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.