Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Movember!

***Once again, I have fallen way behind in my blog, but I intend to get caught up soon. Here's my recap of the month of November. Watch for December in the coming days. As always, thanks for reading and your feedback is appreciated.

After the quick start, the Snakes went on a roller coaster ride. We started things off on Veterans Day in Memphissippi. After falling behind in the first minute of the game on a Rob Sich goal, the Snakes traded goals with Sich in the second period and entered the third period trailing 2-1.  The Snakes controlled the play in the third and finally managed to tie the game at 2 goals apiece on a power-play goal by John Sullivan late in the third.  This goal really energized our whole team. It looked like we would manage to steal another victory from the Riverkings on their home ice. The teams traded scoring opportunities in the overtime period and then something happened that I still can't believe. In what may be the worst call I've ever seen, the linesman whistled us for too many men on the ice. It wasn't even close. I was at the end of the bench where it happened, and there's no way this should have been a penalty. Levi was coming to the bench for a change as the play was coming towards our end.  Sammy hopped the boards to replace him, but not before Levi decided nobody was coming so he turned away from the bench to get back into the play. As soon as Sammy hit the ice he realized that Levi had turned away and Sammy turned to come back to the bench. As he turned, Sammy lost an edge and fell to the ice in front of our bench. Levi still hadn't crossed the blue line into our defensive zone when Sammy got back onto the bench. The linesman blew the play dead and called us for Too Many Men on the Ice, despite the fact that neither player was in any way involved with the play (the key criterion for a Too Many Men penalty). Since there were only 3 seconds left on the clock in the overtime period, Referee Jason Schulz assessed a penalty shot based on an SPHL rule regarding penalties incurred without sufficient time remaining. Mark Magnowski scored on the ensuing penalty shot and won the game for the Riverkings. To add insult to injury, we later found out that the SPHL doesn't even have that rule anymore, so the penalty shot wasn't even an automatic call as we had thought.  Regardless, it never should have been a penalty anyway under any definition of Too Many Men. It was a very frustrating way to lose a hockey game.

We didn't have time to dwell on the loss. We had to load the bus and head for Knoxville. We got into Knoxville at around 5am and dropped off the gear at the rink, then headed to the hotel to get some rest. We started off slowly in the game, weathering a barrage of shots in the first period. We actually got on the board first with a goal from Levi Lind. The IceBears responded with a goal of their own and the teams went into the first intermission tied at 1 goal apiece.

There was a scary moment in the early part of the second period. Snakes center Greg Beller, making his Cottonmouths debut, went in on the forecheck into the IceBears zone and the Bears D-Man tried to clear the puck out of the zone. The puck came up and caught Beller squarely on the jaw, sending him sprawling on the ice. Hannah hurried out to him and escorted him off the ice to begin treatment. There was a large pool of blood on the ice and a hush came over the crowd. There was a fairly long delay while crews tried to clean up the blood so that the game could continue. The whole place seemed to be in shock. Even after play resumed both sides seemed to be walking on eggshells for the first couple of minutes.

The roles were reversed in the second, with the Snakes holding a wide margin in shots and the Bears scoring first only to be answered by Snakes forward (and former IceBear) Derek Pallardy. The Snakes again held the shot advantage in the third, but fell behind on a goal by Emery Olauson early in the frame. It took a late power-play goal by Brett Hammond to tie the game and force overtime. But our luck in Knoxville remained consistent...a nothing play and a funny hop off the boards turned into a goal in the blink of an eye. The Ghosts of Knoxville had their way with us again. We have the worst luck in that building, from freak injuries to crazy bounces and fluky goals.

Once again, we didn't have time to feel sorry for ourselves about the loss. It was back on the bus and back to Columbus for another 4pm matinee against Fayetteville for all of us except for Beller and Hannah, who spent the night (and another couple of days) at the hospital in Knoxville. Luckily, Beller came out of surgery okay...although he would be out of action for quite a while.

Movember jerseys
We got back to Columbus early on Sunday (around 4am) and dropped the gear at the Civic Center before sending the players home to get some rest. I started working on laundry and getting things ready for the game later that day. We were set to debut our special "Movember" jerseys (see pic at right) for the first of 3 games during the month of November. For those of you who aren't familiar, Moustache November or "Movember" is a campaign to raise awareness of men's health issues (including prostate cancer). Most of the players on the team and several members of the staff (myself included) signed up on the Movember web site to raise money for cancer research. As part of the program, we all grew mustaches for the month of November to show our support and draw attention to the campaign.  After wearing the special jerseys for 3 home games during the month we were to auction them off with the proceeds going to benefit men's health issues.

Both teams were rounding out 3 games in 3 nights, so both came out rather tentatively at the start. Each side only managed 8 shots on goal in the first period, with Chris Rebernik starting off the scoring for the Fireantz, and Jesse Cole answering about 30 seconds later. Levi Lind added a late goal to give the Snakes a 2-1 advantage. Andrew Willock scored for the Antz in the second, sandwiched between goals by Andrew Krelove (his first as a pro) and Bret Tyler. Rebernik scored 10 seconds into the third to close the gap to 4-3, but Scorin' Orrin closed out the scoring midway through the period for a 5-3 final score. The Snakes salvaged the weekend with a much-needed win (and 4 out of 6 possible points) and earned a day off.

We began the next weekend at home against the Huntsville Havoc. We dominated most of the game, but Havoc goalie Mark Sibbald held us to one goal in regulation and overtime. The game wasn't decided until sudden-death in the shootout when Levi Lind scored the game winner with the Snakes' 6th attempt.

We started off the game slowly the next night against Pensacola (a recurring theme lately) and the Ice Flyers capitalized with 2 goals in the first 2:35 of the game. We tried to claw our way back into the game but couldn't manage to tie it up (despite a 2-to-1 margin in shots) and we lost the game 3-2.

We had a quick turnaround into the next week with a rare Tuesday game against the Knoxville Ice Bears.  For a change, this time we were the team that got off to the quick start. Snakes Defenseman David Cianfrini scored just 45 seconds into the game to give us an early lead. After the goal, I was surprised to have one of the guys toss me the game puck (This usually occurs when a player scores his first professional goal, as we keep the puck to give the player as a souvenir). Knowing that Cheech had played here nearly all of last season, I couldn't imagine that he hadn't scored a goal before. I held onto the puck anyway, then used my smart phone to look up his stats between periods. I was shocked to find out that it was indeed his first goal as a professional. Congratulations, Cheech! Sam Bowles added a goal later in the period for a 2-0 lead after one period. Jeremy Klaver scored a power-play goal for the Ice Bears in the early part of the second period, answered by Sam Bowles and Mitch Wall midway through the frame. The Snakes took a 4-1 lead into the third period and apparently decided that that was enough because we only took 2 shots the rest of the way. The Ice Bears managed 8 shots but Ian Vigier only let one of those get past him to preserve the 4-2 victory for the Cottonmouths.

After the Thanksgiving holiday (and a practice on Thanksgiving day) we hosted the Huntsville Havoc on Friday night. After a back and forth first period (and despite a second period in which they were outshot 13-9) the Snakes took a 2-0 lead in the second on the strength of a power-play goal by Tom Maldonado and a short-handed goal by Bret Tyler. Stuart Stefan and Shaun Arvai countered in the third to force overtime. Then Andrew Krelove capped off the win 2 minutes into the overtime score Snakes defensemen 3 - Havoc 2.

After the game we got back on the bus to head for Lafayette, Louisiana to play the Ice Gators. We arrived early in the morning, dropped off our gear at the Cajundome, then headed to the hotel to get some sleep. Tyler and I cabbed it down to the rink early to set up. I hate the new locker room they put us in at the Cajundome this season. It's actually the old UL Ragin' Cajuns basketball locker room. It's actually a nice room, but it's very small (intended for 10-12 basketball players, not 18 hockey players with full gear). Apparently, the Cajuns decided that they needed a bigger room, so they booted the Ice Gators out of their room, forcing the Gators to move into the former visitors' room. The only room left was the Cajuns' old room. So tiny. There are lockers in the room, but they're tiny little basketball lockers, intended to hang each players street clothes and uniform. Even if we give 2 of those lockers to a player, it's a tight squeeze to hang all of their gear. And that's only enough lockers for 7 or 8 players. It leaves the rest of the team sitting on chairs against a bare wall with no hooks or anything on which to hang gear. This means that most guys are laying their stuff out on the floor or draping it over the back of their chair. It's not very conducive to drying out the gear (a big factor in a humid climate) and it's basically impossible to organize the room in any sort of neat-looking way. It's an equipment manager's nightmare. If you look at the locker room picture above you can see how neat and orderly everything looks. This room in Louisiana is the opposite of that.

Despite the challenges, we made the room look as neat as possible - passing out the laundry, game socks, and game jerseys to each player's pile of gear. I set up the sharpener and began sharpening skates for the players who needed it. By the time the players arrived, Tyler and I had done everything we could to ensure that the guys would be ready for the game.

Unfortunately, they weren't ready. We started slowly once again (getting outshot 9-4) and left the first period trailing by a score of 1-0. The Snakes reversed the shooting trend (14-10) and managed to score 2 goals in the second period, but the Gators managed 3 of their own in between. The game was hard-fought and gritty, with several Snakes players getting cut by sticks to the face. Peter MacDougall had his nose broken by an errant stick. None of them resulted in penalties; only blood. Neither team scored in the third (nor took many shots at 5-5), and the Gators skated away with a 4-2 victory.

Again, we boarded the bus and headed to Memphissippi for a 3pm game on Sunday. We arrived at the DeSoto Civic Center at around 6:30 in the morning. We dropped the gear and the players headed to the hotel. Tyler and I stayed at the rink to get set up and get ready for the game. The laundry facilities in the DCC are in the visitors' locker room, so it was easy and convenient to do our own laundry. We set up the glove dryer and fans in the room to help dry the gear and rotated players gear on and off the glove dryers. Once the game socks were washed and dried I sorted through them to see if any needed to be sewn. I had to sew a couple of pairs, then paired them up and passed them out. In the meantime, the underwear went into the dryers. While it was spinning, I set about the task of replacing MacDougall's visor with a full-face shield to protect his broken nose. I got it finished, got the underwear passed out, hung the game jerseys, then started on skates. The guys showed up around 1pm and started getting ready for the game.

Both sides came out hard in the first period, with the Snakes holding a 13-12 advantage in shots. Both goalies weathered the storm, only allowing one goal each. Peter MacDougall, still feeling the effects of a high stick from the night before, took a hard check into the boards and injured his shoulder. He left the game and didn't return. After Scorin' Orrin Hergott gave the Snakes a lead 2 minutes into the second period, the floodgates opened for the Riverkings and they exploded for 4 unanswered goals. They dominated the play, outshooting us 15-7 in the period. The boys came back out in the third and answered the bell, with Tom Maldonado scoring just a minute into the period. Despite outshooting them 16-6 in the frame we just couldn't manage to come from behind. Mike Tuomi scored an unassisted shorthanded goal at 13:02 to complete the hat trick (and take the wind out of our sails). Jordan Braid scored his second of the game at 16:05, but it was too little too late. The Riverkings held on for a 6-4 victory.  It was a tough way to end November, but we were still above .500 on the season and sitting in 3rd place.

We're not quite where we want to be, but we're in good position to make a move.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

And we're off!

Practice is always more fun when you're winning.
Well, the season is underway.  As I write this, your Cottonmouths have a 3-1-1 record.  I'm fairly certain that this is the best record we've had after 5 games in my 5 seasons in Columbus.   In the past, we've had a tendency to start off slowly and I've always attributed that to the high turnover rate associated with lower-minor league hockey.  It's hard to teach systems to a bunch of new players with the few days of practice in training camp.  Yes, other teams do it year after year.  But maybe Jerome's system is just a little more complex than those of some other coaches.  I think once the players get it figured out to the point where it comes naturally to them and each guy knows where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do, then it's just a matter of fine-tuning little details here and there as needed.  I maintain that that's why we've always finished strong.  Once the system becomes second nature it's just a matter of character and chemistry...and Jerome gets good character guys.  With us returning most of last year's roster this season, Jerome didn't have to spend as much time teaching.  He could focus on the new guys and the older guys could help out when one of the new guys was unsure of what to do.  We have a good core of players from last year and a few key additions should help round out the roster.

As training camp wound down, we hit a minor bump in the road.  Forward Sam Bowles had an MRI done on his knee, which had been bothering him since he hurt it during off-season workouts, and it was determined that he needed surgery.  As luck would have it, we had just picked up a new player, Derek Pallardy, whose presence allowed us to sit Sammy out for the first week of the season to rehab his injury.  Pally fit right in, scoring the Snakes' first goal of the season just over a minute into the home opener.  Despite the early start, we lost the game 4-3 against a hat-trick from Pensacola forward Jason Chong.  I was really hoping that Dave Cianfrini would lay a big hit on Jason just so that our fans could hear Cheech and Chong mentioned in the same sentence.  While that never happened, we certainly got to hear the name Chong mentioned more than we would have liked.  You might say he made our home opener go "Up In Smoke".

The next night, the Cottonmouths had a 3-2 lead entering the third, but Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn's second goal of the game tied it at 3-3 and eventually forced overtime and the ensuing shootout.  None of the Snakes managed to dent the twine behind Surge Goalie Kiefer Smiley and Shawn Skelly got credit for the game-winner in the shootout.

The next week presented another dilemma for Jerome.  With Sam Bowles due to return to the lineup, somebody else would have to go to make room on the roster.  Once again, there were several players on the bubble.  The final decision came down to Daryl Moore.  He wasn't playing badly, but Jerome felt that he wasn't playing better than other, younger players.  So Moore was out and Bowles was back in, with still one more decision to be made the next week upon Jesse Cole's return.

The following weekend saw the Ice Flyers return for a rematch of opening night.  This time we were hoping for a better result.  Scorin' Orrin gave us a lead with a short-handed goal in the first period.  After Mike Carter tied the game at 1-1 in the second, Brett Hammond gave the Snakes a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal in the third.  Dan Buccella scored later in the period to force overtime and it looked like we were going to repeat opening night.  This time, however, John Sullivan scored just 47 seconds into the extra frame to give the Snakes our first win of the season.

After starting off 1-1-1 at home, we took our show on the road.  We rolled into Memphis (actually Southaven, Mississippi) for our first game at the DeSoto Civic Center against the newest SPHL team, the Mississippi Riverkings.  We were all looking forward to this game because during the off-season former Snakes defenseman Kyle Lundale was picked up by the Riverkings in the expansion draft.  This would be the first time any of us has seen him since he left Columbus.

I ran into Lundy in the hall before the game.  He's still the same old Lundy.  He said he misses Columbus but likes it in Mississippi.  I can't blame him.  It's a cool city (I love Beale Street) and they have a really good facility.  Plus, he can go visit Graceland any time he wants.  And the BBQ there is world-renowned.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, but it seemed as though they started the game without us.  We were there...we just didn't seem to be involved in what was happening around us.  Midway through the first period, the Riverkings won a faceoff in our defensive zone back to Lundale, who threw a wrister towards the net.  It must have gone through a screen, because it wasn't a very hard shot but somehow found its way past Vigier and into the net.  It seems like that's always the way it goes...the former Snakes always seem to come back to bite us in the end (pun intended).  Just 25 seconds later another D-zone faceoff was lost back to the Riverkings defenseman who again threw the puck into the net.  When you see one goal like that it's not a big deal...but when you see 2 of them back-to-back you kind of get that "Oh, no" feeling.  Then about a minute and a half later we took a penalty and the 'Kings scored a power-play goal just 10 seconds later, for a total of 3 goals in a 2-minute span. We were all kind of shell-shocked.  We managed to make it through the first period without further damage, holding on by the skin of our teeth. I walked past the locker room just as Jerome was reading the riot act to the boys.  I was glad I wasn't in there.

Whatever he said worked because we came out looking like a completely different team in the second.  We still only managed 7 shots on goal (compared to 4 in the first period) but 2 of those found their way to the back of the net.  Goals by Jordan Braid and Mitch Wall sent us to the locker room down by only one goal at the end of 2 periods.

We continued to chip away in the third period, with Sully tying the game midway through the frame.  Levi Lind's goal at the 18:35 mark of the third completed the comeback.  I would say it was our best game of the season, except for the first period.  So, really, it was the best 2 periods we had played all season.  Yeah, that's it.

The axe fell once again the following week.  With Jesse Cole due to return we cut Morgan James to make room on the roster.  I felt bad about this one.  Morgan was a good kid (and my roommate, briefly).  He just wasn't ready to play at this level.  He was brought here for his toughness...and he brought plenty of that.  We just couldn't afford to keep a guy who wasn't going to play a regular shift.  Although this is considered a developmental league, with only 56 games we don't have a lot of time to carry players who aren't likely to contribute much.  Jerome helped find him a place to play in the Federal League, which is the best thing for him.  He needs ice time to work on improving his game, and he wasn't likely to get that here.  Still, I'll miss the big lug.  Take care and good luck, roomie!

After a full week of practice (for some reason, the SPHL saw fit to give us both Friday and Saturday off, but schedule us to play a game at home on Sunday afternoon) we met the Fayetteville Fireantz for the first time with their new coach, Sean Gillam.  Like us, the Antz had won 2 games, but one of those wins came against the league-leading Augusta Riverhawks.  With both teams on a bit of a roll, this was shaping up to be a marquee matchup.

As is often the case, the actual game didn't live up to the hype.  The most noteworthy thing about this game was that it was the first time we saw the 2-referee system.  I understand the logic...if one referee is awful then 2 must be horrendous (just kidding, guys).  The Snakes jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Jordan Braid and Sam Bowles.  Brett Needham got the Fireantz on the board early in the second period to trim the deficit to 2-1, but Jordan Braid scored again 2 1/2 minutes later to close out the scoring.  There were some fireworks in the middle of the second period.  Dave Cianfrini tried to put a check on a Fireantz player, who sidestepped the check.  Cheech tried to stretch out his body to complete the hit but only managed to get the guy with his leg.  The result was a leg-on-leg hit that sent the Fireantz player flying.  Brett Needham took exception and came to his teammate's defense, instigating a fight.  Cheech held his own against a tough competitor and they both went to the box.  Mitch Wall fought the Antz' Kyle McNeil 2 minutes later.  The rest of the game was fairly uneventful as the Snakes cruised to a 3-1 victory.

After 3 weeks of play and 5 games, the Snakes are 3-1-1 and in 3rd place in the league.  It's the best 5-game start since I've been here and I hope it continues.  It's going to be a tough road, but I like our chances. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Snakes Training Camp - Post Script

Early game action in Knoxville
Hey there.  It's me again. Better late than never, I guess.  When I last posted, we were heading into our preseason games against Knoxville.  As I expected, I was too busy and/or too tired to sit down and write a blog during the progress of the weekend.  What I did not expect, however, was to come down with some sort of bug that just knocked me right on my butt.  It hit me during the day on Sunday, but it kind of snuck up on me.  I was feeling kind of run down, but I just attributed it to being tired from the weekend's games.  After our practice on Sunday, as I was waiting for laundry to finish, I started alternating between shivering chills and burning sweat.  I finally got enough done to be able to call it a day and headed for home and a much-needed rest.  My apologies to the Snakes Booster Club for having to skip their meet the team event on Sunday.  I really needed to get home and get to bed.

Without any further ado, let's talk about the weekend.  The game on Thursday night was the kind of game that many people think is boring.  Those people are wrong.  Most people seem to like scoring in hockey, so they hate to see a game go to overtime with no score.  To some people it's like watching soccer, which is to say it's like watching cement harden.  But if you look beyond the final score of 1-0, it was actually a great game.  One of the most exciting games I ever saw was a game that my New Mexico Scorpions won by a score of 1-0 in Overtime.  Though there was only one goal scored, there were plenty of scoring chances matched by great saves and/or defensive plays.  I wouldn't quite put Thursday night's game on that same level, but I think it was a more exciting game than lots of people would appreciate.  For most people, it may have seemed like evidence that last year's light scoring team was back.  In fact, Knoxville's goalie just had a really good game.  Snakes goalies Ian Vigier and Andrew Loewen split the game and the shutout after Jordan Braid buried a scoring chance early in the Overtime period.  A raucous crowd at the Columbus Ice Rink shook the building in celebration.

After the game, it was time to prepare for our first road trip.  I always hate the first road trip.  I'm always sure I'm going to forget something.  This being a day trip, there wasn't much that needed to be brought so that made things easier.  Still, I worried the whole way there that I had forgotten something.  In the end, everything went off without a hitch.

Well, not everything.  We stopped for lunch in Dalton, Georgia at our usual spot.  It's a good spot because there are several lunch options for the guys to choose from.  After lunch we pulled away and got back on the highway.  Just a few miles down the road, however, Tex could tell something wasn't right.  Suddenly, the bus started overheating.  He pulled over at the next exit (which luckily had a truck stop) and shut the bus down.  When he opened up the engine compartment, he was sprayed with hot water and anti-freeze from the radiator.  After seeing to the burns on his arm, he was able to get assistance from the mechanic at the truck stop and fix what needed to be fixed.  It took a while, but we finally got it running again and in good order so we could get back on the road.  We were looking good timewise before the mishap, but by the time we got rolling again we were scrambling for time.  To paraphrase Jerry Reed we had a long way to go and a short time to get there, but Tex got us there in the nick of time.  We hurriedly unloaded the bus (with help from the IceBears locker room staff and helpers) and got ready to go out for warmups, which started about 15 minutes after we got there.  After the warmup we settled back into the normal gameday routine and the game started without further incident.

Pre-season game 2 in Knoxville was very different from the previous night's pitching duel in Columbus.  For starters, the Knoxville lineup looked very different.  Mark Van Vliet, who had coached the IceBears on Thursday night, was in the lineup on Friday along with Kevin Swider, Emery Olausson and most of the more recognizable IceBears.  The Snakes team looked the same as it had on Thursday night, but something was different...they brought their scoring sticks with them.  Matty Kinnunen notched a couple of goals in the first period as the goals came early and often in a 7-4 victory for the Snakes.  As expected, Swider had a hand in most of the IceBears' scoring.  He scored a couple and assisted on another, but it wasn't enough.  The Snakes filled the IceBears' net in a game we pretty much dominated from beginning to end.  I hope we see a lot more of this type of game this season.  From a spectator's perspective, it was fun to watch.  For the second night in a row, I let Tyler McCrea work the bench and I watched from rinkside.  We claimed our victory and boarded the bus and headed for home.  We had an off day ahead of us, but Jerome had some tough decisions to make.

There were several players "on the bubble".  There were 7 defensemen battling for 6 spots, and 12 forwards vying for 10 spots.  Goaltending was pretty well set, with 2 goalies to fill 2 spots.  In the end, Jerome released Brody Malek on defense and Matt Kinnunen up front.  I must admit I was surprised by the decision on Kinnunen.  I expected Brody to be the odd man out on defense, although he looked better in camp than he did at the end of last season.  The competition on D was just too tough.  As good as he looked, Brody was the 7th man on the depth chart.  With Kinnunen, I thought there were a couple of guys who would go before him.  Kinner was a solid, hard-working player who was willing to do whatever was asked of him and brought a lot of energy to the team. I'm sure Jerome had his reasons for releasing Kinner (he doesn't take these kinds of decisions lightly), but I'm at a loss. What made it tough was that we had one guy in camp who didn't play in either of the pre-season games.  He had a minor injury that hampered him for a few days in practice and it was decided that it was best not to push it in the exhibition games.  It's kind of hard to cut a guy knowing that he didn't have the opportunity to show you what he could really do because he was limited by an injury. At the same time, however, it's hard to KEEP a guy who didn't have a chance to show you what he could do in a game situation. It's even harder to keep such a guy at the expense of somebody who played for you the season before and did show you what he brought to the table.  In the end, Jerome felt he had seen enough of the guy to make that decision. I know that there are lots of factors to consider when putting a roster together.  In addition to the obvious on-ice performance you have to consider veteran status, visa status, salary, compatibility...and probably a dozen other things that I've forgotten about. That's why it's sometimes easy to look at it from the outside and wonder what Coach is thinking when he signs certain players and releases others. I've second-guessed him a couple of times myself. But in the final analysis I think he makes the decision that's best for the team, even if I don't always see it right away.

So, with Malek and Kinnunen out, and Jesse Cole out injured until November 6th, here's what our opening night roster should look like:

Hammond    Bowles    Sullivan
Hergott    Lind    Braid
Moore  MacDougall   Wall

Barlow    Tyler
Cianfrini   Kessler
Maldonado  Krelove

Loewen  Vigier

Or something like that.  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cottonmouths 2011-12 Training Camp - Day 3

Day 3 was a pretty light one after the long day on Tuesday.  We only had one session, lasting about an hour and a half.  Once again, the pace was pretty brisk.  There was not too much contact, though, with tomorrow being a game day.  The guys worked on systems and did a lot of skating/passing/shooting drills, working on general skill level and repetition.  They're looking sharper each day.  Jerome has been shuffling lines around, both out of a desire to experiment with different line combinations and today out of necessity...Sam Bowles did not skate today.  He had a minor procedure to correct a nagging injury that has been bothering him.  No word yet on how long he'll be out, but he vows he won't miss a regular-season game.  I'm just not sure he'll have the final say on that one.

In any case, the boys are in high spirits and there's a lot of energy in this camp.  Some of it is nervous energy, as it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we have 22 guys in camp and only 18 roster spots to go around.  Some of the guys will be going home after the weekend, and everybody wants to make sure it won't be them.  The competition is helping to bring out the best in the players, and that's good to see.

The practice ended with a game of Juice-Boy.  It's basically a shootout where each guy goes in turn until he scores.  The last guy to score has to bring a gatorade to each of the other guys on the team.  Today's "winner" was Brody Malek, but it was a heated battle to the end between him and Bret Tyler.
Morgan James makes an attempt on Andrew Loewen in Juice-Boy.

The lineup for today was as follows:


Braid      Hammond   Kinnunen
Hergott    MacDougall    Sullivan
Moore            Lind          Berube
Wall         James


Tyler        Barlow
Cianfrini    Maldonado
Krelove       Kessler


Vigier     Loewen

This will likely be my last blog until the weekend.  We have a game tomorrow night in the Columbus Ice Rink against the Knoxville Ice Bears, then we travel to Knoxville on Friday to play the Bears on their home turf.  I doubt I'll have time to blog after the games, but I'll do a wrapup of the weekend on Sunday or Monday.

Cottonmouths 2011-12 Training Camp - Day 2

Day 2 started off with a less strenuous skate than Day 1.  That's because we had a scrimmage scheduled for the afternoon against Kennesaw State University (coached by former Cottonmouth Barry Dreger).  Since we were going to play a simulated game in the late afternoon, Jerome didn't feel the need to tire out the boys too much in the morning.  He wanted to see them at their best in the scrimmage.

We added 2 more players to the training camp roster this morning - Peter MacDougall returned after attending camp with the Reading Royals (ECHL) and David Berube made his way here after being released from the South Carolina Stingrays' (ECHL) camp.  Both were on the ice this morning.  The lineup was as follows:


Hammond   Bowles   Sullivan
   Moore        Lind      Kinnunen
Hergott      Braid       James
Berube   MacDougall  Wall


   Tyler          Barlow
Maldonado   Cianfrini
   Kessler       Krelove


    Vigier    Loewen

Again, I'm not sure of the exact pairings on defense, but basically that's what we had out there.

After a brisk but brief skate this morning, the guys came back this afternoon for the scrimmage.  It wasn't like a real game-not the same intensity-but it was better than a regular practice.  Sometimes it's nice just to see a different face on the other squad...even behind a bird-cage.  KSU was short a couple of guys, so Jerome let them borrow a couple of our defensemen.  The guys rotated through the lineup, 2 different D-men swapping jerseys to play for the KSU Owls for each period.  In the first it was Will Barlow and Bret Tyler.  I told Ty he looked damn good in that KSU jersey (they looked like Tyler's hometown Boston Bruins' jerseys).  For the last 2 periods we swapped goalies with KSU, letting Vigier and Loewen face some better shots from our guys than they were seeing from the college kids.  The Owls were a little better than we expected.  They had a lot of energy and just kept coming at our guys.  They were relentless.  I guess that's a product of their coach.  That's the way Dreger was.

The good guys won, but it was a pretty good game for both squads.  All in all, not a bad way to end a long but productive day.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cottonmouths 2011-12 Training Camp - Day 1

Day one of Training Camp is in the books, and it was a good one.  With a lot of familiar faces (and only 4 new ones), it didn't take long for the guys to find their rhythm.  The new guys did a good job of blending in and keeping up with what turned out to be a breakneck pace.  It was like the whole team picked up right where they left off at the end of last season.  This is a good thing, because we were on a pretty good roll at the end of last season.  There was a lot of fast skating and good intensity.  All the drills were fast and furious.  After nearly an hour of drills, the boys were split into 2 squads for a scrimmage that was not for the faint of heart.  The glass was rattling as guys battled along the boards for loose pucks.  I've never seen such an intense start to the first day of training camp.  These guys look hungry for roster spots, which is a good thing.  There should be some good battles for a few jobs and Jerome will have some good players to choose from.  He should have everything he needs to build a strong team.  I'm excited about this season.

Today's practice lineup looked something like this:


Hammond     Bowles     Sullivan
Hergott        Braid        Wall
      Moore          Lind         Kinnunen


Tyler        Barlow
Maldonado  Cianfrini
Kessler      Krelove
Malek        James


Vigier   Loewen

I'm not sure of the exact pairings on defense, but those were the guys in the lineup.  Cole skated during warmup drills, but was not allowed to be involved in contact drills (and there were lots of those).

It was a very eventful first day, with a couple of players leaving the ice due to minor injuries.  Hannah was a little busier than she expected to be on the first day.  Overall, it was a great start to camp and I'm excited to see what tomorrow brings.  Stay tuned!

Friday, September 2, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Howdy, Snakes fans!  Smoke here, coming to you with a special edition of my blog.  I just got back to Columbus after spending 4 weeks working at the Graeme Townshend Hockey Camp in Byfield, Massachusetts (about 30 minutes from Boston).  I’m sure many of you remember that name from his days coaching in Macon, but I can assure you that he’s really a good guy.  He currently works as a skating/skills coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs and spends his summers running hockey camps.  I’ve known him for years and he decided to add an Equipment Manager to his camp to help give his kids the “Pro Experience”.  Each camper gets a locker stall with his name on a nameplate and we show him (or her) how to hang up the gear just like the pros do.  All we’re missing are the 10-hour bus rides (well, I wouldn’t say we’re “missing” them).

The camp was held on the campus of the Governor Dummer Academy.  The place is amazing.  It’s a college prep school (dating back to colonial times, 1763), but I’ve seen college campuses that weren’t as nice as this.  And their arena is awesome!  Built just 4 years ago it’s one of the best I’ve seen for a high school program.  There are also Lacrosse fields everywhere (Lacrosse is very big up there) and there were several Lacrosse camps going on during our stay there.  There was even a movie shot there during our stay.  I never caught the name but it’s an indie film so I’ll probably never get the chance to see it anyway.

I had never worked a hockey camp before, so this was a new experience for me.  They kept me very busy (I had days where I sharpened 25-30 pairs of skates, which is a good week for me normally), but I had a blast.  The kids were great and it was a lot of fun to watch them work through their drills on and off the ice.  I think the cafeteria food got to me though.  I’m convinced they made enough food for the week on Monday, then just kept reheating and serving it to us for the whole week.  Monday’s grilled chicken became Wednesday’s barbecue chicken…which then became Friday’s chicken salad.  Day after day we saw some sort of pasta with the same meat sauce (which was almost certainly made up from the previous week’s dried out hamburgers).

On the positive side, the scenery was beautiful up there.  Most of the students are gone, so it was very peaceful (except for our kids and the lacrosse kids running around screaming).  The weather was a mixed bag.  It was nice the first couple of days, then it turned hot…sweltering hot (but then I guess I don’t have to tell you guys about that).  The dorms have no a/c so it was miserable over there.  Luckily, I spent much of my time at the rink.  It’s a popular place this time of year.  The lacrosse kids hung out there every break they got.  After that weeklong heat wave, things cooled off a bit and the weather was pretty nice for the most part, except for a couple of rain showers which had a nice cooling effect.  All in all, I can’t complain about the weather.

On the second weekend I was able to get away for the off day and went with Graeme and his wife to their home in Maine.  It was nice up there, and only about an hour away from the camp.  On the way up we stopped for lobster dinner in Kennebunkbort at a place called Federal Jack’s, which is kind of THE place up there (I’m told former President George H.W. Bush eats there when he’s in town).  On Saturday they took me to Becky’s Diner in Portland (another local legend) for breakfast and I saw a rare blue lobster in their tank.  They are so rare, in fact, that when caught they usually end up in an aquarium where they can be studied.  I’m told that this little guy was headed there, and therefore not on the menu (not that I would have had lobster for breakfast anyway).

The next day we were back at Governor’s to prepare for week 3.  I was very impressed by this camp.  The instructors all have played some level of pro or college hockey (including Huntsville defenseman Kevin Kessler) and they know what they’re talking about.  The teaching program is very innovative, with a heavy emphasis on skating.  They do a lot of drills that I’ve never seen before, each of them targeting a specific element of skating.  Former NHL Coach (and former goaltender) Cap Raeder was on hand to work with the goalies, and he’s great with them…especially the kids.  All of the instructors have been very knowledgeable and good with the kids.  It really is a good program.

At the end of week 3 I got a chance to do something I’d always wanted…to see a game at Fenway Park.  I’m a big baseball fan and a history buff, so to be able to combine the two interests and see the most historic ballpark in all of baseball was quite an experience.  Not only that, but the Red Sox were playing the Yankees, renewing one of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in all of sports.  And there was only one game separating the teams atop the AL East standings, so this game was for 1st place in the division.  I managed to find a seat in the right-field bleachers for a mere $172.33 (including fees, via StubHub).  This was probably more than I had spent on baseball tickets in the past 10 years combined, but it was worth it.  This could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me, so I had to take it.  I hitched a ride to Boston for a day of baseball.

The ballpark was everything I imagined.  The atmosphere was electric.  Everywhere I looked I could see the history…Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez.  The place was like a museum.  And I loved the odd dimensions and the way there’s no wasted space.  The place was jammed into a very tight city block, so they had to make use of every inch of available area.  They have a whole row of concession stands tucked in under the bleachers, and the space under the bleachers acts as the lower concourse of the stadium.  Everything about the place was very cool.  My boy, Dustin Pedroia (a fellow ASU Sun Devil), blasted a double off the Monster to key a 5-run inning and put the Sox ahead for good on their way to a 10-4 victory over the Yankees and CC Sabathia.  It was a great way to spend the day.

All in all, I had a great time at the camp.  It was a very interesting experience and a great way to earn some money in the offseason.  Now it’s time to get back to work at my real job, Cottonmouths’ Equipment Manager.

I’ve been working on orders for the team throughout the summer, but now we’re getting close to the time where it all starts coming together.  Orders will start coming in soon and then players will start arriving shortly after that (those that aren’t already here).  New gear coming in means we’ll need to make space in the equipment room.  Look for another locker room sale coming up in the next few weeks.  We’ll be offering some really good deals to move some merchandise.  I’m pretty excited about a couple of changes coming up.  The new uniforms are going to look awesome!  If we play half as good as we’re going to look, we should do just fine.

Around the league, we saw a few changes.  The big news was the President’s Cup-winning Mississippi Surge replacing Head Coach Steffon Walby.  This news came as a shock to everybody, including Walby.  I’m sure that a guy with his experience and his record will have no trouble finding another coaching job.  In other league news, the Mississippi Riverkings (Memphis) left the Central Hockey League and became the 9th team in the SPHL.  That’s a pretty solid addition to our league.  They have a new coach, former star defenseman Derek Landmesser.  The Fayetteville Fireantz also have a new coach, Sean Gillam.  It will be interesting to see what kind of teams they bring to the league.

I can’t wait to see our team this season.  We were really starting to come together towards the end of the season last year and I expect us to build on that momentum coming into camp this year with an unprecedented number of returning players.  We just need to fill a couple of holes with the new players and some of the guys we’ve been looking at show a lot of promise.  It will be interesting to see how they fit in with the rest of our team.  I can’t wait for October 9th.  Go Snakes!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The End is Near!

No, I'm not talking about the end of the world as predicted by Harold Camping (again). I'm talking about something much more important...Hockey season. True, our season has been over for about 2 months (and all the other minor leagues are done for the season, as well), but the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs are still going, with the Vancouver Canucks holding a 3-2 lead over the Boston Bruins. The series returns to Boston for game 6.

I'm sure you've heard about "Bitegate", the shocking incident from Game 1 in which Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows bit the finger of Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron during a scrum behind the net. First off, why do we have to call every controversy _______-gate? It's getting a little old. This controversy pales in comparison to the Watergate scandal, so I don't think it should be referred to in such a manner. Okay, mini-rant over. That said, I was extremely disappointed that the NHL found the evidence "inconclusive" in the Burrows case and thus decided not to suspend him. I think anybody who is not a Canucks fan clearly saw Burrows open his mouth, crane his neck and bite down on Bergeron's finger. That's the kind of thing that goes so far beyond the norm that it should never be allowed. I definitely think a suspension was warranted. Unfortunately, Mike Murphy didn't agree and Alex Burrows played in Game 2...not only played, but dominated. He notched an assist and 2 goals, including the game-winner in overtime (just to add injury to insult). He was the #1 star of the game, a game in which Canucks players mocked Bergeron for the biting incident, which to me is about as low-class as you can get. You know what you did, you know you got away with it, and now you're just rubbing it in. In effect, they're making a joke out of Murphy and the NHL (not that they needed any help).

Game 3 was a different story. The series shifted to Boston and the Bruins responded to a little home cooking. The fans were loud and intense, and the players followed suit. They had lost two close contests in Vancouver and were determined not to let it happen again. They were also determined to let the Canucks know they wouldn't go down without a fight...literally and figuratively. The Bs were wearing their hitting hats and they established a strong physical presence. They dominated the Canucks in every aspect of the game. Luongo had a bad game, bringing up all the old letdowns that have built his reputation as a choke artist. The final tally of the game was 8-1, with only a late goal by Jannik Hansen preventing a complete whitewash.

Game 4 was a better game for Vancouver, but not by much. They still couldn't generate much offense and got shut out 4-0 to even the series at 2 games apiece.

Game 5 took the series back to Vancouver, and the Canucks held serve on home ice (continuing the trend of the whole series). They got a goal from Max Lapierre, another noted pest, on a fortunate bounce. Kevin Bieksa got control of the puck at the right point and wound up for the shot. He had his head up the whole way and was able to see that there was too much traffic in front to be sure he could get the shot through, so he adjusted and fired it wide right off the back boards. The puck ricocheted right to Lapierre on the left side of the net and he threw a fluttering puck at the goal, just beating Thomas' diving attempt to stop it. Both teams (and both goalies, in particular) played very well and this game could have gone either way. Luongo, for his part, quieted those (including myself) who second-guessed Vigneault's decision to start Luongo again in Game 5 after back-to-back embarrassments in Boston. Luongo came up big and held the Bruins scoreless for his second 1-0 shutout victory of the finals.

While I'm no fan of the Bruins (as a lifelong Canadiens fan, I have in ingrained dislike for them), I can't bring myself to root for a bunch of whining, diving, biting pansies like the Canucks. At this point, I'm not really rooting for either team, but I just want to see a good series, which is exactly what it's been so far. I hope the series goes 7 games.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the hockey world, the Binghamton Senators defeated the Houston Aeros in the finals to win the AHL's Calder Cup. In the Central League, the Colorado Eagles (and former Cottonmouth Riley Nelson) lost in the President's Cup finals to the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs. In an interesting twist, both teams announced within a week after the finals ended that they would not return to the CHL for this coming season. The Eagles jumped leagues to join the ECHL, while the Mudbugs have decided to cease operations. It really seems like the CHL is in trouble, with the Quad City Mallards announcing that they would not participate in 2011-12 (then announcing yesterday that they're back in) and rumors going around that as many as 5 teams may drop out this off-season. With Colorado leaving, can Arizona be far behind? I don't know how long they can survive out in the West all by themselves. Their nearest travel is to Odessa, which I estimate to be about 10-12 hours. It will be interesting to see how many teams they end up with this season.

As for me, I'm heading back to Phoenix next week for a little vacation/convention time. The Hockey trainers and equipment managers are having their annual convention there, so I'm going to head home a week early to spend some time with family and friends. I'm looking forward to getting out of this humid heat we've been having and getting home to the dry desert heat.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Turn out the lights...

Well, it's taken me a few weeks, but I think I'm finally ready to blog about the end of our season.

(For more immediate thoughts on this past season read the blog I posted on "Venom Views" at last week.)

This season's end is especially bitter because I feel like we deserved a better fate. I really thought we deserved to beat Augusta and advance to the finals, and losing the way we did does not sit well with me. Now, before you start reciting stats to me about how Augusta had the 2nd best record in the league, and that we couldn't manage a single victory in the James Brown Arena, I'd like to point out that we outplayed them in the last 3 regular-season meetings in Augusta. That we were snake-bitten each time (pun intended) is irrelevant. We played well enough to win. I'd even go so far as to say that we dominated those games. We deserved to win. But one game we lost on a couple of lucky bounces, and another we just ran into a hot goalie. The third game, we just couldn't finish our scoring chances. We outplayed them and out-chanced them, but we just couldn't score. The same could be said of our post-season games in Augusta. In Game 1, our special teams lost the game. We outplayed them 5-on-5, but they scored 3 power play goals in four chances, while we went scoreless in six opportunities. In game 3 we outplayed them again, but their goalie saved their bacon. Sometimes a goalie has one of those games where nothing gets by him. This was one of those games for Olthuis. He's a good goalie, but he was especially good on this night. Again, we played well enough to win on most nights...but not on this night.

Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. Maybe it wasn't our time. It doesn't lessen the sting of the loss, especially knowing in my heart that we should have won. After the game, it seemed to take forever to pack and load the gear. The guys sat in stunned silence for a long time after the game, punctuated by talks from Jerome and Wanda thanking them for their efforts. We finally boarded the bus and headed for home, with a few adult beverages to drown our sorrows. We got back to Columbus and unpacked and I set about the task of washing the uniforms and laundry one last time. It's funny how every little thing seems to hit me...the last time I'll wash the jerseys, the last time I'll straighten the stalls, the last time I'll put away the skate sharpener.

Now a month has passed. I've been working on moving stuff over to the new rink and setting up our locker room over there. In addition, Barney and Mike Slayton, Tyler McCrea and myself sharpened all of the rental skates for the new rink, which had its grand opening last week. Most of the players have gone home, but a few are staying here for most of the summer. That's encouraging. It means they plan on returning next season, and I think we have the core of a really good team. While we could obviously use a little more firepower, we had a really good mix of guys in the room this year. I could see as many as 14 or 15 of these guys returning this season. That should help bring us some much-needed stability after a season in which we had a very high turnover rate from the season before.

I should clarify. Now that "last season" has ended, I'm already into "next season" mode...which means that when I say this season I'm referring to the upcoming season, not the one we just finished. Even though the NHL, ECHL and CHL are still playing the 2010-11 playoffs, I'm already ordering for the 2011-12 season and that's where my focus is.

On that subject, I finished and sent my order to SBK Hockey for our pants and gloves for this season. The SPHL will once again use SBK pants, gloves and sticks exclusively. We had some minor issues with their stuff last season, but overall it was pretty good quality for the money. Now that it's ordered, I'll start working on ordering the rest of our equipment for this season. We stagger our orders over the summer, so we're not having to pay for everything all at once (especially since we don't need it until October). That also gives us time to move some of the old gear to make room for the new stuff. After finishing up my end-of-season inventory, I'll be putting together a bunch of gear that we can try to sell. I'm planning to have another locker room sale like we had last summer. I'm hoping to have another good turnout like last summer, so if you need any new(er) gear (or have friends who do) keep your eyes peeled for that event in the next few weeks.

After that, I'm planning on heading home to Phoenix for a working vacation. That's where the Trainers' convention is being held this season, which makes it nice and convenient for me. I'm hoping to score tickets for the MLB All-Star game there (or at least some of the festivities). Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Over? Did you say over?

Well, after losing a tough one in Game 1 in Augusta, the boys bounced back hard in Game 2.

Game 1 may have been doomed from the start. I walked out of the Civic Center to board the bus and was greeted by a plume of smoke coming out of the side of it (never a good sign). Tex pulled out the generator and began trying to fix it, but it wasn't looking good. He managed to get it running, which meant we would be able to enjoy AC (Air conditioning, not alternating current) on our trip to Augusta...or so we thought. The generator conked out again shortly after we left and we were left with nothing but 2-80 Air Conditioning (2 windows down, 80 miles an hour). This wasn't bad for a while, but just this side of Augusta the I-20 became a parking lot, rendering our 2-80 AC ineffective. We spent the next hour in our own little sweat lodge. Good times.

At last, we got past the obstruction and continued on our way to the James Brown Arena, bypassing most of the Masters' traffic. We unloaded and began our preparations for the game, as usual. About midway through warmups I noticed that there was a huge puddle of water behind our net. This is not normal. If there's a little water left on the ice at the start of warmups, it usually freezes up within a couple of minutes. But the longer warmups went on, the worse the ice got; to the point that there was a huge wet spot in the center of the ice by the end.

The ice got progressively worse as the game wore on; so much so that before the 3rd period they didn't even put water down on it...just dry-shaved it. I'm not making excuses for our poor showing...they were skating on the same ice. But it does make it hard to generate any kind of consistent offense when you can't make 2 passes in a row and the puck is bouncing all over the place and you're skating in sand. Then our power play deserted us, and theirs lit up our penalty kill. You could say that special teams won this game, and theirs were better than ours that night. All in all, we played a pretty good first period, a mediocre second, and a completely lackluster third.

Then, after the game, we spent another hour or so waiting for the AC on the bus to get fixed. We finally got back on the road and headed for home. I was asleep when the AC gave out again, so I didn't really notice it. But I woke up swimming in my own sweat, which is never a pleasant experience.

We finally made it home and unpacked the bus and the guys headed home to rest up for Game 2, while I spun laundry and got set up for the morning skate.

Game 2 could not have been more different. It would have been easy for the guys to hang their heads and give up after the way we played in Game 1, but we didn't. The attitude was surprisingly upbeat. Nobody thought that this was going to be our last game...but the Riverhawks did. I think they came in expecting to pitch a no-hitter and slide out with an easy victory. Not in the Snakepit.

The boys came out fired up, confident...and a little pissed off after some Riverhawks' shenanigans in the first game. We had a score to settle, and not just in the series. We were hitting from the drop of the puck and we continued it all the way to the final buzzer. This is the way I like to see us play. I've always said we play our best when we hit, and tonight was a perfect example of that. We got our snarl on and dominated the game from beginning to end. There were some contentious moments, most of them revolving around #5 for Augusta, Kevin Fukala. He's Augusta's tough guy. He's the guy you don't want your guys to fight...not because he may beat your guy, but because you want to leave him on the ice. No matter which of our guys he takes off the ice with him for 5 minutes, they win that exchange. He gets 5 shifts a game if he's lucky, and there's a reason for that. He's not a good hockey player. He's the epitome of the term "goon". He's only out there for one reason, and he showed that tonight.

Vigier had another stellar effort and thwarted nearly all of their scoring chances (not that there were many). Our defense played well in front of him to limit those chances, and our offense went to town (led by defenseman Kyle Lundale and his hat-trick). The boys were skating, they were in sync, they were passing on the tape and their shots were hitting the mark. Everything clicked and it was fun to watch.

There was one ugly incident at the end of the game. Fukala was on the ice as the game ended and he charged at Jeff MacPhee after the buzzer sounded. He cross-checked MacPhee in the back of the head, then took a baseball swing at Lundale's head. This was the sickest display of on-ice thuggery I've ever seen in my 21 years in pro hockey. I hope the league does the right thing and hits Fukala and the Riverhawks with a harsh penalty to send a clear message that this type of behavior won't be tolerated. But, we'll see.

For now, we're boarding the bus again (fingers crossed on the AC) and headed to Augusta to finish off this series. And I'm bringing a secret weapon...a DVD copy of "Smokey and the Bandit". We're Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin'. We gonna do what they say can't be done.

And I'll leave you with this all-time favorite scene from Shakespeare's "Henry V":

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Eastbound and Down

Well, the Snakes won our first-round series against the rival Huntsville Havoc. It was a tough series, just as we expected. They're not the same team that swept their way to the cup last season, but they're still a good team. We knew they wouldn't go down easily. We knew we'd have to play our best to beat them. They lived up to our expectations. To quote the great Dennis Green, "They are who we thought they were."

With that said, we outplayed them in both games (though they gave us a scare in Game 2). We knew they would work hard and that they wouldn't quit, but we still managed to match them blow for blow. It was a very physical series (as we expected), and I thought we won most of the physical battles (as we expected). All in all, it was a well-played series and a good example of playoff hockey the way it should be played.

So now we look ahead to the second round. By noon tomorrow (Friday, April 8th) the Snakes will be Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin'. We gonna do what they say can't be done. (to quote the great Jerry Reed from the theme song to "Smokey and the Bandit", which has been stuck in my head ever since we watched the movie on the bus last week on the way to Huntsville) By "they", of course, I mean the Augusta Riverhawks (who advanced by beating the Pensacola Ice Flyers 2 games to 1). I'd like to say that them having played 3 games in 3 nights to our 2 games in 3 nights gives us an advantage, but with nearly a full week to get ready for the second round I don't think that will be much of a factor. But, on the plus side, I don't think the regular season results between us and Augusta will be a factor either. As I said before, regular season stats mean nothing come playoff time. Essentially, we're starting with a clean slate. Nothing will matter in the end aside from who is playing the best hockey now. I didn't watch any of the Riverhawks' games, but I know we're running on all cylinders now. We're getting goals from guys who hadn't been scoring lately. We're getting pretty goals from guys who aren't known for scoring pretty goals. Case in point:

This is one of the sickest goals I've ever seen. If I'm Omar Pacha (#5 in White), I'm going home after this game and selling my equipment (if I don't go straight to the locker room, take off my skate, and try to slit my wrists with it). I can't remember seeing a defenseman made to look more ridiculous than that poor guy was on that play. And I love the reaction of Shaun Arvai (#3 in White). That pretty much says it all. The poor goalie didn't stand a chance. And you've gotta love the call by our own Mike Vee. He captures the excitement of the moment...even if I'm not really sure I get the metaphor he was weaving. He paints a picture with his words. He's not the best radio guy in the league for nothing.

Although our record against Augusta wasn't great (and we couldn't manage a win in Augusta all season) I like our chances. In two or three of the games in Augusta I thought we outplayed the Riverhawks but just couldn't catch a break. I think we have a team that can beat them, and I'm looking forward to proving it. I'm excited about this series. I can't wait. The only thing I'm not looking forward to is the traffic in Augusta. Rumour has it there's some sort of golf tournament going on there this weekend (Go, Lefty!). That should make our trip very interesting. The road we normally take to the James Brown Arena takes us right past Augusta National Country Club. Obviously, we're looking at an alternate route, but still traffic is expected to be abnormally congested. Hopefully, we won't have to go back there for Game 3 on Sunday, right at the climax of the tournament. That could turn into an absolute nightmare. So, hopefully we'll take Game 1 in Augusta tomorrow (Friday) night and Game 2 Saturday night back in the Snakepit. See you there!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Warriors...come out to play-eee-aaaaayyyyy

Well, Game 1 is in the books with a big 'W' for the good guys. If you've read Kathy Gierer's blog you've probably already heard about the team's Viking helmet. It's passed on after each win to the "Warrior of the Game" for that game, from the previous recipient. It's a badge of honor that is worn proudly by each Warrior. It's a way of paying tribute to somebody who may not get the credit, but did something to help the team win. I've seen/heard of quite a few teams who give out a hardhat after each win to the hardest working player of the game. In typical Snakes fashion, we wanted to do something similar...but different. We don't generally go about things in the "normal" way. Our guys like to dance to the beat of their own drummer. That's one of the things I like about this team. So, when a few guys mentioned that they'd like to do something like the "hardest worker" hardhat, it was decided that instead of a construction helmet we should do something a little different. So a couple of guys went out searching for just the right type of helmet...and somehow a Viking helmet seemed appropriate. Nevermind that the nearest known Viking settlements were a couple thousand miles North of Georgia. Nevermind that I don't think we have anybody on the team who is of Scandinavian heritage (Although MacPhee looks the part). None of that matters. What matters is that the Vikings represent the type of spirit that we want our players to embody (minus the raping and pillaging, of course). It is a strong warrior heritage, and that is what we're trying to tap into.

You see, the point of the hardhat award in the first place is to recognize players whose contributions might not always get noticed, but are just as crucial to the team's success. The catalyst to a win might not always be the game-winning goal or a hat-trick. Sometimes it's a fight or a big hit that sparks the team and gets them going. Sometimes it's a key shot block that the guys rally around. Whatever it is, it's something that may not show up on the scoresheet but nonetheless has an impact on our team performance.

After last night's Snakes win, outgoing Warrior Jesse Cole presented the helmet to Snakes forward Mitch Wall. While I don't want to take anything away from Sam Bowles' 3-point performance (2g-1a), I think giving the helmet to Wally last night epitomizes what that award is supposed to signify. To me, the Warrior of the game may not have had the biggest offensive night, but he came up big in some other way and ignited the team. For this reason, Wally was the most deserving hero. He came out hitting everything in sight. He had a little bit of a snarl on and, as I may have mentioned, I think we play better when we do that. I'm fairly certain that Wally plays better when he does that. I'm reminded of an old quote from Fred Shero, who coached the Philadelphia Flyers to 2 Stanley Cup wins in the mid-70s..."Get to the puck first, and arrive in ill humour". That's the key. You have to want that puck. You have to want it more than the other guy so that when you go into the corner after a loose puck you don't pull the chute to avoid getting hit. Instead, you go in there looking for the hit and knowing that you're going to win that battle. Two men go into the corner looking for the puck, but only one comes out with it. That's Hockey. That's how you win...especially in the playoffs. Wally had that last night. It was a thing of beauty to watch. Also a thing of beauty was Wally's goal. He hasn't scored many this year but they've been memorable-none more than this one. He knocked a puck away from a Havoc player in our zone, then raced up ice, beat his man to the puck and went in on a breakaway. He made a nice little move across the front of the net and beat Havoc goalie Mark Sibbald for what would prove to be the game-winning goal. That was a huge lift for us...not just because it gave us a 3-1 lead, but because Wally is not usually the guy you would expect to come up with a nice play like that. Not that he's a slug or anything like that...just that he's normally a keep-it-simple, up and down winger. He's not usually a dangler. But he came up huge when it counted. Good for Wally and good for us.

As for the game itself, I was kind of dreading the trip there. I've been in a couple of practice-rink situations before and they can very easily turn into a complete fiasco. I was concerned about what type of facilities they would have available for us and I was fully prepared to have to do without some things that we would normally have provided for us by the home team. I was somewhat comforted when we pulled up and saw one of the security guards that we recognize from the Von Braun Center. These are good guys and they know what they're doing, so I knew we were in good hands at that point. Then, when we went inside, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw...a well organized, well planned layout for our locker rooms. They were essentially 4 separate rooms that were all connected by adjoining doorways and a shared bathroom/shower room. We had a separate training room set up for Hannah, and we had plenty of room for our players and for my sharpener and trunk and extra equipment. It was a bit of a scramble to figure out the best places to set up all of our stuff, but that came together pretty quickly thanks to some help from the staff of the Benton H. Wilcoxon Ice Complex. I met Steve Clough, the General Manager of the arena (with whom I had been in contact via e-mail), and he made sure we were well taken care of. I'd like to thank him and his staff, as well as Trainer Bobbi Harman, Equipment Manager Jorge Lopez and the rest of the Havoc staff that put a lot of effort into making everything run as smoothly as possible. They truly made the best of a less-than-ideal situation, and I thank them.

I'd also like to give a shout-out to Tyler McCrea, one of our gameday helpers who made the trip with us and was a huge help. His assistance was invaluable.

With that said, I was a little disappointed by the crowd. The place was very small, with only enough room for maybe 600 people, and there was a lot of space in those bleachers. The crowd was probably only about 400 or so, and they weren't as vocal as I was expecting. Some of the guys were looking forward to playing in the small arena because they said it was like some of the rinks they played in back home in juniors. The crowd really didn't provide much of a "playoff atmosphere".

In any case, our guys stepped up to the challenge and outplayed the Havoc. That's an important step in the right direction. Now we need to win Game 2 to take the next step to round 2. Hope to see you at the Snakepit.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Don't Look, Ethel!

At the end of my last blog, we had just extended our winning streak to a season-high five games. I ended my blog there because that was where the streak ended (I like ending on a high note). The 2-month span since has been a whirlwind. I can't believe the season has ended, but as I sit here writing this I'm taking a break from packing for our first playoff game tomorrow.

Our season could best be characterized as streaky. We had 4 separate winning streaks of 3 games or more (including streaks of 4 games and 5 games). We also had 3 separate losing streaks of 3 games each. Our 5-game winning streak pulled our record to one game over .500 for the first time this season (just past the halfway point of our season), and our record since the streak was also one game over .500 (giving us an overall 29-27 record, two games above .500). You could say we were consistently inconsistent...but I would prefer to say that we were consistent for short intervals. We'd be good for a couple of games, then bad for a game or two. Then we'd be good for three games, then bad for two. Our peaks and valleys were like the streets of San Francisco (the actual streets, not the TV show).

All of that pretty much goes out the window at this point. Once the regular season ends, a new season begins and the slate is wiped clean. Anything can happen. It doesn't matter where you finished in the standings or what your record was against a given team (on that note...our record against Huntsville was 4-5). For that matter, it doesn't matter that we won the last three meetings against the Havoc (including two in Huntsville). What matters is how you play in Game 1 (especially in a best-of-three format). Only time will tell how that will play out, but I like the way we've been playing lately. I think we have a good team, and the right kind of team to go deep into the playoffs. I know we haven't shown it consistently enough, but I'm hoping the boys will rise to the challenge now that the real season is upon us.

After a recent game in the Snakepit, I passed one of the opposing team's players on his way out to the bus. I wished him safe travels, then he said something interesting...he wished us well and said he hoped they didn't run into us in the playoffs. This was a top-tier team and they were worried about us. Come to think of it, we have been a bit of a wild card. You never know what team is going to show up, so you're never quite sure how to play us. Do you come out strong and physical, hitting everything in sight? If so, you risk waking a sleeping tiger (and that's not something I would recommend). Do you play us soft and timid and hope that we sleepwalk through the game? I've seen teams do that against us with some success. The thing is, when we come to play we can beat any team in this league...and they know that. Now we just have to make sure we come to play every night.

As you've probably heard by now, Game 1 will not be played at the Havoc's usual home, the Von Braun Center. Instead, the game will be played at their practice rink (which only holds 600-800 people, depending on who you believe). This could be a decided advantage to the Havoc, since they are used to this building and we've never skated there. One would also imagine the atmosphere would be very lively with about 700 of their most ardent fans jammed into a place roughly the size of a garage. It will be interesting to see how each team responds to the unusual venue. That will go a long way towards deciding who wins this series. But in the end, as always, it will largely be determined by which team wants it more and works the hardest. That's where I think we have the advantage. We shall see.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snakes on a roll

***I'd like to apologize for the lengthy delay in posting this latest blog. I know you're anxiously anticipating my latest words of wisdom, so I'm sorry to keep you waiting. But without any further ado, here it is. I hope you find it entertaining and/or interesting.

After starting the New Year with a 9-1 shellacking at the hands of the Pensacola Ice Flyers, things could only get better...and they did.

We hosted the new-look Augusta Riverhawks. The 'Hawks had been forced to make a few moves to fill out their roster after losing several key players to callups and injuries. Because of this, there were a lot of new faces wearing Riverhawks jerseys.

The Snakes had also added a new name to the roster...Tom Maldonado. Tom came here on the recommendation of the "Missouri Mafia" of Sam Bowles, Bret Tyler and Brett Hammond, as he was a teammate of theirs with the CHL's Missouri Mavericks. A lot of recruiting at this level of hockey is done via word of mouth, as evidenced by these guys and the "Canisius Connection" of Andrew Loewen, Peter MacDougall, and Dave Cianfrini. Since scouting at this level is almost nonexistent, coaches rely heavily on players using their connections to not only find players, but to judge how well they'll fit into the team. Team chemistry is as vital to a team's success as skill and effort, and with former teammates you already know that they can get along with some of your players. I've seen good players underperform because they didn't fit in well with their teammates, so it's important to know how well a player's character and personality will fit in with the rest of the team.

So, we know that Maldonado gets along well with several of our guys and fits in well with their style of play, and since word of mouth goes both ways, he knows that Columbus is a great place to play, with loyal, passionate fans and a good organization. So, welcome aboard, Tom!

The Snakes came out hitting and played pretty well in the first period, but there was no score until the Riverhawks netted a power-play goal at 16:41 of the period. Daryl Moore tied the game at 1-1 just 34 seconds later and that's where the score remained after one period. Maldonado took a nice bank-pass off the boards and fired home a one-timer from the point to give the Snakes a 2-1 lead. Lucas Labelle and Jordan Braid traded goals in the third and the Snakes were holding onto a 3-2 lead when it all came crashing down. While killing a 2-man disadvantage, the Riverhawks cleared the puck out of the zone and down the ice just as the first penalty was ending. Egor Mironov came out of the box behind the defense and had a clear line to the loose puck. Snakes goalie Andrew Loewen was all that stood between Mironov and the Snakes net. In a split-second decision, Andrew decided to charge the puck and try to beat Mironov to it so that he could clear it from danger. He hesitated just enough that Mironov beat him to the puck and managed to poke it just past Loewen's reach. Once he cleared Loewen's outstretched body, Mironov had an unobstructed lane to the Snakes goal for an easy tap-in to tie the game with just under 3 minutes left.

Some were quick to blame Loewzy for the misplay, but in reality it's a play he shouldn't have had to make. There's no way that puck should get behind our defense at the end of a 5-on-3 advantage like that. We were still up a man, and somebody should have been back to make sure the guy coming out of the box didn't beat us. That's why you'll hear goalies banging their sticks on the ice when a penalty is let the defense know that there's about to be a guy coming out behind them. One of them is supposed to drop back and cover the guy. In this case, nobody did. If Loewen stays in his net, it's a clean breakaway to one of their best players anyway. Loewzy did what most goalies would have done in the same situation. The only thing he might have done wrong was hesitating. If he takes half a second less to think about it and decide to go, he probably gets to the puck and clears it. But I guess we'll never know. As it stands, we're now in a tie game, heading for overtime.

The OT period could have gone either way, with big scoring chances at either end turned away by even bigger saves from each goalie. Either team could easily have scored 3 or 4 times in the extra frame. Then, just when it looked like we were headed for a shootout, one miscommunication turned into an odd-man rush and in the blink of an eye Branden Kosolofsky (of all people) buries the puck in the net with 7 seconds left in the overtime to claim the victory for the Riverhawks. What a heartbreaker! To come that close, and now with the new rules we don't even get a point for the effort, really hurts. I'm really not a big fan of that rule. It seems ridiculous that a team could play 65 minutes of hockey to a draw, then lose in a shootout and have nothing to show for it. But, I guess that's the way it goes...for this year, at least.

It's tough to be in the locker room after any loss, but especially after a loss like this one. To come so close, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, can be very disheartening. Everybody tries to make sense of it...not to assign blame, but to understand why. Many guys will blame themselves. Loewen will blame himself for not getting to that loose puck. Another guy might blame himself for fanning on a shot with an open net. Somebody else will blame himself for not picking up his guy in the overtime. In truth, none of them are right, but only because all of them are right. Any one of those breaks for or against us could have swayed the outcome of the game. We win as a team and we lose as a team. If one guy has an off-night, it's up to the others to pick up the slack. If the offense fails to produce, the defense has to tighten up and limit the goals against. If the defense gives up too many chances, the goalie has to be able to shut the door. If the goalie doesn't have his "A" game on any given night, the offense has to come up big to compensate. We fell short tonight. Now, it's time to get ready for the next game. You have to be able to put any loss behind you, because the next game is right around the corner.

With that in mind, we turned the page to Saturday's game. We didn't have time to dwell on the loss to Augusta, because Pensacola was coming to town. The Ice Flyers are one of the top teams in the league, so we know we have to play our best to beat them. There's no room for mistakes against a team like this...any mistakes can and will end up in the back of your net.

Both teams came out strong. The Flyers managed 11 shots on goal to the Snakes' 10, but Peter MacDougall scored the only goal of the period and we took a 1-0 lead into the locker room. From there, the defense took control and limited Pensacola to only 11 shots over the last 2 periods. Ian Vigier shut the door and a goal by Sam Bowles in the second and one by Orrin Hergott in the third rounded out the scoring in a 3-0 final.

The next week we ran into another ice shortage in the Civic Center. Occasionally, in their quest to turn a profit, the Civic Center management schedules events in there. This may help pay the bills, but it kinda cramps our style. It's hard to work on your game when you can't practice during the week. I'll be really glad when the new building opens up. But until then, no practice ice means we're heading for Louisiana early. We've actually been pretty lucky with our travel schedule this year. We haven't spent many nights on the road and none of our road trips have been longer than 3 games (and most haven't even been THAT long). But, in this instance, we headed out a day early. We left Wednesday night at midnight, which is nice because it means we spent most of the trip sleeping. We arrived in Lafayette at about 7am local time and headed to a truck stop for breakfast at the Country Pride restaurant. After breakfast, we headed over to the Cajundome for the first time. Last year, the Gators played at the Blackham Coliseum, a run-down old rodeo barn and generally a miserable place for a hockey game. The Cajundome is a definite improvement. It's the place the old Ice Gators played in their ECHL heyday. So, basically, the Gators went from having the worst facility in the league to having arguably the best.

We got to the rink and unloaded our gear to get ready for practice. We were lucky, in that the Gators had a game that night but it was against Mississippi (who came in day-of-game because they're only about 3 hours away). Since they weren't coming in until the evening, we were able to use their locker room to skate in the morning. Once we finished practicing, we packed up our gear and moved it into a storage room until after the game that night. We then headed off to the hotel to check in and get settled. A bunch of us went to the game that night to watch the Gators play the Surge. The Surge stormed out to a big 4-0 lead, then held off a late rally by the Gators to come away with a 5-2 win.

After the game, we headed down to the locker rooms to wait for Mississippi to clear out so we could move our gear in and hang it to dry for the next day's morning skate. While we were there we got to chat with former Snake Ryan McCarthy. It was nice to catch up with Macker. He said he's enjoying playing in Mississippi (What's not to like? They've been hovering around 1st place for most of the season), but he misses his friends in Columbus. I told him we miss him, too.

At last, the Surge had cleared out and those of us who had attended the game moved our gear in and hung it up in the visitors' locker room to dry. We headed back to the hotel and were back in our rooms by 11pm (or midnight Eastern time, 24 hours after our trek had begun).

We headed down to the Cajundome for the morning skate, then headed back to the hotel for lunch. Most of the guys beelined it over to the Italian pizzeria down the street. Their pasta seems to be the favorite pre-game meal of our guys. I prefer the Cajun kitchen a little further down the road. I don't get many chances to have real Cajun food, so I like to take advantage when I can.

I headed back to the rink after lunch to set up for the game. I had an unusually large number of skates to sharpen before the game. The ice is usually pretty soft down in the South, especially in a humid climate like Louisiana, so guys usually don't need their edges quite as sharp. Today, however, was another story. I sharpened 10 pairs of skates in the afternoon, along with 2 pairs in the morning. That's 2/3 of the team, which is a lot more than I usually have to do in one day.

The guys came out flying on their freshly sharpened skates, outshooting the Gators by a 13-8 margin. Unfortunately, only Daryl Moore could solve Gators goalie Archie Henderson. The Snakes could only muster 3 shots on goal in the second period (to the Gators' 11), but 2 of those shots (off the stick of Sam Bowles) eluded Henderson. The Gators netted 3 goals in the frame to tie the game at the intermission.

Jason Hill scored his second goal of the game early in the third and it started to feel like deja' vu all over again. It would have been easy for the guys to hang their heads and wait for the inevitable collapse at this point, but they battled back to tie the game on a goal from Jordan Braid, then notched a power-play marker from Bret Tyler to retake the lead. After that, it was all about Ian Vigier shutting the door. The Gators managed 13 shots in the third, but Hill's tally was the only one to get by Ian.

After the game, we boarded the bus and headed back to the hotel. I know that I've touted the virtues of the day trips, but there's something to be said for back-to-back games in the same city. It's nice to have a road game where you don't have to pack up and load the bus and head out of town right after the be able to hang up the gear, hand over the laundry to the home Equipment Manager, and go to the hotel. Of course, it's even nicer when you don't have a game the next day and can go out and actually enjoy the city you're in, but that's another story. In this case, we went back to the hotel to get some rest for the next day's morning skate.

I headed down to the lobby the next morning for the continental breakfast. I think this hotel has the second best continental breakfast in the league (Mississippi gets the edge because they have an omelet bar). I finished my food and waited for my ride to the rink. I like to go in early to make sure the room is set up and ready to go when the guys get there. It's easier than trying to pass out laundry and practice jerseys while the guys are milling around the crowded locker room. Plus, getting there early allows me time to sharpen skates so that they're ready to go when the guys arrive. I like to be done with everything so that when the guys show up I'm available in case they need anything, rather than having to scramble to get it all done in time.

The guys finished the morning skate and we headed back to the hotel. The routine doesn't change much when you're on the road (I guess that's why they call it a "routine"). Morning skate, pre-game meal, pre-game nap, bus to the arena, team meeting, warmups, game. In between there are multitudes of personal rituals...some are just force of habit and getting into a comfort zone, but some are very superstitious (and some are downright weird). In any case, it's funny to see the guys go through them. You can almost set your watch by some of them.

We opened the scoring the same way we had closed out the scoring the night before...with a power play goal by Bret Tyler. This would be the only goal of the first period. Matt Kinnunen made it 2-0 midway through the second period. Ice Gators Captain Shawn McNeil beat Andrew Loewen on a penalty shot awarded after he was taken down on a breakaway. That was all the scoring in the second period, despite the Gators holding a 15-7 shot advantage. There was no scoring in the third until Orrin Hergott dented the twine at 12:09 into the frame. The 3-1 score held up until the Gators pulled their goalie for the last couple of minutes. Beau McLaughlin scored with the extra attacker, but his goal was bookended by two empty-netters for the Snakes for a final score of 5-2. Sweeping a series on the road makes the long bus ride home much more fun.

The next weekend we hosted the Fayetteville Fireantz and Louisiana Ice Gators. We were still riding the high of our 3-game winning streak. Friday night the boys came out flying, unleashing a barrage of 18 shots on goal in the first period (to just 8 Fireantz shots). Rookies Jordan Braid, Mitch Wall and Matt Kinnunen beat Fireantz goalie Travis Yonkman for a 3-0 lead after one period. Orrin Hergott and Antz forward Nathaniel Brooks traded goals in the second period, and we entered the third with a 4-1 lead. Defense took a break in the third as the teams combined to score 5 goals in a 7-minute span (3 for the Snakes and 2 for the Fireantz for a final score of 7-3).

Saturday's game started much the same way (after some opening-faceoff fireworks between Peter MacDougall and Gators forward Jason Hill)...with the Snakes dominating play and outshooting their opponent by a wide margin (18-9). The difference is that tonight's victim was Gators goalie Scott Darling and he only allowed one goal (to Orrin Hergott, which was countered by Ryan Howarth). Despite the one-sided action, the game was tied at one after one period. Kyle Lundale started off the second with an early goal, but it was countered 32 seconds later by CJ Tozzo. MacDougall and Jesse Cole added goals later in the period and we went into the third with a 4-2 lead. Shawn McNeil scored midway through the third and Jesse Cole countered a couple of minutes later. Matt Kinnunen added an empty-netter (after a couple of near-misses by other Snakes) to close out the scoring at 6-3.

So, the Snakes rebounded from their worst loss of the season and a heartbreaking OT loss by rattling off 5 straight victories (our longest winning streak of the season). Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can start climbing to the top (Wow, that's deep. I should write that down. Oh, wait...I just did. Nevermind.). In any case, that's how we started the new year. Hopefully, it's a sign that we've turned a corner and are ready to start playing up to our potential more consistently. But, we'll see.