CC

Monday 11 April 2016

The Jungle Is Dead: A Cyclone Taylor Cup For The Ages

For friends of the Grizzlies/Salsa organization, when you bring up the subject of the old 1961 built Archie Browning Memorial Arena in Esquimalt BC, there are some not-so-fond memories of a tough non-playoff season which the Salsa spent there in 2003.  It was that year when their former and long time home on Blanchard Street, the venerable Memorial Arena (built in 1951) was demolished in favour of a new multi-purpose arena, built on the same site. 

Built in 1951, Memorial Arena witnessed the Salsa win the Fred Page Cup in 2001, you can still smell the onions cooking
The new building would come to be known as Save On Foods Memorial Centre and it serves to this day as Victoria's centerpiece in terms of multi-purpose arenas.  It is bigger, supposedly better and I will admit it is just great for a Shania Twain or Def Lepard concert.  It even has a $120,000 commissioned modern art piece outside the building which leaves nearly every visiting hockey fan a moment to pause and be grateful for the many tax dollars assigned to such a pretentious display of technical and artistic malfeasance. 

SOFMC complete with modern art which truly captures the "spirit" of Blanchard Street
To the sculptor's great credit however, the piece does serve as a wonderfully inspired monument for the many other Victoria natives who enjoy the contemplation and interpretation of its design while legally consuming their "medicinal supply" from one of the city's many "tree dispensaries".  But if you just want to watch a hockey game, even a WHL Royals game, the new confines in my humble view always fall short in terms of atmosphere.

Mowry Baden’s abstract sculpture Pavilion, Rock and Shell, unveiled outside Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in 2003
Meanwhile back at The Arch in Esquimalt, atmosphere has never been an issue.  By 2004 they would use the old seats from the original Memorial Arena to re-furnish the confines of the old rink on Esquimalt Rd.  Furthermore, the Township of Esquimalt in 2015 upgraded the building to give it a nice, bright and modern exterior look along with some new internal work.  All of this was completed just in time for the VIJHL Victoria Cougars to be granted the rights to host the 2016 BC Jr B Hockey Championships, aka The Cyclone Taylor Cup (CTC) from 8-11 April, 2016.  Plus it has a nice little McDonald's restaurant adjoining the rink for a quick post game snack.

The new and beautiful exterior look of the Archie Browning, host of the 2016 Cyclone Taylor Cup
I have often said that the unfair narrative of Jr B Hockey in BC is that it is too rough, poorly run, too cheap and featuring a vastly lower quality of play.  Many refer to the three Jr. B leagues in the province as "The Jungle".  I for one have never bought into that "Jungle" narrative and I can tell you that after witnessing first hand all eight games of the 2016 CTC this past weekend, that story is getting kind of old.  Frankly, it's just not true, not even close.  So while I don't usually spend a lot of time on this Grizzlies blog site writing about Junior B, today I shall.  Hopefully by the end of this piece you will understand why.  For Grizzlies fans the story I am about to tell has plenty of direct lines to their team and hopefully, it may portend a story which might one day become a dream come true at The Q Centre.  But mostly, it should underline a view I have long maintained:  The Jungle is dead.

The cozy confines of The Arch. The North Stand at left was home this weekend to +250 Wrangler fans
Look, I won't try and cover up the fact that if you asked me a week ago to tell you everything that I knew at the time about the 100 Mile House Wranglers, you would likely have left the conversation a bit underwhelmed at my knowledge of this plucky little club from the South Cariboo.  In fact, my only visits to the town comprise of little more than simply passing through its darkened streets during the Grizzlies annual trek up the Cariboo Highway to Prince George to play the Spruce Kings once per year.  Truth be told, when I was asked over a year ago to help out with the broadcast of this past weekend's CTC, I would later have to do a little scrambling to dig up what I could on the Wranglers.  As The Wranglers suddenly emerged as KIJHL Champions defeating the favored Kimberley Dynamiters 4-1 in their series in early April, I certainly was rapidly trying to learn whatever I could about "The Wrangler Nation".

I have to say that when I walked into the Archie on Thursday afternoon in anticipation of the first of four straight days of CTC play, the first thing that I saw was this entity known as "The Wrangler Nation".  I almost stopped in my tracks.  There I saw almost 250+ visiting Wrangler fans, all jammed into the seats in the North End of "The Arch".  It was a sight to behold and a reminder to everyone what small town hockey is all about and why tournaments like the CTC are more than just special, they are in fact a celebration of the game we all love.  All weekend the Wrangler Nation would rock the North End Stands of The Archie.  The town's rather large travelling throngs would in fact represent 40% of all pre-tourney ticket sales for the entire tournament, an amazing feat.

Sunday morning's 10:00 am Bronze Medal game between CR Storm and Mission City Outlaws
By now, you all would know that the Championship Game ended 5-4 in favour of the Wranglers over the much favoured and offensively dominant Victoria Cougars.  It was a wild affair and in proper fashion it went right down to the wire.  The last time I can recall that type of anticipation and energy in a Victoria hockey building was the 2001 Victoria Salsa vs the Merritt Centennials in that Fred Page Cup Classic in the old Memorial Arena on Blanchard Street.   And yes, I am mindful and have been present at most of this year's action with the WHL Victoria Royals as they are poised to maybe bring serious hockey hardware back to Vancouver Island and that is great news of course.  But once again, in my view there is just a general lack of atmosphere downtown at the antiseptic like Save On Foods.  They don't even cook the onions.

Nope, for me this was way, way better.  Here you had two teams from two different leagues fighting it out in front of a nearly packed barn in Esquimalt on a Sunday afternoon.  And the Wrangler Nation simply stole the show.  Everywhere you looked, all you could see along that North End was a sea of navy blue, yellow, silver and white along with flags, signs, placards and one hell of a lot of noise.  It was pandemonium, sheer bedlam at times. 

Forward Nick McCabe got things going early with the first goal of the game for the Wranglers and the game would continue to go the way of the underdogs in spite of some Cougars push back in Period #3.  Only seconds into the final frame, the Wranglers would strike again.  This time it was on the PP, with former Victoria Grizzlies player and 2 time February call up, Nathan Looysen in the penalty box from a late 2nd period penalty.  3-1 was the score at that point of the game and with the superb play of goaltender Zane Steeves (eventual tournament MVP) holding back the Cougars, you began to think that the Wranglers were perhaps on their way to a big upset.  But after 3 straight unanswered Cougars goals from Dom Kolbiens, Jordan Passmore (with an assist from Grizzlies AP Nico Sommerville) and John Kretzschmar, the favoured Cougars were back in front with only about 7:26 left on the clock.

Meanwhile back on the Wranglers bench the jovial and upbeat but equally pragmatic Head Coach, Dale Hladun simply looked at his team and smiled.  He looked at his beleaguered charges as they had suddenly surrendered the lead to the powerhouse Cougars and said:  "Fellas, why do you look so sad, cheer up, what else is new?  We've been making it hard on ourselves all year, why stop now?  This is how we do it.  This is how we always win, the hard way.  This is Wranglers hockey.  Now come on, let's go!"

And remember too that the Cougars were without the services of two of the most important pieces to their 2016 VIJHL title.  Gone was #1 net-minder and Peoria, Arizona native, Anthony Cuirro. He had had unfortunately broken his collar bone during a routine shot from a teammate no less, during warmup on Friday night.  Also gone was top Cougar defenseman, Austin Wilk, who was suspended for a hit to the head penalty from the Saturday night game.  Those two moments on consecutive nights for the Cougars would come to help spell disaster on Sunday afternoon.  The Cougars, who had breezed through the Round Robin without even a single loss were simply always chasing the Championship game or so it seemed.

And then suddenly it happened.  With just under 6 minutes remaining in the 3rd period and with the Cougars holding a lead in the title game for less than 2 minutes, the Cougars would surrender the puck just to the right of their new #1 goalie, Gregory Maggio.  And you could not have coughed up the puck to any Wrangler more dangerous than #19 Brett Harris who quickly roofed the puck over Maggio and the game was tied again at 4-4.  The Wrangler Nation exploded and the McDonald's customers on the other side of the adjoining wall of the north end "The Arch" complained to the 15 year old management team that the noise and vibration coming through the walls of the building was so severe it was upsetting their enjoyment of their Happy Meals.  Overtime loomed large.

Happy Meal sales dropped to near zero during the CTC anytime the Wrangler Nation were shaking the walls of The Arch
But overtime would never be needed in the end.  With a late penalty to 20 year old Jordan Passmore for head contact, the Wranglers went back on the PP.  With just 55 secs remaining in the game, Ryan Friesen would get a side board feed from former BCHL alumnus and Alberni Bulldog Tyler Povelofskie and fire home the go ahead marker. The McDonald's Happy Meals were rocking and rolling on the other side of the north end wall all over again.  Moments later, the 100 Mile House Wranglers, a club which wasn't even in existence in that town less than 4 years ago, were 2016 Cyclone Taylor Cup Champions.

The 2016 CTC Champs, 100 Mile House Wranglers. "Wrangler Nation" in background
For most in attendance, it was one of the most exiting Cyclone Taylor's in many years.  For me, the honour of interviewing family and friends of the Wranglers, tears in the eyes of many was a moment I will never forget.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that almost everyone along that North End Stand were in tears of joy.  No question about it, that old false narrative about Jr B hockey, that Jungle stuff, it just ain't true.  These kids can flat out play.  The Jungle is well and truly dead.

The moment every team dreams of: Provincial Champions!
Afterwards as I walked out to my car in the parking lot, I made sure that I did three quick things before I left rink.  First I went over to the Wranglers bus, offered my sincere congratulations and wished Coach Hladun and the whole team good luck in this weekend's upcoming Keystone Cup in Regina Sask as the much deserving representatives of the province of BC.  Next in an effort to stimulate my blog writing I stuck a yellow sticky from my briefcase on the centre of my steering wheel with the words "The Jungle is Dead".  And last but not least, just for craps and giggles, I swung into Chez Ron's along the north side of The Archie and picked up a Happy Meal for the long drive home.  Go Wranglers! -CC

Thursday 3 March 2016

The Saddest Win I Ever Saw

The weekend could not have gone any worse, so I won't take a long time describing it in painful detail for you Grizzlies fans out there.  Most of you reading this saw it first hand.  But for the fans of the other teams who read this blog and probably enjoy a sense of schadenfreude over such a tough ending, I will do my best to provide you with the facts as I saw it from the Broadcast booth.

You know the weekend started with such promise, with the Grizzlies hosting Powell River on Friday night, a team the Grizzlies had played very well against all year entering play with a 5-2 record.  Well it only took 14 seconds for the Grizzlies to surrender the first goal and to find out that Powell River wasn't going to roll over and play possum.  And it kind of went downhill from there. 

With nothing to play for, some fans felt Powell River might not ice a very strong team.  As for the Grizzlies and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs however, all three of the Kings' weekend matchups would have tremendous impact in how the Island Division Playoffs were concerned.  The last thing the Grizzlies wanted to do on Friday night was to hand Head Coach Kent Lewis and the Powell River Kings the keys to the Grizzlies' Playoff Bus.  Soon both teams skated off the Q Centre Ice with the Kings enjoying a relatively easy 6-2 win over a February struggling Grizzlies squad.  Sadly those playoff bus keys were placed squarely in the hands of Kent Lewis and his Kings, arguably the most consistent Island Division team over the second half of the regular season.

The Kings consistency was the one bit of hope held by Grizzlies fans leaving the Q Centre on Friday night, that and Powell River's goal tending and skill level.  I even had a few fans say to me:  "Well look Clay, Powell River are so much better than the Bulldogs, there is just no way that they are going to lose both games in Alberni on Saturday and Sunday, back to back.  No way, it won't happen!  They are just too good.  They are 4-1-1 vs the Bulldogs, there's just no way they will lose two games to Alberni Clay."  I had about five or six fans remind me of those facts on Friday.  I too was more than hopeful.

And as everyone reading this knows, in less than 48 hours the Bulldogs would in fact win two back to back games over the powerhouse Kings.  To many with whom I spoke, it was as though it was written in the stars.  I actually went up to Alberni Valley on Saturday night with the night off just to watch it myself. I wanted to see if any of the conspiracy theories which I had heard about over the course of the past couple of weeks from a large number of folks could have any validity.

Frankly, I just didn't believe any of that nonsense. For the record, I have never prescribed to conspiracy theories.  I don't believe in Bigfoot or UFOs.  I once met Buzz Aldrin and I can tell you that I do believe firmly that 12 Americans walked on the moon between July 1969 and Dec of 1972.  I also believe that Oswald acted alone.

You only have to talk to Buzz Aldrin for about 5 seconds to know that on 20 July, 1969 he was there. 
Call me old fashioned, call me what you want, but I just don't buy into to any of that malarkey.

What I saw in Alberni that night was a Powell River team who looked like they were mailing it in.  That's sure what it looked like.  I mean the shots were close, but the Kings were outplayed in every aspect of the game.  At one point in the first period, Kings' Backup goalie, Stephan Wornig (.914 season save percentage) had given up 4 goals on 12 shots before the refs called one back due to an Alberni crease violation.  On Sunday Wornig faced 61 Bulldog shots which is obscene, but he stopped 59 of them on that day.  Now does any of that constitute a second gunman at the Grassy Knoll?  Probably not.

Grassy Knoll?  Likely Not.  Kings' goalie Wornig was well off on Saturday, but solid on Sunday
I did see Kent Lewis standing at the top of the East Side Stand throughout the game talking to a few of his scouts.  In my view, letting his ACs run the show on the bench late in the season and playing a few APs is not unusual.  He never once ventured into the Kings Dressing Room from what I saw.  To that I would say by all means, it's the last couple of games of the season, no problem.   It's the perfect opportunity to let your young rookie coaches, get some experience in their first BCHL game.  What better way to help an AC learn how to coach a BCHL bench than to give that coach the keys to the team for a night?  I have little issue with any of that.  The game would end 6-2 and the Bulldogs found themselves back in a playoff spot with the 2 points on the win.

So those keys to the Grizzlies' Playoff Bus which I was talking about after the Friday loss to Powell River were most definitely not only out of the hands of the Grizzlies, they were now firmly in the hands of the AV Bulldogs.  Suddenly a single point on Sunday for Alberni would be all that would be required to secure a post season berth for the Bulldogs and complete the miraculous comeback from being down 8 points to the Grizzlies with less than three weeks to play.

I can confirm that there were no Bigfoot sightings on that long disappointing drive home from Alberni on Saturday night
And as we all know, that's what happened.  About halfway through the Grizzlies first period in Chilliwack we would find out that the Bulldogs game had gone to OT.  They would end up winning in OT vs a Powell River team who were outshot 61-25 in the contest, but by then the die was cast.  The stats didn't matter.  The automatic point for making it to OT was all that mattered and as they say, that's all she wrote.  The Bulldogs were in the playoffs and the Grizzlies were out.  No sour grapes, the Bulldogs earned 8 points in their final 5 games and the Grizzlies over the same number could only muster 4 points.  Them's the breaks.

But the players didn't seem to take much notice of the results in Alberni and quickly dispatched the Chilliwack Chiefs by a score of 8-5, enjoying their highest goal output of the entire year.  Cole Pickup had 4 goals and Captain PJ Conlon added 4 assists himself on his last game in Junior Hockey.  It was an inspiring performance by every Grizzlie player and while it was indeed the saddest win I ever saw, it was one of the proudest moments I ever had calling any game I can recall.

But what I appreciated all weekend was watching the Grizzlies support each other.  I enjoyed watching the vets take a moment in Chilliwack and just soak it all in.  Yes it was emotional and yes, for the 20 year olds especially, it was a season that ended several weeks too early.  But in the end I kept thinking about the big picture and about the 7 returning veterans and the 1-10 start, both of which haunted the Grizzlies all season long.  For me it really was just a bridge too far.

I am so proud of this fine group of young men and the effort they put in to come back from the worst start in franchise history and how close they came to making life very hard on the Nanaimo Clippers in Round 1, but alas, it just wasn't meant to be.  So I will talk to you all in a few weeks to properly dissect the season and share my thoughts about this brave, tight and plucky team. It was a team remember who in spite of everything, raised average attendances at the Q Centre from 881 per game last year to 1,161 in just one season.  And they managed all that with a .448 winning percentage, so they must have been doing something right.

This team may have lost the final battle, but they ended up winning the war.  They may not go down in history as the best team the Grizzlies/Salsa ever iced and no they didn't win The Fred Page Cup.  But they may just end up going down as the team that saved the franchise.  Well done Grizzlies, well done. -CC

Thursday 25 February 2016

Nick Jermain and Boston Bar: Improbable Grizzlies Destiny in 2016

In spite of starting the year with a record of 1-10 when this Grizzlies season is finally all over and sports writers sit down to dissect the year, I doubt many will remember the name Nick Jermain. The fact is that this Merritt Centennials forward might just go down as one of the most significant opposition players to have positively impacted a Grizzlies season in quite some time.  Few as well will remember a broken drive shaft bearing under the Grizzlies bus in Boston Bar, BC on a snowy Saturday night in January, but that too could prove to be of equal significance in a year which never ceases to amaze this writer.
Last Saturday night as the Grizzlies were travelling over the Coquihalla Connector after losing 5-0 to the Penticton Vees, Connecticut born Nick Jermain was busy just a few kilometers away as his Centennials trailed the visiting Alberni Valley Bulldogs late in the 3rd period by a score of 2-1.  Had the score stood up, the Bulldogs would have overtaken the Grizzlies in the standings that night and taken over that 4th and final playoff spot.  It was a massive moment for the Grizzlies and yet few if any Victoria fans had much knowledge of the name Nick Jermain.  With less than two minutes to play, it would be Jermain who would score for the Centennials with his team's net empty in favour of the extra attacker and force overtime.  Then, just moments into the first OT period Jermain would score again, denying the Bulldogs that vital second point of the night.  Alberni would remain tied in points with the Grizzlies at the conclusion of play on what to most would view as just another day in the regular season.  For Grizzlies fans, the moment was simply enormous.

                                         GP  W  L OTL
 PTS  GF      GA    DIFF   PCT
1xy - Nanaimo Clippers5636181
2x - Powell River Kings5532193
3x - Cowichan Valley Capitals5627233
4Alberni Valley Bulldogs5621274
5Victoria Grizzlies5623294
(*even the league's web site shows the Grizzlies in 5th spot in the Island Division Standings which are so tight and confusing even BCHL computers can't get the tie-break formula straight.)

The Grizzlies now enter play in this final weekend of regular season action tied with Alberni Valley in points.  However the Grizz still enjoy the razor thin advantage of the first tie breaker by virtue of having won more games than the Bulldogs on the season.  Had the aforementioned Jermain not scored late in that 3rd period, the Grizzlies would now trail the Dogs by a single point and no longer be in a position to control their own destiny.  Perhaps at no time in franchise history have the Grizzlies ever been involved in such a dramatic and potentially cataclysmic conclusion of a regular season.  With precisely two games left to play for each organization, the Grizzlies and the Bulldogs will each try and play their way into the 2015/16 BCHL playoffs with the winning prize being a first round matchup against the offensive powerhouse, Nanaimo Clippers.  To some that may seem like quite the underwhelming prize for such a daunting task, but for a Grizzlies team who essentially started the year with a single win in its first 11 games, that will probably suit them just fine.  Call it fate, but it’s just been that kind of a year.
This final chapter will all get underway on Friday night as the Grizzlies will host the Powell River Kings, a team with whom the Grizzlies have enjoyed some relative success thus far in 2015/16 with a 5-2 season series lead.  Powell River, secure in 2nd place and with nothing to play for in terms of playoff position, will come to Vancouver Island with the ability to play the role of either “Spoiler” or “King Maker” for the Grizzlies or the Bulldogs.   The Kings will finish the weekend with two contests in Alberni Valley at the Weyerhaeuser Arena on Saturday and Sunday after they play the Grizzlies Friday night at The Q Centre.  The Grizzlies will travel to Chilliwack on Sunday to play a Chiefs team who have also secured their playoff fortunes and have nothing to play for other than perhaps a little momentum in preparation for a First Round matchup against the Coquitlam Express.  But that 4pm Sunday Chilliwack game if you remember, is only happening as the very last game in the entire league by virtue of a broken bus in Boston Bar.  The Grizzlies were scheduled to play the Chiefs that night, 16 Jan if you recall.  With half the team sick with the flu, plus a few nagging bumps and bruises and coming off the longest day of bus travel in the year after departing Prince George the night before, I for one did not like the Grizzlies chances.  Remember that they lost the previous encounter against the Chiefs in the Bauer Showcase in September by a 4-0 margin.  But as luck would have it, the Grizzlies bus for the first time in franchise history would fail to deliver the team to its game night destination and the game would have to be rescheduled.  We will never know but maybe, just maybe that was a blessing in disguise that broken drive train, that broken bearing.
Grizzlies minority owner Mark Wagstaff does not visit the broadcast booth very often, certainly not on the road.  But the following day in Surrey he popped in to the booth during pregame and told me something which I will likely never forget:  “You know, what’s so strange about that broken bus last night?  In all those years that I owned Penticton, the Salsa and the Grizzlies, not one time in over 25 years had any of those teams ever failed to make it to a road game.  Not one time did we ever have to cancel a game.  Not even once, very strange.”   Very strange indeed.  That game could prove to mean absolutely nothing, or it could turn out to be a very useful insurance policy for the Grizzlies come 4pm this Sunday afternoon if things don’t go perfectly on Friday and Saturday.  Is that fate, luck or destiny?  Or is it just a bad episode of Twilight Zone?   
The Grizzlies “Magic Number” now sits at just 2.  Any combination of a Grizzlies win and a Bulldogs loss will send Victoria into the playoffs.  But the Bulldogs’ “Magic Number” sits at 2.5 games.  Thank you Nick Jermain and thank you broken bus.  If the Bulldogs lose both games to Powell River this weekend, that too will achieve the “Magic Number” of 2 no matter what the Grizzlies do.  I said three weeks ago, just prior to the Cowichan Valley game that in order to qualify for the post season, the Grizzlies would need to win 3 of its final 6 games or play exactly .500 hockey and that prediction looks like it may run true to form. 

With a crescendo of 4 goals in Period #1 last Sunday vs Langley, the Grizzlies held serve in the Island Division standings and got that second vital win of its six remaining games.  The first goal in Langley came by way of The Plumbers.  Crashing the net hard was Joey Visconti, after a Spencer Hunter rush, Visconti put away a goal mouth loose puck and gave the Grizzlies the early lead.  Then it was up to Keyvan Mokhtari who buried a Brayden Gelsinger rebound top shelf to make it 2-0.  It was the young rookie’s first goal since 17 Dec, 2015 but none of that mattered to a Grizzlies bench which erupted in adoration of the BWC product who was helping his teammates see their playoff hopes suddenly restored.  The next Grizzlie goal would come by way of the extra man on a perfectly timed Ovechkin like one-timer by Dante Hahn from an equally beautiful cross-crease pass by Gelsinger.  It was Hahn’s 3rd PP Goal of the season and it put the Grizzlies up 3-0, all in a weekend devoid of much offense where the Grizzlies had failed to score against Penticton on Saturday night and in a 2-1 loss to Wenatchee on Friday. 

The massive Sunday first period onslaught by Victoria would end with Nathan Looysen of the VIJHL Victoria Cougars, scoring his first goal of the season in a Grizzlies uniform and the rout was on.  Looysen, who won the VIJHL Scoring Championship this year with 101 points, looked fantastic all weekend in Grizzlies white, black and yellow-gold and took his goal well having already picked up an assist on Hahn’s PP marker earlier in the period.  Mitchell Benson would turn away all 24 Rivermen shots and collect his first shutout and fifth win of the season in front of a disappointed Langley crowd of 1,358.  Benson was solid all night and will likely feature in the backup role to Matt Galajda this weekend as the Grizzlies attempt to ice out the 2015/16 regular season and earn that final playoff spot on the island. 
The regular season will end at Prospera Centre by virtue of the Grizzlies first ever cancelled game on 16 Jan, 2016
Four games, two for the Bulldogs and two for the Grizzlies and three of which will feature perennial playoff matchup team the Powell River Kings are all that separate an early end to the season or a trip to the big dance.  Call it what you like, crazy, ridiculous and unnecessary or just plain exiting.  No matter what, there won’t be a single true Grizzlies fan anywhere on the globe this weekend who won’t be paying close attention to every second of action in this most tumultuous of final games for the club.  And if the Grizzlies eventually do indeed qualify for the playoffs, likely few will ever remember those strange quirky moments which could end up deciding the team’s fate.   It just may be that the way this season will finish could come down to a couple of very late out of town goals on a Saturday night in the smallest building in the BCHL, the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena in Merritt BC, with goals scored by a Connecticut hockey player named Nick Jermain.  Well that and a troublesome bearing under a team bus in a little place called Boston Bar.  Talk to you all on Friday night from the Q Centre. -CC