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 

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