Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fallen Comrades

The Cottonmouths family suffered two losses over the past couple of weeks. After receiving word that former Cottonmouth Connor MacDonald was killed by a car over Halloween weekend, it was learned yesterday that another former Cottonmouth, Paul Lynch, was found dead at his home yesterday morning. Details of Lynch's death were not known, but we do know he was a young man in good health. Both men were taken from us far too soon.

Connor left the Cottonmouths before I came to Columbus, so I never worked with him. I remember him as the feisty, young scrapper from the Jacksonville Barracudas who dropped the gloves with Dan Leslie every time we played the 'Cudas that year. He was the kind of guy who played the game the way it's supposed to be played. He gave his all every shift of every game. He was a tough competitor who would do whatever it took to win. From all accounts, that was the way he lived his life. He was as kind and generous off the ice as he was tenacious on it. I don't think anybody had an unkind word to say about him.

Paul was with the Cottonmouths only briefly during my first season here. He was here for training camp and played a couple of games at the start of the 2007-08 season before being waived. He got picked up by the Knoxville IceBears and was a regular on their Championship-winning team that season. I didn't know much about him except that he had been out of hockey for a couple of years before coming to the SPHL to resume his career. But he always treated me with respect as he did everyone else around him. He was a good guy.

There's an expression in hockey-"Once a teammate, always a teammate". Hockey is a small world. Your best friend one season might be your sworn mortal enemy the next...on the ice. Once the final buzzer sounds, he's your best friend once again. Because of this maxim, the hockey community is extraordinarily close. Even though I didn't know Connor or Paul very well, I still feel a sense of loss at their passing. But more than that, I feel empathy for their friends and family who now must try to fill the void in their lives. My condolences to all of you.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Well, it's been a busy week but I finally have a chance to post my new blog. Last weekend we had a home-and-home series against the Mississippi Surge, starting with an early travel/practice day on Friday. The Cheerleading championships took over the Civic Center, so we had to seek ice time elsewhere. We left at 8am Friday and arrived at the Coast Coliseum in Biloxi right around noon. We unloaded the bus and practiced, then moved our gear into the green room to dry out for the next day. We couldn't get into the visitors' locker room because the Fayetteville Fireantz were in town for a game against the Surge Friday night.

(Special thanks to Matt Broyles, Eric Hufnagel and the Surge staff for accomodating us and setting up for our practice when they were already busy enough setting up for their own game)

After practice, we got back on the bus and headed to the hotel. We made arrangements for those who wanted to watch the game to meet up and take the bus over after dinner, then went off to our rooms. We went to dinner at Salute', the Italian restaurant next to the hotel (there aren't many options within walking distance of the hotel), then headed to the game. I usually like to watch a Hockey game when I'm not working it, but this was one of the most boring games I've ever watched. There was very little excitement, unless you're a Surge fan who likes watching the red light go on behind the opposing goalie. We left before the game was over and headed back to the hotel.

We got up on Saturday morning and headed down to the breakfast area in the hotel. They have a really good breakfast here with an omelet bar. It's nice to get a good meal to start the day right...especially on a game day. We went down to the rink and moved into the visitors' room to set up for the morning skate. After a light skate, we headed back to the hotel for a team lunch. They put out a pretty good spread here for the pre-game meal also. After lunch, most of the guys headed to their rooms for a pre-game nap. I went upstairs and packed my bag to head back down to the rink. I like to get there early to set up the room and take care of a few details to get ready for the game. On this particular day, I had to sew a couple of namebars onto jerseys for the new guys, Peter MacDougall and Jeff MacPhee. Then, once the room is game-ready, it's time to sharpen. On a typical day I might sharpen as many as 8 or 10 pairs of skates, but most game days it's fewer than that. Down here in the South, the ice isn't as hard as it is in colder climates so guys don't need their edges quite as sharp.

We got off to a good start, scoring the first goal of the game just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. The lead didn't last, however, as our old friend Ryan McCarthy tied the score just 10 seconds later with a hard-working, jamming-the-net type of goal that we're used to seeing from Macker. There were some fireworks after the goals. Snakes forward/defenseman Peter MacDougall fought Surge forward Jason Beeman, and on the ensuing faceoff Snakes defenseman Kyle Lundale fought Surge forward Chris Chambers (not to be confused with River Phoenix's character in "Stand By Me"). This was a measure of payback for Chambers, as he was the guy that Lundy obliterated with a body-check in a previous game in Mississippi. Chambers has been on the IR since that hit and made no secret of his desire for retribution. It wasn't much of a fight, basically amounting to a slap-fight followed by a wrestling takedown. The Surge added a goal to make it 2-1 for the bad guys, but the highlight of the first period came in the last minute. Following a rush into the Snakes zone, Surge forward Michael Richard came in late with an extra whack. Lundy took exception and gave Richard a shove, which sent him flying as if he'd been shot out of a cannon. Surge forward Matt Zultek jumped on Lundy and started pummeling him. I'm not sure Lundy even had a chance to get his gloves off.

During the melee, Surge goalie Mike Brown apparently felt left out when Vigier tried to pull Zultek off Lundy's back. Brown skated to the blue line (crossing the blue line during a fight is a big no-no) and motioned to Vig, pointing his stick at the blue line as if to say "You better not step across this line". Vigier looked at him, looked at the bench and kind of smiled. He turned away as if he was declining the invitation, but he subtly began undoing the strap on his catch glove. Once it was loosened, he flung it to the ice, followed by his blocker, and took off down the ice. I was pumped! I love a good goalie fight! Unfortunately, this wasn't one.

Vig skated all the way down to the far blue line to meet Brown. It did not go his way. Brown was clearly the more experienced fighter. He tied up Vigier and began throwing bombs. He didn't land them all, but he did land at least a couple. He knocked Vigier off balance and got him down on the ice. Brown continued to throw punches, with no linesmen available to break them up. Vigier got back up somehow and tried to continue the fight, with both goalies tugging on each other's jerseys. Brown pulled the old schoolyard trick and let go of Vigier's jersey, causing Vigier to fall tail-over-teakettle onto the ice. It was not pretty...but it was pretty funny. Vigier got up, dusted himself off, and skated to the bench...laughing the whole way. I guess at that point there's nothing else you can do. There was a long delay while the ref sorted out the penalties (which resulted in Zultek, Brown and Vigier being tossed from the game). When the dust settled, we came out on the positive side of the ledger-their best offensive player and the league's #1 goalie were out for the rest of the game. This seemed to be just the break we needed. We felt pretty confident heading into the second period. Unfortunately, we couldn't take advantage, only managing 14 shots on goal over the last two periods and none into the back of the net. The final result was a 3-1 loss (with an empty-netter).

We boarded the bus and headed home, knowing we would have to meet the same team the next day in Columbus at 4pm. We would have to bring a lot more to the table if we were going to change our fortune. We got in at around 3:30am and the guys headed home to get some rest. I stayed at the rink to do the laundry and get ready for the game. I managed to get a couple of hours' sleep on the locker room couch in between loads of laundry, then got up and continued my game prep. I rotated skates and gloves on and off the dryer to get them ready for the game (most guys don't mind damp gear because they wear clothing underneath it, but they HATE wet skates and gloves). Between the game set-up, laundry and drying gear I kept pretty busy for most of the day. Barney had made the trip with us and stayed to help set things up for the day's games, getting the visitors dressing room and the referees room set up before settling in for a nap on the training table. We were pretty tired, but it's worth it to get everything done and ready for the game.

The effort paid off with a better effort from the players (not that I'm taking credit for it). We came out hitting and controlled the play for most of the game. We dominated every aspect of the first period except the shots on goal. We only managed 8 in the period, but somehow Matt Kinnunen, Jesse Cole and Orrin Hergott slipped 3 of those past Brown and we left the first with a 3-0 lead. The second period, which his been our kryptonite this season, reared its ugly head once again. Mississippi scored twice in the frame to cut the lead to 3-2 entering the third period.

The Surge scored again five minutes into the third to tie the game, and it looked like it was happening to us again. Once you establish a history of late collapses, it's almost impossible to avoid being consumed by it. Each time it happens it becomes harder to break the cycle. It gets into your head and you see it coming and get so knotted up you end up making a mistake. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You imagine it happening and you end up making it happen. But, again, it's hard to break that pattern.

This was our night. I don't know how we did it, but we broke the hex. Peter MacDougall connected on a power play midway through the third period to restore the lead to the Snakes, then Bret Tyler added an insurance goal three minutes later to secure the victory.

This was a big night for one of my favorite parts of the game. It's a tradition in hockey that whenever somebody reaches a milestone you save the puck to remember the feat. First goal, first win, hat trick, 100th goal...any important milestone results in a souvenir puck. This game was a rarity...there were three significant milestones celebrated. Peter MacDougall's power play tally, in addition to being the game-winner, also happened to be his first professional goal. An alert teammate retrieved the puck and tossed it to me. At the end of the game Ian Vigier skated the length of the ice to retrieve the game puck to commemorate Andrew Loewen's first professional win. There was another, less obvious accomplishment that was worthy of recognition. With his goal in the first period, a fight in the second period and an assist on MacDougall's game-winner Matt Kinnunen accomplished what is known as a "Gordie Howe Hat Trick". With three souvenir pucks I had my work cut out for me. Over my whole career I have had the honor of presenting these pucks to their recipients after the games, and it's one of my favorite parts of the job. I put a strip of tape around the edges of the puck and write the player's number, the date, the opponent and the milestone. I love to see the look on a player's face when I present him with his souvenir (see photo above).

This was a big win for us. Mississippi is one of the better teams in the league, and if we're going to accomplish anything we have to be able to win games against them. This game helped show us that we can do that. Now we just have to come up with this type of effort consistently. In any case, it's a great way to end the week.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"It's Not As Bad As It Looks"

The old adage has seldom held truer..."It's not as bad as it looks". We lost 2 of our 3 games this weekend, but we could have-no, strike that-SHOULD have won 2 out of 3.

Our first game of the week was the dreaded school day game. It's not dreaded because of the kids (4,000 or so screaming kids make for a great atmosphere for the players), but rather because of the 10am start time. Hockey players are creatures of habit (most athletes are, really), so a 10am game plays havoc with their game-day routine. At 10am on a game-day hockey players are usually taking the ice for their morning skate, a light skate just to get the legs moving and get the lactic acid out. This is followed by a mid-day meal, and usually an afternoon nap or just some quiet relaxation to get physically and mentally ready for the game. To simulate this timetable for a 10am start, players would have to have a skate at about 1am, followed by a pre-game meal at about 3am (maybe at Waffle House?). Instead, guys are waking up at 6am, having a light breakfast, then heading off to the rink to arrive at 8am. It throws the whole day off kilter (although it IS nice to be off in the mid-afternoon).

Many of you will remember our school-day slugfest from last season (I'm sure the kids haven't forgotten). Historically, those day games tend to end up in bloodbaths. Hockey players tend to be grumpy when you disturb their routine. Well, this year was the exception. Aside from a first period fight between Snakes defenseman Brody Malek and Fireantz defenseman Dan McNeill there wasn't much in the way of fisticuffs. The game wasn't even really that physical. The Snakes outskated, outshot and generally outplayed the Fireantz in the first, putting 20 shots on goal to the Antz' 4, but left the first period with a 2-2 tie thanks to a pair of goals from Orrin Hergott and Sam Bowles. Hergott and Bowles scored in the second period also, sandwiched around a goal by the Fireantz' Rob Sich, and entered the 3rd period with a 4-3 lead. The Snakes spent the 3rd period trying to sit on their one-goal lead and almost managed to do so...until the last 1:01 of regulation. Sich found the back of the net in the 58th minute to tie the game and send it into overtime. He then set up Chris Leveille for the Game Winner with 1.2 seconds left on the clock (in truth, I looked up after the puck went in and there was 2 seconds and change left on the clock...not that that matters).

This game hurt because it was one that we should have won. They didn't throw anything at us that we didn't prepare for. All the damage they did came from the usual suspects...their top line of Sich, Leveille and Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn. When one of your keys to the game is to concentrate on stopping the top line, letting them score 5 goals is not acceptable. The bottom line is we had them down, then let them up off the mat. We didn't have the killer instinct. We played the whole 3rd period to protect a one-goal lead. You can't do that. You have to keep playing the way you did when you built up the lead. As soon as you back off to try and protect a lead, you give the other team time and space to keep coming at you, which is exactly what they did. It's frustrating when that happens.

After the morning game, we prepared for a game Friday night in Huntsville. We skated at home in the morning, then boarded the bus to head Northwest. In the past we've left earlier, then stopped for lunch in Pelham on the way. We usually arrived very early and had a couple of hours to sit around and twiddle our thumbs before the game. This trip we timed it out better and arrived right around 5:30 for a 7:30 game, which basically gave us time to set up and play the game. I usually prefer it that way, but this time with us skating before we left I didn't have time to sharpen skates before we left so I had to scramble to get them done after we arrived. It did keep me busy though, so I can't complain.

We didn't play a particularly bad game in Huntsville...we just didn't play a particularly good game. We only gave up two goals, one by Mike Carter in the first and one by Ray Ortiz in the third. The Carter goal was just a spectacular end-to-end rush. He picked up the puck in his own zone and proceeded to walk around our whole team. I actually think he beat at least one guy twice. The Ortiz goal was the definition of a garbage goal...he tried to make a pass to the front of our net and I think it hit the defender in the shoulder and deflected past Vigier. But, even though it's entirely possible to win games in this league giving up only two goals, it's not possible to win games in any league if you don't score any goals. We didn't have many scoring chances, and didn't even have many shots. We were outshot 15-8 in the first period, 10-3 in the second (3 shots? 3 shots?!?), and 11-9 in the third. True, we were playing the best team in the league, but you can't score goals if you're generating that few offensive opportunities.

After Friday's game we headed for Knoxville, in desperate need of a win. The Knoxville Civic Coliseum is not a good place to go in search of a win. They're hard to come by if you're the visiting team. In my three plus seasons in Columbus, we've won exactly one game in Knoxville each season. That's right...three previous seasons with Columbus, three wins in Knoxville. But luckily we caught Knoxville at the right time. They had just lost their last 2 games against the Augusta Riverhawks, so either they were ripe for defeat or they would be pissed off about the 2 losses and take their anger out on us. Either way, this one had the potential to get ugly.

It started to look that way immediately. Off the opening faceoff, Knoxville's David Segal squared off against Snakes forward Matt Kinnunen. Young Matt held his own against a tough opponent, and both skaters watched the next 5 minutes from the box. Less than 3 minutes later, Cody Straker took an Ice Bear into the boards. Bears forward Mike Bulawka took exception and squared off against Straker. The pair dropped their gloves, but no punches were thrown. They were each whistled for Roughing, in addition to Straker's Boarding penalty. When the dust settled, the Snakes got down to playing some pretty good hockey. They outshot, outskated and outhit the Bears and controlled the play for the majority of the period. Bears goalie Andrew Gallant managed to keep his finger in the dyke until the final 8 seconds of the first period, when Jesse Cole finally lit the lamp on a Snakes power play.

Mitch Wall scored on another power play 1:37 into the second period for his first professional goal. Bears Captain Mike Bulawka cut the lead in half midway through the period when he banged home a rebound off a faceoff in the Snakes defensive zone. Sam Bowles put the Snakes back ahead by two at 13:47, then assisted on Mitch Wall's second goal 25 seconds later.

Gallant was replaced at the start of the third period by backup Brian Hince. The Bears battled hard to cut the lead but were turned back by the Snakes defense and goalie Ian Vigier. Matt Kinnunen scored the only goal of the period and the Snakes held on for a 5-1 win. It was a huge monkey off our backs to finally put one in the win column on the road, and to do it in that building just made it that much sweeter. It certainly made the bus ride home a lot more fun.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One in the Win column

Well, we broke through and chalked up a 'W'. It was bound to happen sometime. We played a really good game, one of the best I've seen from the Snakes. It was a very intense, very physical game...almost playoff intensity. The boys played well throughout, despite being held scoreless for the first 25 minutes of the game. We were trailing 2-0 when Scorin' Orrin Hergott dented the twine to close the gap to one goal. We continued to pressure the Ice Bears goal, firing a total of 51 shots on goal when all was said and done. Bears goalie Andrew Gallant looked good except for a 14 second span in the third which saw Jesse Cole and Matt Kinnunen find the back of the net in rapid succession. It was the first professional goal of Kinnunen's career, and would hold up as the game winner. The Snakes weathered a flurry of chances from the Ice Bears in the last half of the third to hang on for the victory, their first of the season. What a relief that was!

After our opening weekend, we needed a game like this one. We struggled offensively in the first two games, so it was nice to see the boys score some timely goals and also play solid defense in front of our goalie. Ian Vigier turned away 27 of 29 shots for the win, his first of the season.

Saturday, we hopped on the bus and headed for Huntsville to play the Havoc for the first time this season. They're the defending champions and look to be a strong contender to repeat. We got into Huntsville and unloaded the bus, then set about the task of preparing to play the game. We got in fairly early, which I don't like. It gives the guys too much time to think about stuff. They start looking at their sticks, their gear, their skates...and sometimes they decide this would be a good time to get their skates shapened. Sometimes sheer boredom can be a springboard to more work for me. I finish my work before we leave, so I don't want to do more busy work once we get there. I like it better when we pull in, unload, get dressed and play the game. It's better that way...just a quick in and out, hopefully two points better off in the standings.

For whatever reason, we started off slow. And that's something you can't afford to do against the Havoc. They work hard and they're very opportunistic. They'll jump on any chance you give them. Before we even shook out the bus legs the Havoc had jumped out to a 2-0 lead. We righted the ship in the second and battled back to close the gap in the third. But it was too little, too late. We lost 3-2, but again had some pretty good chances to tie things up. It was an encouraging effort against arguably the best team in the league.

Monday meant it was time to get back to work, preparing for 3 games in 3 nights (starting with a 10am start on Thursday, the infamous School Day game). We hit the ice light one skater. Brett Beauchamp was cut by the team before Monday's practice. Other than that, it was business as usual.

This is a short practice week to get ready for three pretty big games. Thursday's matinee features the first visit of the Fayetteville Fireantz. After that, we head back to Huntsville Friday night, then on the Knoxville Saturday night. I can't wait to see Fayetteville. Their Equipment Manager, Frank "Rizzo" Jury, is the grumpiest man in the league. I can't wait to see him bright and early for that 10am game. It should be quite a treat.

Go Snakes!