Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Too Soon To Be Talking Playoffs? I Don't Think So

Well folks, it is officially on.  I am talking about the run to the playoffs.  And yes, I am aware that it is December 16th. 
Coming off a solid run in November but with two recent weekend home losses, if there was anyone who thought that the Grizzlies would simply stroll their way into 2nd, 3rd or even maybe 1st place in the Island Division anytime soon, those people are now pretty quiet.  But its not all bad.  The Victoria Grizzlies are now officially embroiled in what may be the most exiting playoff race in years.  Frankly, I think the whole thing is good news and is something to embrace.
With the Alberni Valley Bulldogs' huge Monday Night Hockey win a few days ago vs the road trip beleaguered Trail Smoke Eaters, the Grizzlies now stand precipitously close to falling out of a playoff spot as they sit just one point ahead of the Bulldogs.  It sets up a literally massive road game on Thursday night for the Grizzlies.
And that is my point in this week's blog, this year is all about the season, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  This is arguably one of the most exiting regular seasons I can remember in years. Sure the Grizzlies have had their struggles, but man this is fun.  The Grizzlies are literally fighting for their playoff lives each and every night and so too are many of the other clubs in this amazing Island Division.  Somebody will miss the playoffs on the island, but who?  Alberni Valley?  They could miss out but they just keep winning, they just won't go away.  The Grizzlies?  Maybe, but the team is just way too good to not qualify for the post-season in my opinion.  Could it be Powell River which ends up in that 5th spot?  I don't see that frankly, they play way too well at home.  Cowichan Valley?  No way, not unless something really bad happens at the ISC this season and that just isn't in the cards in my view.  And the Clippers, well they are well ahead in first place and going nowhere soon.
I see this as a simple two way race for that final 4th spot in the island Division.  The race is squarely between the Bulldogs and the Grizzlies and frankly I expect it to come right down to the wire.  With a 2-0 shutout loss to the Wenatchee Wild on Saturday night at the Q Centre in front of a sparse and nearly silent Q Centre crowd, the Grizzlies opened the playoff door for the Bulldogs.  After losing again the next day to the visiting West Kelowna Warriors, that playoff door opened even more.  And with no less than 3 games in hand by Alberni Valley heading in to Thursday's crucial showdown at the Weyerhaeuser  Arena, the pressure on the Grizzlies is mounting.  But that's what the regular season is all about.  Frankly, if I was a Grizzlies season ticket holder, I would be so exited, you couldn't drag me away from the Q Centre.  This year, literally every game, every point counts.  That 2OT home loss to Nanaimo two weeks ago and the single point the Grizzlies earned as a result is all which separates the two clubs in the standings.  And that's where the average fan comes in, the average fan can actually make a difference this year.  The noise in the Q Centre could be a key factor as we approach the stretch run.
Look, let's not mince words, it was a bit like a library in the Q Centre on Saturday night for the Wenatchee Wild and that was disappointing for everyone.  The fact is that there were just way too many fans (6,600) downtown at The Royals game enjoying their Teddy Bear Toss Night, full stop.  That’s what happens on certain nights in a town like Victoria with no less than 7 junior hockey teams.  So all I will say is great job to the few die hard Grizzlies fans who did show up on the weekend, well done to those fans.
Now here is a stat which might surprise you:  the Grizzlies are 7 wins out of 21 attempts vs clubs with a better than a .500 record.  That's means that the Grizzlies have no better than a 33% chance of beating teams with winning records.  That’s not so good.  When the Grizzlies play teams with records less than .500 they are a little better but not much, 6/15 which is a winning percentage at around a 40% clip.  Maybe none of that is very good, but does any of that really matter now? 
The fact is that the Grizzlies are very competitive as of late vs the teams which really matter, the Powell River Kings (4-1) and the Cowichan Valley Capitals (3-3).  And with recent dominant performances vs the Alberni Valley Bulldogs including last Tuesday’s 4-2 win on home ice and the 28 Nov 4-2 Q Centre win, the Grizzlies should be able to keep this going and make those win/loss stats mean very little.  But it’s going to be tight.  I truly believe that this season will likely come down to the final week to decide all the playoff spots in the Island Division.
The Grizzlies now have an open roster spot for a forward now that #9 Haydn Hopkins has departed for the OHL's Erie Otters.  Luckily Head Equipment Manager, Mel Smith had only stitched a single Home jersey for the player who only played but a single game as a Grizzly at 1 GP, 0 G, 0A, -1.  The question now will be who will Coach Didmon sign, an impactful 20 year old or a young player for the future?  My guess is that he will probably first call up a few AP forwards like Cory Hatcher or Nathan Gelsinger from the Westshore Wolves to help get a handle on his local prospects.  Both players are lighting it up in the VIJHL.  Watch this space.
This season wearing #26, Mitchell Barker, could be a key veteran vs the Bulldogs down the stretch
So the club is now less than 24 hours away from what is easily the biggest game of the season, the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Thursday night.  The Grizzlies haven’t had a lot of success at the Weyerhaeuser this season in two early season visits, both losses, so they will  have to bring their A game on Thursday if they expect to get anything out of this huge 4 point game.
Oh BTW, if you haven't seen this Grizzlies Christmas video yet, give it a gander:  Roy our video guys did more of his magic.  Great job Roy and to everyone in the organization who participated again this year! -CC 

Monday, 7 December 2015

A Sherpa's Guide To Plan B Travel: Grizzlies v Kings

After a well earned single point on Tuesday night vs the Nanaimo Clippers, the Grizzlies braced themselves for visit #2 to The Sunshine Coast.  The area's local rink, The Hap Parker Arena, known to some readers of this blog as "The Fortress in The Forrest", is a building which witnessed but a single Grizzly victory in all of last season.

When it was discovered that Tropical Storm Poindexter was barrelling its way headlong into Vancouver Island early Saturday morning, the Grizzlies had to abandon their standard plan to take the Comox Ferry to Powell River and instead reverted to the dreaded Plan B route.  But the ad hoc trek would prove so long, arduous and fraught with bad weather, (not to mention the passing by of several road side accidents) that Sherpa guides will likely be assigned to the team bus should another Plan B be called upon in future visits to The Hap.

Grizzlies players Pickup, Mokhtari, Visconti and Krabben carefully negotiating their way to Powell River early Saturday
With the single ferry and normally five hour trip to Powell River suddenly turned into a three ferry, 13 hour Bataan Death March, the Grizzlies would arrive to face their Island Division rivals eager and ready to play at 7:15pm.  After a spirited first ten minutes which saw the Grizzlies give the Kings everything they had, the dreaded bus legs would soon appear and the Kings took the lead on a Liam Lawson goal near the end of the first frame.
Artist's rendition of Grizzlies arriving at Hap Parker just in time to play Kings on Saturday night 
Periods 2 and 3 would seem no better except for a single Kevin Massy marker as the big D Man who spent the game playing a bit of forward, would find the net and spoil Kings goalie Jeff Smith's shutout bid.  Several near scraps almost occurred during the contest between Kings' forward Nick Halagian and The Undertaker, Chuck Bennis, but incredibly no actual altercations took place.  The game would end 5-1 and the Grizzlies would vow to play another day.

And that moment would come at 2pm on Sunday afternoon, but not after a fully fuelled and replenished Grizzlies squad had an opportunity to sleep and eat a few solid meals.  The food and rest were good, but with Captain PJ Conlon back in the lineup after missing Saturday's game due to SAT requirements, the club would show up with its full complement of forwards, all ready to play.

It would not take the Grizzlies long either to establish their dominance, outshooting the Kings in a scoreless first period 10-5.  Funny enough the period was likely best highlighted by a miraculous Matt Galadja kick save on Liam Lawson. The NHL 94' inspired Kirk MacLean like save was so unbelievable that Powell River fans stood and cheered for the apparent Lawson goal, only to see that somehow the puck had remained outside of the Grizzlies' net.  

In the second period after some fine Tyler Welsh and Chuck Bennis passing, Jake Stevens, on his 19th birthday would dispatch a wrist shot to put the Grizzlies up 1-0.  With more scoring from Dante Hahn on a quick 2 on 1, the Grizzlies were soon up 2-0.  Austin Kamer would reply on a wrap around for Powell River soon enough but the Grizzlies would answer right back late in the 2nd period with Brayden Geslinger's, team leading 11th goal of the season. 

Kirk MacLean in 1989 looking much like #35 Matt Galadja for the Grizzlies on 6 Dec, 2015
The teams would skate hard in the 3rd period when tempers would finally explode between The Undertaker and the Kings' Halagian.  Bennis would land the majority of the connections in spite of the linesmen's interference which caused an early stop at which point Halagian would attempt to re-ignite the battle to no avail.  A long range, empty net goal by Conlon would wrap up the contest 4-1 and see the Grizzlies now 2-1 on the season at The Hap.  The tired but satisfied Grizzlies were exited to soon be boarding a single ferry back to Vancouver Island.

But unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Mother Nature had other plans.  With an approaching winter storm seen only in biblical references, the Grizzlies bus would find itself sitting at the Powell River Terminal, the team painfully hoping against hope that the near 100km/hr winds were not too much for the venerable BC Ferries Corporation to manage.  With a few hours to kill and a nearby bowling alley only yards away, the Grizzlies would bowl away the time.  Meanwhile outside, terrifying meteorological events seemingly inspired by world-wide CO2 levels which might surprise even Al Gore, pounded away at the tiny town famous for its beautiful sunshine and shiny glossy white paper.

Storm #2 on 6 Dec, slams Powell River (Grizzlies bus visible in right corner of storm's eye)
Facing a second Plan B in as many days, the Grizzlies would be stuck for the night in Powell River, trapped in a hotel which was nearly ripped from its foundations but safe in the knowledge that three new facts have emerged about this plucky team from Victoria:

a) The Grizzlies goaltending is as good as any in the league and can win on any night;
b) Avoiding Khumbu Ice Fall travel, the Grizzlies can now win at will at The Hap Parker; and
c) The legend of The Undertaker continues to grow throughout the BCHL.

Photo of Chuck Bennis, The Undertaker, "keeping it real" for the rookies during the "Post Win Team Bonding Session" at a local hotel in PR 
Failing any need for another dreaded Plan B, the Grizzlies will entertain the Alberni Valley Bulldogs tomorrow night at The Q Centre.  Sherpas not required.  Talk to you Tuesday night everybody. -CC

Monday, 30 November 2015

Grizzlies Mid-Term Report Card: B

It is hard to believe that we are already at the proverbial halfway mark on this 2015/16 BCHL Regular Season, so it is time once again to provide you with your Grizzlies Mid Term Report Card.  So let’s get straight to it:
The Big Picture: A
Six months ago, the Grizzlies were mired in a quagmire of negotiations with WSPR and spent a summer coming very close to turning the lights out on the entire franchise.  Let’s just not forget that not so insignificant point.  That said, with only 6 returning veterans who played in all 58 regular season games last year, you had to know that this year was going to be a rebuild year.  Remember too that among those returning 6 veterans was a 98’ born forward who saw only limited ice time last year.  So to sum up, I will throw down the challenge to anyone reading this blog: try and find me any team in the BCHL this year who returned this few number of veteran players?  Now try finding a team which falls into that category and which currently enjoys the comfort of sitting in a playoff spot?  In short the Grizzlies current league position and their prospects moving forward is no less that astounding in my view.
Grizzlies Broadcast Banner (not allowed in some arenas)
Yes, the Grizzlies after 30 games are 11-16-0-3, yes they have scored only 80 goals and yes they own the absolute rock bottom Powerplay in the league.  But try and look at this first term by breaking it down into thirds.  In the first ten games of the season, with Cody Van Lierop and Brett Stirling largely out of the lineup, the Grizzlies were 1-9.  Then Coach Didmon started tweaking his lineup with a few moves and the team went 5-5 over the next ten games.  With the short bout of injuries mostly cleared up, the Grizzlies went 5-5 in the last ten games.  What that tells me is that the club is on the rise.  Now let’s break down each position.
Goaltending: A-
You know what I notice most about the Grizzlies goaltending this year?  Gone are those 20’-25’ snap shots or slap shots which somehow found the back of the Grizzlies' net.  How many times last season did the Grizzlies lead a game late or go into OT and end up giving up a goal like that?  Plenty.  In fact the playoffs ended on a OT goal from 25'.  With Matt Galajda and Mitchell Benson, you just aren’t seeing that this year.  These guys are flat out the best pair of 18 year old rookie goalies the league has seen in years.  Forget about the Grizzlies organization, the BCHL rarely sees a pair of young rookie goalies on the same team with this amount of upside.  They each own identical save percentages at just over .900 and rarely do either of them let in that soft goal.  Frankly, I think goaltending has been nothing short of excellent so far this eason and therefore they earn a grade of A-.
#31 Benson has been an excellent backup all season (photo: K. Robinson)
Defencemen: A-
If I had to pick the best D-man on the club in the first half of the year I would say rock steady Cody Van Lierop. But very quickly I would offer Brett Stirling an Honourable Mention as he has become healthy and really found his legs in the last month.  That pair has only to look as far as Kevin Massy's 14 points as the offensive leader on the blue line to see more solid play at that position. And those players are immediately backed up by the D pairing I am starting to call ``Team America World-D``.  The Wisconsin and Illinois born D-pairing of Chuck Bennis and Jake Stevens have been great.  Every night these two punishing defensemen seem to live up to their Hollywood film marionettes personages with their hard hitting and unapologetic style of play.  And much like their marionette doppelgangers, you can almost hear them on the bench after a particularly destructive on ice hit, offer such remarks as:  `Don`t worry everyone, all the terrorists are dead.`` 

"Team America World D" - #4 Jake Stevens (right) and #2 Chuck Bennis (left)
Bennis`s recent maelstrom of flying hay-makers in a 13 Nov fight vs Cowichan Valley`s Ayden MacDonald comes to mind.  The aghast and mouth wide open look of those in attendance in the Q Centre that night after the YouTube busting fight lead one unnamed opposition sports writer to pen: “On what day did God create Chuck Bennis and couldn`t he have rested on that day too?”  The Undertaker has certainly left his mark at the halfway point of the season and with Drayson Pears living up to his billing as perhaps the best rookie #6 D-man in the BCHL, the Grizzlies D Corps easily gets an A-.   And if it were not for a few of the D men earning dubious plus/minus ratings over the first half of the year, the grade may have been higher.
Forwards: C-
The Top Line, aka the CCM Line of Cole Pickup, PJ Conlon and Mitch Barker are at worst a plus/minus "Even" each night and that says a lot when you consider the opposition they face each game.  Can they score more?  Sure, but none of these players has ever been asked to be anything more than medium level scorers in this league, so asking them to suddenly score 30+ goals is in my view asking too much.  The Smoothie Line of Brayden Gelsinger, Dante Hahn and whomever joins that pair with the departure of Colby Livingstone has been uniformly excellent; this line can flat out score.  But the most interesting line on the club in my view is The Shock and Awe Line of Tyler Welsh, Keyvan Mokhtari and Nick Guiney.  These guys just seem to get better every night and if they continue to grow at this rate, they may become by Playoff time the most dangerous 3rd Line in the league. 
Shock and Awe Line's #18 Nick Guiney (photo: K. Robinson)
Then we have a group of forwards who I like to refer to as “The Plumbers” and I don’t mean any reference to Richard Nixon’s incompetent 1972 Watergate Burglars.  The Plumbers are the type of workers who show up with a metal lunch box and a bunch of tools and get down and do all the dirty work, the work nobody else likes to do.  The Plumbers take the necessary penalties, they make the big hit, block a huge shot and they are lead by the young Vermont native, #61, Alex Peck.  Peck’s jersey number alone describes why he is the undisputed leader of The Plumbers as he makes those tiny but oh so significant plays almost every night.  Peck along with other Plumber alumni Joey Visconti, Luc Soares and Spencer Hunter are vital and so long as they do not fall victim to the dreaded giveaway, they will continue to impress.
Nixon's Watergate "Plumbers" in 1972 (not to be confused with the 2015 Grizzlies version of Peck, Soares, Hunter and Visconti)
What has been disappointing however is the lack of finish among the twelve forwards on most nights.  In spite of outshooting their opposition nearly every night, there are just far too many shots which help make opposing goaltenders look better than they really are.  That has to change.  No one is suggesting that this Grizzlies club must score 200 goals on the season.  In fact I will be satisfied if they can hit the 160 mark, but the finish must improve.  More quality shots along with more driving hard into the slot to pay the price is what is needed for these young talented Jr.A forwards to get to the next level in terms of goal scoring.
The X-Factor moving forward may be two fold.  First there is the newest Grizzlie, #28 Jared Virtanen.  The recently acquired 200 lb Centre and former AJHL player may hold the key to adding some size and scoring punch to one of the top two lines.  But the final piece may be the 10 January Trade Deadline and seeing if there is any appetite in adding another 20 year old to the roster which currently features only five.  Watch this space, but if a 95’ born player is added, my guess is that Coach Didmon will want to add a forward. 
Special Teams: C-
It is easy to look at a Powerplay which was #1 last year and view its breathtaking drop to its current 17th Place in the league and ask “what the heck is going on?”  I see other fans at The Q Centre also scratching their heads and pointing to the excellent PK currently 3rd in the BCHL at 86.11% efficiency.  For me, I am neither surprised nor concerned about either statistic nor the reasons for the numbers. 
The struggling Powerplay, even with its league leading 9 SHGA is most easily understood.  Not only did the Grizzlies return only 6 full year vets from last year, but out of that group, not one of them saw even a modest amount of time on either the 1st or 2nd PP units.  Why would anyone imagine that you could suddenly take a group of players who have seen almost no BCHL PP time and suddenly transform them into the top PP unit in the league?  That said, the PP is improving and slowly climbing out of the basement.  Since 28 Nov the PP has gone 6 for 34 and is clipping along at a modest 17.64% during that span.  This latest run, while not fantastic is far better than it has been over the first twenty games.  A key reason for that is that Coach Didmon has moved Dante Hahn to the Left Point on the First Unit.  Hahn moves the puck so well and his presence there has taken a lot of the pressure off Gelsinger who at times was being asked to do too much by himself.  These changes have also given Team America World D an opportunity to watch the PP rather than feeling obliged to directly contribute every night.  In other words, the change in roles are proving effective and hopefully come playoff time the team’s PP can sit closer to mid table.
Improving crowds at the Q Centre are now often +1000 (photo: K. Robinson)
The PK as mentioned is doing well at 3rd in the BCHL and for reasons quite opposite of what is plaguing the PP.  Specifically almost every player who was a key piece to the last year’s PK has returned to the Grizzlies this season.  That’s right, almost every player from that group of returnees saw major time on the PK last year.  Conlon, Barker, Van Lierop and Massy to name a few were a primary PK unit last year and they are clearly being called upon again this season.  When you add the speedy Welsh and Mokhatari to the mix, along with Team America World D, it suddenly means that Coach Didmon has at his disposal two capable PK units equal to the best the league has to offer.
For that reason, in spite of having the league’s worst PK, Special Team gets a mid-term grade of C- and nothing worse.
General Manager & Coaching: A-
Notwithstanding the aforementioned issues with returning veterans, Coach Didmon also lost his Assistant Coach from last year, Scott Hawthorne.  Hawthorne wasn’t only an exceptionally capable A/Coach, he also was one of the best Video Coaches in the league and could easily have been promoted to a HC job at some point in the next three or four seasons.  Coach Didmon now possesses no less than four brand new, part-time Assistant Coaches to train this season, each with full time jobs of their own.  To describe the Grade 6 teacher and Victoria Grizzlies Head Coach as being "busier than a four peckered billy-goat" would be an understatement to say the least.  But Coach Didmon is not the type of coach who makes excuses and that type of integrity lends itself well to a BCHL Dressing Room.
In the booth, Scott Didmon likely wondering: "Does this guy have an off switch?"
In terms of GM duties, Didmon made several small moves and three fairly significant transactions thus far.  With the exception of Livingstone, I agree with all of the moves.  In September, the Grizzlies acquired former USHL veteran, Chuck Bennis.  The Undertakers already detailed value to the organization was felt almost immediately. 

Then in October, Didmon made an even bigger splash, acquiring former Grizzlie Dante Hahn from the Coquitlam Express.  The Victoria native returned to his old club with a bit of a “new lease on life” philosophy in many respects. Remember that Hahn, through no fault of his own found his offensive talents under-utilized under the Bill Bestwick/Fitzgerald Triplets era.  Now as a veteran and true “Offensive Go-To Guy”, it is the twenty year old Hahn who now hears his name barked out by the coach during Powerplay or offensive situations far more than when he last played in Victoria. 

But perhaps the biggest splash is yet to be fully realized and that of course was the previously described addition of Jared Virtanen.  While I was not initially pleased to see the solid Plus/Minus +5 of Colby Livingstone depart the club to the OCN Blizzard, the bigger picture of the Dressing Room always wins the day and hopefully there will be immediate effect with a new 200 lb Centreman in Didmon’s lineup.
The one critique I would make of the coaching is the fact that there are so many talented coaches such as Tyler Matheson and Greg Smith who regrettably are rarely available for on ice practices due to primary workplace responsibilities.  Perhaps a plan moving forward to leverage their talents in keeping with their respective employer’s needs could be somehow managed?  Time will tell.
In summation, for me the Grizzlies as an organization are a B at the halfway mark on the season.  I like the way the club is trending, way up.  Talk to you Tuesday night from The Q Centre - CC

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Flying Under The Radar, Grizzlies Saga Continues

Before we start this BCHL Grizzlies blog I have just one thing to say:  The CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders (I will never call them the Renegades or the Red Blacks or whatever they are supposed to be called these days) are going to the Grey Cup next Sunday!!!  OK, I am done now, back to the Grizzlies.

Could a repeat of the 1981 Grey Cup avenge #77 Tony Gabriel's outrageous, "Triple Offensive Pass Interference" call?
As this Grizzlies Club approaches the halfway mark of the 2015/16 season, if I had to sum up the season in one word I would say: "under the radar".  OK, fine, that's technically three words but you get the idea.

I recently noticed something which may prove my point.  Have you seen the latest Subway Poll on the BCHL Web Site?  The latest poll asks BCHL fans to decide whom they think is the BCHL's fastest skater. I enjoy these polls and I never, ever pass up an opportunity to cast a vote. But Keyvan Mokhtari didn't even make the list for some reason.  That tells me that the Grizzlies are literally flying at tree top level at this point in the 2015/16 season.  Nobody is paying any attention to this team and that suits me just fine. 

So why is that?  Why are the Grizzlies off of everyone's radar?  With all due respect to any Eagles fans reading this blog, if your team starts the year 1-10 and one of your losses is at home vs South Surrey and your "1-10 team" also sports the league worst Powerplay with the most SHGA, chances are that you won't be turning too many heads.

Nope, as we approach the halfway mark on this season, I think it is safe to say that the Victoria Grizzlies may be the least talked about team in the league by BCHL pundits.  And that also suits me just fine.

But here is what is really interesting to me:  the Grizzlies are now 6-3-0-1 in their last ten games, which makes them the hottest team in the Island Division over that period of time.  Remember too that during that stretch, the Grizzlies lost twice to the Trail Smoke Eaters for reasons which still elude even the most knowledgeable BCHL experts.  In short, the Grizzlies are doing just fine for a team which returned only 6 veterans who played for all of last season.

Alleged designer of Grizzlies 2015/16 Schedule
What is also pretty impressive is that due to a Machiavellian designed schedule, the Grizzlies have played no less than two straight 3 game back to back sets in 8 days and five of those six games were on the road.  Its not a season, its more like an ancient saga.  They are accomplishing all of this with a Powerplay which has surrendered a league high 9 SHGA and is running at 7.81% efficiency on the road.   That is pretty unbelievable and when you think about it.

So how is this possible you ask?  here is how:

Nov 10 - Grizzlies 5 at Powell River 2. The Grizzlies, after nearly vomiting their entire way across the Strait of Georgia in one of the worst storms since Hurricane Katrina lead by Alex Peck, (Miley Cyrus's inspiration to the song "Wrecking Ball") and owner of the most sick jersey number in the BCHL, scored a SHG and an assist, an act which single handily doubled his season's offensive totals in one game.  He, along with his billet buddy, Brett Stirling on D, lead the club in breaking the collective spirit of the Kings to see the Grizzlies enjoy the first Regular Season win at The Hap Parker in almost two years.

Nov 13 - Grizzlies 3 at Coquitlam 4 (OT 2). Coming from behind, the Grizzlies force OT at the "Poirier Pin-Ball Palace" lead by the Smoothie Line of Gelsinger, Hahn and Livingstone along with the young and speedy Tyler Welsh and Keyvan Mokhtari, two players who also lead the league in "most hours spent in deep REM sleep" while travelling in a BCHL team bus this season.

Captain PJ Conlon with D-Day Veteran in Coquitlam on 13 Nov
Nov 14 - Grizzlies 3 at Merritt 2.  While playing in the league's smallest ice surface, towering 6'5'' forward Spencer Hunter's 2nd period blistering wrist shot from the top of the circle would find the net. The shot and ensuing goal which would normally have measured at 30' in most arenas but was closer to 10' at the Nicola Valley, would be credited to rookie phenom Welsh.  Welsh who was somehow confused by the referee with the "somewhat taller" Spencer Hunter, was not only on the bench at the time of the goal but was to his credit, like his line mate Mokhtari, wide awake and out of any REM sleep at the time of the go ahead marker by his more vertically endowed team mate. But the club would neither care nor complain about the box score or win and instead travel all night, arriving in Trail like frat house students at 7am the following morning to sleep about 3 hours before playing the Smokies at 3pm.

Grizzlies @0630 posing upon arrival at their Rossland BC chalet on 15 Nov
Nov 15 - Grizzlies 1 at Trail 2.  After team +/- leader, Dante Hahn (+11) would give the Grizz a first period 1-0 lead, the Grizzlies would suddenly realize in the second period that they were playing on about 15 minutes of sleep and fail to hold on, surrendering a crushing SHGA in the second and lose a squeaker at the oldest rink in the BCHL (Cominco Arena 1949).  They would then travel all night and look far worse than anything National Lampoon could ever conjure boarding a BC Ferry the next morning at Tswassen.  All the while knowing that they would be facing the Clippers at The Frank on Wednesday.

Nov 18 - Grizzlies 1 at Nanaimo 5.  Trailing 3-1 with one minute to play, the Grizzlies would give up the puck on  a bit of late high risk play in an effort to come back vs the always offensively powerful Clippers.  The good news was that the Grizzlies PP went 1 for 3 on the night on the strength of Cole Pickup's 8th goal on the season from Conlon and Massy.  The Grizzlies would outshoot the Clippers 31-27 in a game much closer than the score would indicate.

Nov 19 - Trail 3 at Grizzlies 2.  With a first period PP goal by Pickup and a short handed maker by Mokhtari (possible Goal of the Year candidate), the Grizzlies would squander a 2-0 lead and lose the game to a Smoke Eaters team who had apparently seen the movie Animal House and instead chose to travel the day prior in order to save bus legs. Trail would outlast the travel weary Grizzlies team who were running on less fumes than a Chrysler Cordova during the Carter Administration's 79' Oil Crisis.

#15 - Mokhtari's 19 Nov SHG vs Trail on Goal of The Year?
Nov 20 - Capitals 2 at Grizzlies 6.  In front of a season high nearly 1,200 fans at the Q Centre on Military Appreciation Night and with Coach Didmon completely changing around his line combinations, the Grizzlies would have a coming out party in a number of areas. Brayden Gelsinger would net 4 points on the night while Mokhtari would earn 3 himself.  But the story of the night was Chuck Bennis's impression of the WWE's "The Undertaker" as he gave Ayden MacDonald every reason to suddenly "come down with the flu" on the morning of 12 Jan, 2016 for the teams' next scheduled meeting.  The fight was so one-sided and primordial in nature, after breaking the internet on Saturday morning, YouTube put out a new directive forbidding the posting of any hockey fight videos containing the words "Chuck Bennis", "The Undertaker" or "This video hurts my eyes" until further notice.

BCHL pundits have suggested that this image may be the source of an expected flu epidemic at the ISC on 12 Jan, 2016
By the way, I never did cast a vote in that BCHL poll.  How do you vote in a poll which was missing the correct answer?  Go Renegades! -CC



Sunday, 8 November 2015

Is There a Most Improved Award? Grizzlies On a 4-0 Roll

It never seemed to matter what year it was for me, I always loathed the moment.  Nearly every year it was the same thing, winning the dreaded Most Improved Student Award. The school would even phone my parents to make sure that they were in attendance.  The whole student body would be sitting in the auditorium and all the smart kids and all the athletic kids would get trophies and awards.  Eventually near the end of the ceremony, they would present a blue ribbon for the student who showed the most improvement for that year. And each year they would call up this awkward looking idiot savant to collect his ribbon.  And trust me back then, there was way more "idiot" than there was "savant".

The Victoria Grizzlies in my humble opinion may just end up at the end of the year being the BCHL's most improved team.  And while there are no blue ribbons, that team more often than not is the one that goes on a nice playoff run.

When we last talked, the Grizzlies had gone 1-2 on a very average road trip to the Interior.  There was improvement, but it was hard to spot.  The team were being called Team Ikea by some of the young people and fans I talk to outside the Q Centre after games.  "I tell ya Clay they're Team Ikea, all hard work and fine craftsmanship but no finish."

Then the Grizzlies travelled up to Nanaimo two weeks ago and experienced what I will refer to as "The Mid Island Meltdown".  Even after Scotty Didmon's stirring and motivational pregame speech as the bus unloaded at The Frank, the Grizzlies still lost.  Leading 4-3 with 35 seconds to play, they would somehow end up losing 5-4 in regulation.  It may have been one of the worst losses in franchise history.  In many ways it was the Grizzlies' Chernobyl.

Frank Crane Arena as seen from the air on 28 Oct, 2015
What was missed however was how well the Grizzlies played in the first 59 minutes and 25 seconds of the game. I saw an offensively challenged team suddenly erupt with 4 goals over one of the best teams in the entire league.  Sure it was a bad loss, but I saw it as a positive sign in many respects.
The following night back at The Q Centre the Grizzlies outplayed and outlasted the Powell River Kings.  They won 3-1 on the strength of an early lead, great team play and outstanding goaltending by Matthew Galadja.  The next night and it was the Cowichan Valley Capitals. Once again it was a nice tidy 3-2 win with only two unfortunate short handed goals to blame on an otherwise picture perfect night of balanced hockey.  Then on Friday the Grizzlies would win a 2-1 squeaker at The Q Centre on Parents Night.  Suddenly the Grizzlies were 3-0 since the Mid Island Meltdown.

And just hours ago, the Grizzlies blew away a very frustrated Prince George Spruce Kings team 7-3 and it is now 4 wins on the bounce.  What is going on in Grizzlies Land?

Parents Weekend pre-game ceremonies for The Grizzlies on Friday
Before I answer that, I want to explain why I used to dislike so intensely that award for Most Improved Student in Middle School.  Even as the Principal read out the award, it always translated in my head like this:  "In September this young man was without question the #1 worst student in school.  This student was an absolute grease fire when it came to math, English and science.  In fact, this student was so bad, many on the faculty wondered if maybe there wasn't a village somewhere looking for its requisite idiot."  Then they called my name and I walked past Barb Graham who used to like me when I was the class clown, but not so much since I changed into Dudley Do Right.  I climbed up on the stage to receive that blue ribbon from our school Principal with my parents snapping photos and looking so proud.  To me the whole thing was a humiliating episode.  I remember secretly promising myself that one day, I would burn the ribbons.  Remember, I was only 12 and I had a crush on Barb Graham at the time.

The Victoria Grizzlies are doing a lot of things really well at the moment and that starts in goal.  I believe that the Grizzlies possess the best "One-Two Punch" in goal in the entire league.  While Matt Galadja is universally excellent, Mitchell Benson is perhaps the best kept secret in the BCHL.  I think he may even be the most under-rated player in the entire BCHL.  On the nights when he starts, he is flat out fantastic in net.  The Grizzlies are also playing very well defensively.  Van Lierop, who at times can keep the puck in the zone by simply using the back of his trailing skate, has been outstanding.  But so too has the rest of the D-Corps who are now all beginning to add a goals and helpers from the point.

Cody Van Lierop high fives his adoring fans at The Q Centre
Maybe best of all are the forwards.  Everybody is contributing now.  "The Senior Line" of Pickup, Conlon and Barker are routinely +1 each night.  "The Smoothy Line" with Hahn, Gelsinger and Livingstone score goals and cause fits in the offensive zone.  Then there is the fan favorite "The Shock and Awe Line" of Welsh, Mokhtari and Guiney.  The line has quickly become one of the most fearsome line combinations in the league and they seem to improve each night.  There are PGA golf balls which fly through the air slower that Mokhtari when he gets going.

In short the Grizzlies have made a serious turn on their season.  With three lines capable of scoring and doing so on a regular basis, suddenly the pressure is coming off the leaders in the Dressing Room.

But much work is still left to be done.  To say that the Powerplay has issues is a bit like saying that Dr. Phil's guests may need to "do a little work on themselves."  The Grizzlies PP is currently dead last at 17th in the league with a 12.24% efficiency rating.  But if you calculate in the 8 Short Handed Goals Against, that stat drops to 4.081% in terms of overall effectiveness.  The good news is that the PK is second only to that of the Penticton Vees.  The PK is solid and was a big part of the recent 4 game win streak.

Dr.Phil recently discussing the Grizzlies Powerplay and SHGA
So while they don't hand out little blue ribbons at the end of the season for "The BCHL's Most Improved Team Of The Year", the Grizzlies can take solace from the fact they are slowly pulling themselves out of a very deep hole. This slow improvement could pay off huge come playoff time.

One last word about those humiliating "Most Improved Student" blue ribbons.  You know those little boxes/chests people keep usually in their garage or attic with mementoes and pictures from days gone by?  Well I just went downstairs to have a look at mine. 

There's a whole pile of report cards in there and some high school football pictures.  At the bottom are these three blue ribbons and you will never guess what they say?  There's even a picture of me and Barb Graham at the Grade 8 Graduation Dance.  I guess sometimes even Dudley Do Right can get a second chance.  Talk to you in Powell River on Tuesday Night. -CC

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Interior Road Swing #1: C- Report Card

An Interior Road trip which featured, one win in three may be nothing to brag about but I almost want to Grade it a C-.  It’s not an excuse, but the old days of team travel are long over and that was an issue on Friday for the Grizzlies. Think about it.  The Grizzlies started their Friday at about 6:00am and they travelled for nearly 12 hours before their game time at 7pm that night.  In the old days, the team would have left on a Thursday with a road practice in somewhere like Hope, BC.  With a full night’s rest, the team would have arrived in Salmon Arm on Friday night and much more ready to take on the Silverbacks. 
But that was the old days.  In the old days, owners never thought twice about the costs associated with an extra day’s travel.  But in the old days an extra day’s travel budget wasn’t the $4,000/day like it is now.  In the old days that’s how you did things, heck clubs in those days were averaging 1,500+ fans.  But it’s no longer the old days now is it?  Today most teams suffer from lower attendances and they all suffer from much higher costs.  Teams simply can’t afford that extra day on the road.  Now teams have to do more with less.  And that’s what happened Friday night in Salmon Arm.  The Grizzlies faced a somewhat superior opponent at home and the visitors were forced into a 12 hour bus legs start.  Oh well, welcome to the fiscal realities of the BCHL in 2015.
But before I go on any further, let me take a quick moment and applaud the fans of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.  That Shaw Centre they have there is absolutely fantastic.  Its not just the building, it’s the home town feel and love of their team which I respect.  So I went out for a short walk between periods and what I saw almost blew me away.  It was a total Home Town Friday Night Party.  It felt like everybody in town was at that game.  There were only 1,100 fans in that little building but it felt like way more. Almost every single one of them was decked out in either a Silverbacks t-shirt, ball cap, or jersey.  There was even a huge lineup to get into the club’s team store “The Backs Shack”.
Those not dressed in Silverbacks gear all had a souvenir program or something Silverbacks in their hand.  Plus, as you may know, The Shaw Centre has this cool gimmick whereby they hang a Silverback Gorilla stuffy on a zip line and whenever the Silverbacks score, guess what happens?  The Gorilla goes for a ride along the zip line and the fans all go nuts.  It was all very impressive, so I wanted to take a moment and give some props to the Silverbacks franchise and their fans on what I would argue was the best hockey atmosphere I have encountered thus far in this season.  So well done to Salmon Arm.  And come on Victoria, you can do it too!
Now back to “The Good The Bad and The Ugly” of the weekend.  The good, the Grizzlies beat Vernon 2-0 on Saturday night and Matt Galajda earned his first career BCHL shut out, so well done to the whole team on road victory #1 of the season.  The bad, the Grizzlies Powerplay went 0/18 on the weekend and dropped to dead last in the BCHL at 10.26% in PP efficiency.  The ugly, with only 5 goals all weekend and with the Grizzlies firing 126 total shots, the team allowed opposing goalies to post a .960 save percentage and neither of the three opposition net minders were that good.
Now with all that bad news, here is something to lighten your spirits, the arrival of another talented forward into Grizzlies camp, this time former Grizzlie Dante Hahn.  Hahn, no longer in his #13 will now wear Eric Lindros's old #88, a true classic.  (full disclosure, I didn't even know that we had an #88 in the kit room)  Hahn arrived via futures from the Coquitlam Express on Thursday.  He got one practice in and then travelled with the team early Friday.  He was the Grizzlies best forward on the road trip in my opinion.  He played Centre with #22 Brayden Gelsinger on his left side and #19 Colby Livingstone on Hahn's right, all of which worked rather well. 
Dante Hahn in action vs the Bulldogs in 2013, wearing his old #13
Hahn had a goal and an assist on a weekend which featured only 5 Grizzlie markers. Furthermore he was +1 over the three games which included a 5-1 loss to Salmon Arm.  So overall I would say that the 20 year old provided an immediate and much needed impact on the Grizzlies roster.  But here is the problem:  Hahn fits into the 22 man roster in view of #21 Spencer Hunter being placed on the 30 Day Disabled List.  But with Hahn playing so well and being an established BCHL 20 year old, there is little chance that he is going anywhere soon.  That means that on 10 Nov, Coach Didmon will be in a tough spot.  He will have to make a hard choice by that date, being forced to move a player off the roster, once he loses that 30 Day DL card and returns his club to a 22 man roster.
So since most of you missed all the action and offence on the road trip, here is a quick re-cap.
On Friday night, in the 3rd period vs SA, Livingstone, got on the end of a Dante Hahn pass after a Hahn recovered his own rebound. Settling it onto his stick, Livingstone fired off an easy shot into an open net beating Silverbacks goalie, Brandon Kelger to make it 4-1.  On Saturday, #18 Nick Guiney finished off a nice #20 Tyler Welsh rebound to beat goalie Andrew Shortridge under his extended right pad after it looked like Shortridge had made the initial save.  In the 3rd period, after a series of slick passes from #26 Mitchell Barker and #12 PJ Conlon, picking up the puck was #14 Cole Pickup who split the D after Conlon's long lead pass and went in on a breakaway and scored on his own rebound.  On Sunday vs the West Kelowna Warriors #22 Brayden Gelsinger scored his 2nd of the year off a perfect Livingtone backhand pass during a harmless looking 2 on 3 rush.  The final goal of the weekend was Barker's Shorthanded goal off an innocuous long range wrister after crossing the blue line. Conlon would be robbed of an assist, even though he clearly won the draw to the escaping Barker. 
The Grizzlies play three games in a row starting Thursday night when they travel up to The Frank Crane to take on the Clippers, game time 7pm.  That will be followed at home with Powell River on Thursday and Friday with Cowichan Valley.   Let's hope for an A.  Talk to you Wednesday at The Frank. -CC

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Thuring Points, Mercury Cougars and Bobby Smith: The Grizzlies Get Weekend Split

Whenever I think of the term "turning point", I don't think of the iconic "TSN Turning Point", I think of the great Bobby Smith.  I still remember those rides home with my Dad after Ottawa 67s games as I sat in the passenger seat of that big American built, 1975 Mercury Cougar.  For those of you who have no idea what that might have been like, let me provide you a quick visual description.  The 75' Cougar was half boat/half luxury car/half army tank.  It was so fast and powerful that it actually won the 1976 Daytona 500.  The car was so big and so intimidating that Clint Eastwood would one day make one of his finest films about the very vehicle which inspired the Cougar, the Grand Torino.  In 1975, the Cougar's massive Q-code 351 "Cobra Jet" V8  engine was so big that to this day, some environmentalists still claim that the Cougar was likely the primary and singular cause for modern day climate change.

1975 Cougar, a greenhouse gas, muscle car if there ever was one

I remember sitting in the passenger seat after those Ottawa 67s games, unable to see over the massive front dash board of the great beast, but still able to hear my Dad's predictable question:  "Well Clayton what did you think was the turning point tonight?"  Back in those days, my answer was almost always something like, "I though Bobby Smith's 3rd period Power Play goal was really cool." (give me a break, I was 9).  True story, Bobby Smith, who played for the Ottawa 67s from 1975-78 was actually a patient in my dad's medical practice at the time. 

Smith, played as a 20 year old in 77-78 winning the OHL Scoring Race
Yes, it's true.  When the great Bobby Smith, the player who beat Wayne Gretzky in the 1978 OHL scoring race was playing Junior for the 67s, he used to visit a doctor on Carling Avenue in Ottawa who drove a gas guzzling 2 door luxury sedan which only got about 3.9 miles/gallon.  His family doctor's name was Brian M. Cochrane, MD, my dad.

Bobby Smith's former doctor with grand kids & (Grandmom) long after the 75' Cougar
Soon Smith would be drafted 1st overall by the Minnesota North Stars and on his way a Calder Trophy, later a Stanley Cup in 1986 with the Montreal Canadienns.  But back in those days, in that old 75' Cougar, Bobby Smith was just the normal topic of post-game hockey conversation, as our family car spewed primordial levels of carbon monoxide and other untold gases up and down the Ottawa Valley on those long trips home in the dark.  If Jane Fonda only knew, she would have been outraged.
Smith in NHL, his goal celebrations were to skate back to Centre Ice

The point of those conversations though, often centred, not on the 6'4'' stalwart 67s Centre, although my Dad often pointed out to me how "Bobby never celebrates beating an opponent", but on the importance of turning points and momentum in hockey games.  I also learned that not very often, but occasionally, there is a play in a game, which not only turns a game around, but it can actually end up as a momentum changer which can turn around a whole season.  Other than Coach Didmon's return behind the bench last December, I can't think of a singular on-ice moment which was a season changing moment.  But I think that an actual on ice, season turning point may have actually occured at The Q Centre last Friday night.

With the Grizzlies on a 6 game losing streak and facing the Island Division leading Powell River Kings on Friday, nobody was worried about turning points; certainly not the Grizzlies who just needed a win.  Trailing 2-1 after two periods, a four goal 3rd period explosion suddenly took place lead by Cole Pickup(4th), Chuck Bennis(2nd), Kevin Massy(3rd) and Keyvan Mokhtari(1st).  The sudden offensive outburst not only ensured a victory against the top team in the BCHL at the time, but it may very well have turned around the expectations and outlook on an entire season.
#5, Falconer, a Grizzlie Rookie Forward finding his game
But let's get back to that turning point for a second, because I don't want this moment to be lost on any one reading this article.  It wasn't a goal.  It wasn't a save.  In fact, at the time it wasn't even very noticeable at all.  But it was huge just the same.

With just seconds ticking down in the 2nd period, with the Grizzlies trailing yet again in a hockey game, a mad scramble suddenly ensued in front of the home net.  Powell River's Liam Lawson broke free of his check near the crease with a wide open net in front of him.  After putting the puck on net, a quick thinking Keyvan Mokhtari, seemingly coming out of nowhere arrived in the crease and with the puck dribbling ever so close to the goal line, the young Grizzlies rookie batted the puck clear.  The buzzer sounded.  His defensive intervention, not only saved an obvious goal and kept the game to within reach for the third period, it might have saved the Grizzlies entire season.

Every Grizzlie contributed to the 5-2 win over Kings on Friday

Think about it.  Had that puck gone in, both club's would have gone to their respective dressing rooms with the visitors up 3-1.  It would also have been another of those dreaded buzzer beaters, pure momentum killers.  With a Grizzlies team who at that point was averaging well under 2 goals/ game, the prospect of a comeback would have been slim.  But with that innocuous goal line puck clearance by Mokhatari and the rest of his line mates, the Grizzlies made a statement. "Not tonight. Not on my watch".

It changed the whole game and I think it may end up changing the whole season.

The Grizzlies came out of that final intermission like men possessed.  They moved the puck so quickly and they threw the body around so hard, the Kings never stood a chance.  The Grizzlies would not quit.  Two nights later they would show the same intensity, this time in a losing effort to another team vying for the Island Division title, the upstart Cowichan Valley Capitals.  Disappointingly, the game would end in a 5-4 loss, but not before another rookie, this time #17 Joey Visconti would score a pair of goals, including his first of the season.  Visconti's first was also the club's first short-handed goal of the campaign.  In short, the Grizzlies would end up going 1-1 on the weekend but only after scoring a total of 9 goals. Amazingly, those 9 goals on the weekend represented almost half the number of goals they had scored in the previous 12 contests combined.  The Grizzlies are scoring again.  The team is finding its form and confidence.  Best of all the rookies are contributing offensively just as the injured defensemen are beginning to return to the roster.
Trivia Question: Which Grizzlie buried this season's 1st Shortie?
Now if you will excuse me, I have to run out and go pick up one of my son's from hockey practice.  I don't know what we will discuss tonight on the ride home, but I am sure hockey will be the subject.  All I know is that our post practice talk will take place in a fuel efficient, ultra-low emission, Japanese built, Acura 1.7 EL, a vehicle which can run on a thimble of fuel.  It's also a car which I am pretty sure will never, ever win the Daytona 500.  Don't worry, I only drive it to impress Jane Fonda.

Talk to you Friday night from Salmon Arm. -CC

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades: Struggling Grizz

I know what you are thinking.  The Grizzlies are close.  Yes they are.  Its only a matter of time.  They are close indeed.  But the problem which I have with that saying is that close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.  Close doesn't count in hockey.  Hitting a post doesn't get your team a goal.  In fact, it often creates a weird bounce and an odd man rush in the other direction.  OK, done venting.

The Grizzlies are 1-8-0-2 or something like that.  They have two points because they forced a couple of OTs but lost the games.  OK, I will admit, it isn't great and I have been saying that I think its coming around, but man, I am so tired of hearing people tell me how close they are all the time.  I can see it with my own eyes, yes, I get it, the Grizzlies are close.  But they are not close enough, not yet anyway.

Here is what bothers me:  330 shots in 11 games.  Most would like to see that average of 30 shots per game be a bit higher.  But with only 20 goals scored, that means that the Grizzlies score on only 6.06% of their shots.  It means that opposing goalies are holding a nice big fat .939 save percentage on Grizzlies shooters after 11 games.  Ask any coach in any league what he would pay for a goalie with a save percentage of .940 and do you know what he will tell you?

"Oh yeah? How much?"  (think John Cleese Monty Python Life of Brian)

"A lot."

"Right you're in."

But 20 goals in 11 games just won't do it and the season is almost at the Quarter Pole.  The current Grizzlies squad is on pace to score 109 goals this season which would set a new league record in terms of least goals scored in a Regular Season.  The old record was the 2012/13 Vernon Vipers at 139 and next in line is last year's 9 win Surrey Eagles team at 141 goals scored.  Sorry, but its true.

Now, I know what you are saying: "But Clay its still so early and the sample size is way too small, be patient!"  I hear that at every game and I get it.  Frankly, I am being patient, in fact the last time we talked I was preaching patience.  I am still preaching patience on everyone's part by the way. 

And its not all bad news.

#15 Keyvan Mokhtari at a modest -2, a rookie Didmon now plays a lot
Look, Tyler Welsh (2G), Keyvan Mokhtari (0G) and Spencer Hunter (0G) are not lighting it up offensively, although Welsh scored that pair vs Cowichan last Friday night at the ISC which was good to see.  And neither are Alex Peck (1G) or Nick Guiney (3G).  But did you know that each of those forwards currently lead practically all Grizzlies skaters in +/- so far on the season? 

Sure you say, they are all forwards, that's easy.  And yes they all play a lot of 3rd and 4th Line minutes, but some of them like Welsh and Mokhtari are starting to see much more ice time as of late.  My point is, each of them usually finish most games "Even" on the night.  Now that may not sound like much to shout about, but on a team who has scored only 20 goals and surrendered 37 for a team goal differential of -17, I would suggest that being -2 or -3 after 11 games on this team is pretty good, no matter who you are.

As I have said, I also really like both the goalies, Galajda and Benson. They are young and strong and they are keeping the Grizzlies in every game.  But what happens when they have an off night?

Can the new Grizzlie, #9 Luc Soares ignite the Grizzlies' offense?
The question now for me will be what Head Coach and GM Craig Didmon will do with his forwards.  The Chuck Bennis move on D as I have already stated was very good in my opinion.  On Tuesday Didmon released forward Sage Fleming. With the roster spot open he brought in via futures Luc Soares from the equally struggling Prince George Spruce Kings.  Soares is likely much better than the 4th Line minutes he was getting up in PG under new HC Chad van Diemen.  Could the new gig at The Q Centre spur him on and ignite the Grizzlies offense?  Didmon certainly hopes so, not to mention the nearly 1,000 patient fans at the Q Centre each night so far this season.

Will an unsigned Colby Livingstone create another Grizzlies move?
Add to that is the presence of another forward in Colby Livingstone from the KIJHL's Creston Thunder Cats and there may be another move not too far away. That will especially be true if Livingstone is more than just a very strong Jr. B forward.  Time will tell on that one.

But saying things like "they're close" just won't do it now, not for me anyway.  The Grizzlies are rapidly falling astern of not only the Island Division leaders, but with three losses to Alberni Valley, the Bulldogs in 4th place are now starting to pull away from contact with their Southern Island opponent Grizzlies.

The question now will be, can the Grizzlies start firing pucks into the net at a rate above 1.81/game?  Because horse shoes and hand grenades just aren't doing it at the moment.

The Grizzlies host the Powell River Kings Friday Night at The Q Centre, see you there. -CC 

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A Quick Lesson In Patience: The Grizzlies Lose 3 More

Sports columns generally fall into three basic categories.  When the team is winning, they are quite easy to write.  Here’s the basic model of that type which I call a Column #1 story:  “Team wins, team’s playing great, club has high morale, arena is full with huge local buzz, blah, blah, blah.”  You get the idea.
Column #2 is about the .500 team.  It’s an easy column to write:  “Win some, lose some, team has a few issues, dressing room is still confident and there is still lots of hope, blah, blah, blah”.  I write those ones all the time.
Then comes the one all sport writers dread, also known as a Column #3 piece, the struggling franchise.  This one is never easy to write.  The team is losing, the coaches and players are all stressed out.  The GM and owners want answers.  The crowds are routinely leaving the rink disappointed and on and on and on.
Today I get to write a Column #3 story.
#20 Tyler Welsh played on 1st Line Sunday (Photo: C. Stewart, ISN)
You know it occurred to me after the Grizzlies 4-1 loss to the Vernon Vipers on Sunday that I have seen this movie before.  Not the loss to Vernon, the part about the Grizzlies 1-6-1 start.  This is starting to look an awful lot like the 2004/05 Victoria Salsa season.  Most serious Salsa/Grizzlies fans will remember it well.  That year, the team famously had its worst start in franchise history.  The team was 2-9-1 after its first dozen games.  They would finish the year with only 16 wins and lose 39 times while scoring only 176 goals and eventually bring in Powell River’s Kent Lewis as Head Coach for the last 25 games of the year.  The Salsa would finish in 5th Place in the Island Division but still manage to make the playoffs that year, ultimately losing to the South Surrey Eagles 4-1 in the First Round under Lewis. 
Coach Lewis would return to Powell River after 25 games at BMA in 2004/05
Critics would say that this year’s Grizzlies are well on their way to meeting or eclipsing that bad start.  I remember that 2004/05 Salsa club like it was yesterday.  The year opened with such promise.  First off, the team had just moved into the brand new Bear Mountain Arena, (now The Q Centre) which was at the time, the flagship arena of the BCHL.  The one concern around the new building was the word “rebuild” after the departures of so much elite talent at the end of the 2003/04 season.  Gone was none other than Kyle Greentree, Victoria’s all-time scoring leader (375 Reg Season pts) and his 115 points from the previous 03/04 season.  Greentree’s departure after five years wearing his famous #39 jersey, along with a bevy of other highly offensive players and their 217 goals that year was a massive blow to the roster.

#39 Greentree would play for Flames & Flyers
Thus concurrent with the positives of the Salsa moving into Bear Mountain Arena, the roster took arguably its biggest hit in franchise history.  Gone were the talented forwards of Greentree, Clayton Lainsbury, Blair Tassone along with gifted defenseman Aaron Brocklehurst.  The fears about the 2004/05 Salsa roster were quickly realized as the team struggled out of the gate and quickly fell to a miserable 2-9-1 record.  Just 20 games into that dreadful season, Kent Lewis was gone and on his way to back to Powell River.  In came Pete Zubersky of the Peninsula Panthers, which provided only marginal improvement, the problem was the roster.
But what a lot of folks forget were the finer details of that 04/05 team.  Yes, they lost a lot of games and gave up a bucket full of goals (255).  But that Salsa team had a young 18 year old 6 foot, 180 lbs Centre who they picked up in the summer of 2004 from the Regina Pat Canadians of the SMHL.  The youngster came in and scored a modest 15 goals and 16 assists but had little impact in the playoffs.  But he stuck with the Salsa and came back the following year, doubling his goals to 31 and ended up leading the team in scoring with 69 points.  Most importantly he lead the 05/06 Salsa through one of the franchise’s greatest playoff runs, a full 16 games until they were eliminated in the BCHL Semi-Finals to the then Burnaby Express.  The next year in 06/07 when he was 20, he returned again and scored 128 points (still the single season franchise record).  That season he and a young 17 year old forward from Central Saanich named Jamie Benn lead the team under its new name, the Victoria Grizzlies.  In fact, that year the Grizzlies had three players who each scored over 40 goals.  The 2006/07 Grizzlies won 39 regular season games and played in 11 playoff games.  I will never forget it, those were heady days with the building always noisy and full of fans.

Bozak would lead the Salsa in 2005/06 with 129 Reg Season points
That player I was talking about was Tyler Bozak.  Everyone knows where Bozak ended up and what kind of an impact he is enjoying to this day playing in the NHL.  Why his story has relevance to the 2015/16 Grizzlies is that during that forgettable 04/05 season, Bozak wasn't just a young and talented Saskatchewan forward, playing on a really bad team.  Tyler was patient and so was the franchise.  Bozak, in spite of the rotating door of coaches and several offers from the WHL, kept returning to the Salsa and both he and the team got better and better.  It was a true lesson in patience.

 #19 Iapalucci, 1 of only 6 forwards to score (Photo: C. Stewart, ISN)
Let’s look at some basic facts about what’s going on with the Grizzlies at the moment.  They average less than 2 goals/game in team scoring.  At this rate the club will set new records lows for goals in a season at 112.  The one bright spot, the goaltending and team defence isn’t quite the good news one might think.  The Grizzlies are actually on pace to concede 210 goals, the exact same number as last season.  On its present course the Grizzlies will fail to make the playoffs this year and it might not be close.
 #22 Gelsinger, only Grizzly with 1 point/game avg (Photo: C. Stewart, ISN)
So the question is why?  Obviously the team is losing, they are full of injuries to D-Men at the moment and they struggle with offense like Tiger does with his driver.   But what really worries me is the compete level.  Generally it’s there and I don’t see a lot of players taking the night off.  That’s actually a problem in my view.  The effort is there, the legs are moving, but the team still isn’t scoring, which tells me that there may be deeper problems.  If they weren’t working hard, I would not be nearly as concerned, but this team is indeed giving their coach all they have.  That’s the worry. 

#26 Barker is 1 of 11 Grizzlies yet to score (Photo: C. Stewart, ISN)
I think this year the Victoria Grizzlies have finally had their “Elite Level Talent Gas Tank” run empty.  The loss of too many returnable players with names like Gruber, Kennedy, Mackie, McBride, McDonald and Harpur has crippled the Grizzlies.  Naturally, the organization is pleased that many of those players have each moved on to the next level, but this year unlike in years past, they simply haven’t been replaced.  The current squad will likely need some tinkering and I expect the telephones and fax machines to be working overtime in the next few weeks.  Coach Didmon’s move to bring in Chuck Bennis from the USHL last week was precisely the type of player move Victoria needed at the time and I expect more in the coming weeks.  The problem is that a coach in the BCHL is only allotted so many player cards (35) between June 1st and 10 January and each signed player (min of 22) uses up a card.  That means that team’s like the Grizzlies have to be very efficient with their rosters and this seriously reduces a GM’s flexibility during the year.  What might that portend for the remainder of the year?  I am not sure.  All I know is that this club has a couple of potential Tyler Bozaks in the Dressing Room and I want to see them get through this season and return next year.

Bozak in new Grizzlies gear at BMA circa 2006
Now we await three straight back to back games this weekend, Alberni Valley (4 Pointer), Cowichan Valley (4 Pointer) and the Surrey Eagles on Saturday night, two at home and one on the road.  The Grizzlies will need to win two out of three of those matchups in order to avoid having this season's start look anything more like that dreaded 04/05 season.  Not to mention, I am really not looking forward to writing another Column #3.  I just never had Bozak’s patience. -CC