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