Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Chapter 1 Complete: Grizzlies Earn A Victory

At long last the BCHL Bauer Showcase is behind the Grizzlies.  Also done with are the two disruptive components of the early Regular Season.  The first was the Victoria Shamrocks Mann Cup Playoff run which kept the Q Centre floor free of ice until late September.  Gone too is the NHL’s Kraft Hockeyville and all of its various trappings which even included Don Cherry and Coach's Corner.  And of course we should be grateful.  Both of these events were a great boon to the Westshore and even to the Grizzlies.  Heck, the Canucks left enough Gatorade in The Q Centre to fill Commonwealth Pool.  But gone most of all is a four game losing streak which wasn't doing anyone any favours.
Grizzlies held a lengthy lead in a hockey game for the first time since March
That losing streak ended vs Prince George with just over a minute left to play in Double Overtime on Sunday afternoon at Chilliwack’s Prospera Centre.  And it came by virtue of the player who may be the franchise’s most prolific overtime goal scorer of all time, #11 Kevin Massy.  KMass’s late Double OT goal lifted the Grizzlies to a 2-1 win over the Prince George Spruce Kings and closed the door on the first chapter of the new season, a chapter many would like to forget.
#4 - Jake Stevens, a Go-To D-Man for the Grizz 
But gone too is a statistic which was really starting to concern me.  Until Brayden Gelsinger’s First Period PP marker on Sunday, which put his team up 1-0, the Grizzlies had trailed for 355/360 minutes of hockey since 7 March, 2015.  Trailing for that long in that many games is rarely a recipe for success on any team.   But asking a room full of rookies to chase games night in and night out is frankly trying to go a bridge too far.  The Grizzlies just won’t be the prolific offensive powerhouse they were last year and that’s ok.  But that means that getting that first goal this season will be bigger than ever, at least that’s what it looks like after five games.  
Thus, in less than 24 hours, the Grizzlies will at long last enjoy their Regular Season Home Opener on Thursday night at The Q Centre.  It could not have come any sooner.  With Prince George winning their first game of the season on Saturday afternoon at the Bauer Showcase, the Grizzlies earned the dubious distinction of being the last BCHL team to register a win in 2015/16. 
While the Q Centre distractions and extended road trip are in the Grizzlies’ rear view mirror, not all the team’s issues are necessarily behind them at the moment.  The club has registered only 8 goals scored over the first five games of the season, while surrendering 15 against.  The Powerplay has looked fairly benign for the most part, trucking along at a modest 13.64 % to sit at 13th in the league.  With that said, the Grizzlies do sport the BCHL’s best PK efficiency at 93.75%.  But best of all is the fact that the Grizzlies have only been shorthanded 16 times (lowest in BCHL) in 5 games and that stat suggests a team with discipline and poise.  That could prove crucial if it keeps up.
#11 - Defenceman Kevin Massy continues to be clutch in OT
But the worry for me is the scoring, it’s just not there, not yet anyway.  Yes, the team has been on the road for four weeks straight and yes, the Q Centre has been filled with lacrosse sticks, Kraft Dinner boxes and NHL fans during this period of time.  But the fact remains that the only Grizzlies players who have been able to contribute offensively with more than a single point this year are players who wear “A”s and “C”s on their uniforms.  That bodes well for the veteran leadership in the room, but it’s not sustainable over the long term.  Forget the Third and Fourth Lines, the Grizzlies have yet to demonstrate any Second Line scoring whatsoever.  The good news is that The Grizzlies are full of talented BCHL rookies who have loads of upside and promise.  It is also good news to report that the chances have been there and frankly, I can’t remember when I last witnessed this large a number of posts and crossbars hit by a Grizzlies team.  On Saturday night vs Chilliwack, Cole Pickup, Nick Guiney and Brayden Geslinger combined for 4 posts or crossbars.  The Grizzlies can and will score more goals, they just can’t wait much longer to make that happen. 
That said, help is on the way and the youngsters look ready to play a bigger role.  #15 Kevan Mokhtari (98’), with his breathtaking speed looks to be just millimetres away from scoring a hat trick on any given night and the same can be said of his line mate, #20 Tyler Welsh (97’).  Add to that mix, the impressive 98’ born D-Man in Drayson Pears who broke up no less than two, back to back, 2 on 1 breakaways on Sunday and you can sleep well knowing that help is right around the corner.
#31 Mitchell Benson on his way to a 26 saves on 27 shots performance vs Prince George
Meanwhile after five games, the club has been steeled by the fact that both of the new 18 year old goaltenders, Matt Galajda and Mitchell Benson have been better than good.  They have literally been lights out on certain occasions.  Benson for his part on Sunday made several huge stops in OT which bought his team the time they needed to figure out the Spruce Kings goalie, Liam McCloskey who was impressive in his own right.  The Defencemen have been strong in general and the new face on the roster, American Import #2 Chuck Bennis, has assumed a vital role on the blue line, especially with Brett Stirling out of the lineup for the foreseeable future with what is hopefully not a serious lower body injury.
The best news of all was what I saw from the many scouts at the Showcase.  Each appeared to be suffering from various different levels of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome while watching Grizzlies games. They certainly were busy scribbling and taking notes throughout the Grizzlies action from what I saw.  If you think that might just be anecdotal observations on the writer’s part, I can sure the reader that I heard personally from many of the scouts and BCHL officials at the Bauer Showcase, that “the 2015/16 Grizzlies are a very talented and young team with loads of potential”.  In short they were all impressed.
The Grizzlies salute the sizeable travelling "Grizzlies Nation" on Sunday
So it’s off to the Home Opener tomorrow night at The Q Centre, game time 7pm.  I hope to see you Thursday night.  Until then, I guess I’ll just enjoy this Orange Coloured Gatorade as I type away up here in the Broadcast Booth while I watch the Westshore Wolves play, there's literally cases of this stuff everywhere!  -CC

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Lose An Engine, Wind Your Watch: Grizzlies After Three Straight Losses

I remember this funny thought I had on the day the entire world learned the name, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

US Airways Flight 1549 with Captain Sullenberger (Insert)
If his name still eludes you, Captain Sullenberger was the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 on 15 January, 2009.  The plane struck a flock of Canadian Geese during its climb out of LaGuardia, NYC and ended up making an emergency ditching in the Hudson River just a few kilometres from the World Trade Centre.  To this day, most aviation experts consider the actions of Sullenberger and his crew that day to be one of the finest examples of airmanship in the history of commercial aviation.

Back to that funny thought which I had as I gazed, mouth wide open at the live CNN television coverage of an airliner floating on the surface of the Hudson River, its passengers all standing on the wings.  I remember thinking about the pilot and wondering out loud about something which the guys at work all thought was crazy of me to ponder.  I wondered if the pilot had just wound his watch.

Craig Didmon is one of the few coaches in the BCHL who I would humbly submit might need to wind his watch at the moment.  After three games to start the new season, the Victoria Grizzlies are 0-3 and off to one of the slowest starts in recent memory.  If the Grizzlies were the Vancouver Canucks, the local Vancouver media would be up in arms and there would be a line-up of reporters outside of Coach Willie Desjardins' office demanding answers.  In short, there would be bedlam in Vancouver after an 0-3 start.  That's just the way it is nowadays in this world of instant gratification.  The fact is that many hockey coaches and GMs in the game would at this point be either hitting the panic button or at least searching frantically for its location.

And that's where Captain Sully Sullenberger and his wrist watch comes into the Grizzlies' story.

Capt Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles
When I was a teenager and was working on my Private Pilot licence, I had this great old school instructor at the Ottawa Flying Club. I always remember his instruction concerning in-flight emergency procedures.  I remember one day when he threw this emergency at me while we were in the air over Carp and he watched me conduct a series emergency procedures.  After the drill was over and I was feeling quite proud of myself for nailing it, (or so I had thought), he told me that I had forgotten the most important and first thing you need to do when you have a serious problem in an aircraft.  "And you know what that is right Clay?" he queried over the aircraft's headsets?  Flush with my freshman philosophy about flying at the time, I retorted with a typical teenager response to a good question from a great teacher, the sound of crickets.

Captain Sullenberger with a young flying enthusiast (possibly author's 1986 doppelganger)

I  remember my instructor smiling and explaining to me that when things are really "turning pear shaped" in the cockpit, you should always take a moment and wind your watch.  The basic idea behind this seemingly strange routine is to slow your mind down.  This way you tend to not overreact with too much "fast hands and feet" which could make a bad situation a whole lot worse.  If you don't take a second to think and you just react, you might take a recoverable aircraft which is in trouble and put it into an unrecoverable position and end up having a really bad day.

When we got on the ground and we shut down, he told me that I was quite strong with my emergency procedures and checklists but that my "hands and feet" were a bit too fast and that I needed to slow down a bit and take time to think.  "And that's why you always just check your wrist and wind your watch before you do anything, OK?"  I felt a little lump in my throat as I looked at my instructor and recognized the wisdom of this invaluable lesson in both flying and life.

When it comes to the Grizzlies, a panicky type would point to the fact that The Grizzlies have been outshot in 6 of 9 periods thus far and point to the lack of offense.  One might notes how many players are well into minus numbers in their +/- stats after three games.  A "Nervous Nelly" might demand action pointing out the fact that in the last 300 minutes of play, (less 5 mins in Cowichan) going back to 7 March 2015, the Grizzlies have trailed in every minute of those 300 minutes.  The over-reactive type might call for a bunch of drastic line changes and maybe even a few roster moves.  Good move or bad move, a panicky coach would certainly forget to wind his watch and he just might start making wild moves.

Gelsinger (22) and Pickup (14) Leading the Grizz
But let's step back for a moment and talk about how the Grizzlies are playing.  Frankly, I am not overly concerned, heck we are only three games into a 60 game schedule.  I think in general, the Grizzlies are playing quite well in spite of the three road losses.  Remember the Grizzlies have only seven retuning veterans in the lineup and two of them, Cody Van Lierop and Nick Guiney were sidelined in the last two losses with Van Lierop, a top D man missing all three games.  The losses have all been close one or two goal contests. The Grizzlies have one of the best goaltending tandems in the BCHL and team defence looks solid so far.  The Power Play can score goals and the team's leaders like, PJ Conlon, Cole Pickup, Kevin Massy and Brayden Gelsinger have lead the way offensively pretty well so far.  Don't forget that the Grizzlies also own the #1 PK in the league, which currently sits at 91% efficiency.  In fact the PK would be at 100% efficiency if it were not for Kevin Massy being tripped while killing off a Clippers PP on Friday night which temporarily left only three penalty-killers on their feet, which turned a 5 on 4 PP into a 5 on 3 situation.
So are things really that bad?  I think not.

Capt Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles
If you go on-line and listen to the Cockpit Voice Recorder, (CVR) of US Airways 1549 its really quite chilling.  There's Sully Sullenberger, climbing out of LaGuardia on a cold January afternoon on his way to Charlotte, NC.  He even points out to his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles how beautiful the Hudson River looks on the day.  Suddenly he says to his Co-Pilot says: "Birds."  The Airbus A320 flies through the flock of geese and within seconds the two pilots know that they have lost both engines. They know as well that they have zero chance of a re-start on either engine and they have nowhere to land as they are now gliding over Manhatten at well under 5,000 feet.  This is what pilots call "an in-flight emergency".  Within three minutes, the airplane would be carefully managed to a safe and effective emergency water landing in the middle of the Hudson River and all passengers would exit unharmed and be rescued by various water craft who would rush to the stricken airliner.  Meanwhile Captain Sullenberger, after wading through water up to his knees in the back of the airplane to check for any forgotten passengers, would be the last to board a rescue craft.  No panic, no emotion, just a cool, professional reaction to a frightening situation.

Coach Didmon at The Office
And frankly, that is what the Grizzlies need at the moment, just a calm and professional reaction by the one commanding "the aircraft".   I am pretty sure that is exactly what Coach Didmon has in mind; I have watched him coach for years now.  At the end of the day, The Grizzlies have simply lost a few hockey games.  They have lost a few hockey games with a roster full of talented rookies, each of whom who are slowly finding their way in the early days of their respective BCHL careers, hardly an emergency.

You know I read somewhere that Tom Hanks is going to play the role of Captain Sully Sullenberger in a new Hollywood movie coming out soon about Flight 1549.  I wonder what they will have his character do when he suddenly sees that flock of Canadian Geese appear in his window and he finds himself at low altitude over America's largest city in an airplane full of people and fuel with no operating engines?  I hope they show him winding his watch.

Grizzlies Meeting Author's Idol, Ron MacLean (note author not in photo)

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

New Season Game 1: Nothing Shawshank About It At All

OK, straight up, this blog has nothing to do with the movie The Shawshank Redemption.  You hear me?  Nothing! 
But here is the strangest thing:  I recently learned that if I mention that movie even one time in my writing, my readership goes up five times its normal rate, all thanks to the magic of the internet.  Five times!  And if I can get 500 English Lit students in Germany to suddenly read about the Victoria Grizzlies, well all I can say is: Zihuatanejo
OK, now that we have established the fact that I am a complete shill, let's talk about the first game of the 2015/16 Regular Season.
Game 1 is in the books, a 3-2 road loss to The Cowichan Valley Capitals on Friday night at The Island Savings Centre (aka The Big Stick).   Frankly, even though it was a loss, there were a lot of positive signs for Grizzlies fans to take away from the night.
Oh, and BTW, if I have already lost you with my selfish Shawshank nonsense, you can watch this cool Youtube video by our amazing Video Guy Roy Antonisen (best in the BCHL) which shows the night's action and pretty much tells the whole story:
In the first period the Grizzlies were outshot 11-7 in what I thought was a bit of a scrambling opening frame.  At the halfway mark of the first, the Grizzlies surrendered the first goal on the night to the Capitals Matthew Hudie after he broke in on Matt Galajda.  What stung on that goal was the assist to Chris Harpur, who the Grizzlies lost in the off season in compensation for the January 10 Thomas Gobeil trade.  In spite of the Caps early lead, a late PP goal by Cole Pickup provided a window of insight into what the team may become this year.  
Grizzlies newcomer but long time BCHL veteran Brayden Gelsinger really got things going on the goal by moving the puck with authority and finding Pickup alone in the slot which the Langford native quickly dispatched past Storm Phaneuf, the Caps goaltender.  The Grizzlies showed that they definitely have the parts necessary to compete on the man advantage with fluid puck movement on the PP.  The point men of Brett Stirling and Jake Stevens were impressive anchoring the PP all night.  The first period ended all tied up 1-1 and things were looking pretty solid in “Grizzlies Land” while on the road on the opening night in the BCHL.
Photo Credit - Kevin Rothbauer - Cowichan Valley Citizen
The second period started even better for the Grizzlies as none other than Cole Pickup put his team ahead with a shot banked off the light blue coloured left pad of Phaneuf, still sporting his equipment from his last QMJHL club the Chicoutimi Sangenuees.  That goal was set up by a solid Grizzlies forecheck and a battle behind the Caps net which included Gelsinger again, along with new team Captain, PJ Conlon.   It was looking like Pickup might collect his first ever BCHL Hat Trick on the night, but the goals dried up pretty quick after the Grizzlies took the lead as Phaneuf started to show why he played 80 games in the QMJHL over the last four years.  With Phaneuf showing his Major Junior form in net, the Grizzlies struggled offensively in spite of a number of quality scoring chances throughout the game.
But the story of the night unfortunately devolved into rough and perhaps even dirty play as a number of scrums broke into fights or near fights.  Queue the turning point on the night, late in the second period after a scoring chance in the Caps crease came up empty, far away from the play a melee broke out involving Gelsinger and former Grizzlies player Mitch Meek.  Meek was playing in his first game as a Cap since he was picked up in the 2012 Supplemental Draft by this very Capitals organization. 
What actually occurred in the bottom of the pile may never be known, but one thing is for certain, Brayden Gelsinger needed assistance to get off the ice in order to have his right eye examined after an alleged gouging at the hands of the former Grizzly, Meek.  Meek ended up with a Match Penalty in the incident and a Game Misconduct was handed out to Gelsinger for his role in the altercation.  The upshot of it all was that the Grizzlies would be without possibly their best player on the night for the final period when the game was tied at 2-2.  Gelsinger, along with the rest of the top line of Pickup and Conlon were +1 at that point in the hockey game when he was forced to take an early shower.
But the hockey game would turn on its head during a Grizzlies Powerplay just three minutes into the 3rd period when rookies Cory Iapalucci and Tyler Welsh would get caught up with each other while both players were trying to carry the puck into the offensive zone.  At that moment the Capitals crafty Adam Osczevski would steal the puck and race into the Grizzlies end taking a quick shot from the slot.  The shot was saved by Galajda but the rebound bounced clear into the open crease and Kade Kehoe sat over the gift puck with the easiest of finishes he will probably see all season.  It was a tough play, but one that will often occur early into any new season for any club with so many rookies.  In spite of a spirted attempt in the final minutes to tie the game with the net empty, the Grizzlies would come up short and the game would end 3-2.  The Grizzlies would outshoot the Caps 28-25 in the contest in front of a healthy 907 fans at the ISC.
All told the Grizzlies made a proper account of themselves.  I was particularly impressed with the team's ability to manage long periods of sustained puck possession in spite of only having a single left handed defenseman in the lineup with new Assistant Captain Cody Van Lierop out with an upper body injury.  Van Lierop is expected to be back in the lineup on Friday night vs the Nanaimo Clippers at the Frank Crane Arena.   
I also liked the look of the D men in general, the goaltending also looked fantastic and is a major improvement from last year.  The forwards I think will be fine once everybody settles into their respective systems.  This team is exiting and I see very few problems for the 2015/16 rendition of The Victoria Grizzlies.  I am already looking forward to Friday night at “The Frank” and hopefully there will be a large contingent of The Grizzlies Nation making the trip up to the mid island for the 7pm start.  Until then, I will let you go.
Now we will see how my Shawshank experiment works.  If it does work, the only question I have left is, what happens if in next week's blog I mention Donald Trump?  Talk to you Friday night folks. - CC 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Main Camp Report: Grizzlies Name 2015/16 Squad

With exactly one week to go before the league opener next Friday night vs The Caps at the ISC in Cowichan, the Grizzlies final roster was set Thursday morning. Yes Coach Didmon, possibly the most fecund of BCHL coaches has once again managed to replace last year's roster with what could be a team which is just as good if not better.  I won't bother to go through the specific names, because frankly it was pretty much covered in our last blog.  Hopefully I got it pretty close.  But while I am able to selfishly pat myself on my own back, I missed something pretty huge.  Over the course of watching the preseason games I began to notice something and it had nothing to do with player names or skills.  It was their ages.

Photo credit: Christian Stewart (ISN)
 Many years ago I heard a famous BCHL (and former Grizzlies coach BTW) make a pronouncement that "75% of all goals scored in the league are scored by 19 and 20 year olds".  I always promised myself that one day I would confirm that rather intriguing statement by tracking down the statistics and determining if it were actually true.  I tend to make a lot of promises to myself and not follow through.  But on this fact finding mission, I just might actually get on with it and here is why:  The 2015/16 iteration of the Victoria Grizzlies features a lineup with only 3 twenty year olds and 8 nineteen year olds. 
The league roster limit for twenty-year olds is set at six. The traditional wisdom is to make sure that your rosters features at least that number of seasoned BCHL gentry in your dressing room.  Is that a problem for the current Grizzlies?  I don't think so, but frankly I crunched a few numbers and it might surprise the reader to know that this year's Grizzlies have an average age of 18.5 and last year's team was a comparable 18.72, mind you that club carried its usual staple of six 20 year olds.  Last year's Fred Page Cup winners, the Penticton Vees had an average age of 17.86, with a full complement of 20 year olds.  So really I ask you again, is this really a whole lot to do about nothing?
That said, there can be such a thing as too many older players in the dressing room.  The up-island rival Nanaimo Clippers had eight twenty year olds still in camp this week, so they in fact have the opposite problem, too many twenty year olds.  Also, by carrying only three twenties, the Grizzlies now have the flexibility (unlike last year) to make a move with relative impunity, to add a twenty year old or two towards the January trade deadline. But its not always good news to load up with twenty year olds. 
I remember a former Jr.B owner once confiding to me that he owned a club many years ago which carried the league limit of eight twenty year olds and "the whole season was really just a night club on skates", so it is by no means a bad thing to be a young team hungry for hockey success.

undisclosed Jr.B Dressing Room circa (2009)

Now let's take a moment and break down this lineup and see what the Grizzlies have going for 2015/16.  The lines, at least for Week #1 will probably look something like this:
Pickup                   Gelsinger             Conlon
Iapalucci               Falconer               Visconti
Fleming                Guiney                 Peck
Hunter                  Welsh                   Mokhtari/Barker
                VanLierop          Stirling
                Stevens                Massy
                Pears/Krabben Walker
One thing I really like so far is the upgrade in net.  Galadja and Benson are both solid and have been tested well so far in the pre-season, Benson facing 50 shots in a 2-1 win vs Nanaimo on Tuesday night was impressive.  This weekend's final tune up games vs Alberni Valley will no doubt give each goal tender the opportunity to play vs legitimate BCHL lineups and play behind their actual starting 6 D men, so I look forward to seeing that play out.  The trick will be for both goalies to bring down the team's dreadful goals allowed stat from last year, 210 goals against.  We leaked goals last year like the Titanic leaked water and if that improves, the team will be better, no question.  My prediction is that next to Front Office stability, goaltending will be the club's biggest improvement for 2015/16.

Photo credit: Christian Stewart (ISN)
Now for the D-Men, I will say this:  Last year the Grizzlies scored 40 goals from the blue line, which was one of the biggest goal outputs by defensemen in years.  I think that number will come down this season, at least a bit.  Frankly it just has to, 40 goals from the D Corps is just too much to ask for two years running, but here is to hoping.  What I am more happy about is the fact that Jake Stevens and Brett Stirling could end up being absolute beasts on the first two pairings.  Along with veterans Van Lierop and K-Mass my sense is that they will easily replace the departed D-men from last year, which is quite the statement of faith considering how good we were in 2014/15 in that position.  This will make life much easier for Walker, Pears and Krabben who are all BCHL ready as defensemen but will mostly see 3rd pairing duties.  My one worry though is the lack of left handed defensemen in the team, I would prefer one more.

Photo credit: Christian Stewart (ISN)
On offense, I see a bit of a mild downturn, but that is almost expected.  Again one has to remember that the 219 goals scored last year by The Grizz were the most since the 220 goals scored in 2009 and the 263 goals scored during the Jamie Benn and Tyler Bozak era of 2006/07.  No other teams have really been close.  That said, if our 4th Line of Hunter, Welsh and Mokhtari turns into what I am hoping and surprises everybody, it will be my pleasure to attach to them the mystery moniker of " THE _ _ _ _ _   _ _ _   _ _ _ LINE".  If they struggle like most rookie lines in the BCHL, no problem, I will simply delete this paragraph from the blog and never speak of my mystery "4th Line Name" ever again.  My guess is they will be fantastic.  And for those of you Poindexters who want to try and play a little Vana White on Wheel of Fortune, all I can say is "buy a vowel".
Until then, enjoy the rest of the pre-season and do come out and see the club on Saturday night at 7pm at Westhills Arena in Langford, BC. -CC