The SHL selected New York Night C Brock Manning as its Player of the Week. Manning’s stick was on fire this week, as he put up 10 goals and 2 assists. On Wednesday, Manning became the first player in league history to score 4 goals in a game, as the Night tied Hamilton 6-6 in a high-flying offensive game. On Friday, he put up a conventional hat trick, powering New York’s 5-2 thumping of Quebec.
With his 12-point showing this week, Manning moved into a commanding league lead in both points (34) and goals (18). His 16 assists are tied for second in the league. Manning anchors the Night’s incredibly powerful first line, which is by far the best offensive unit in the league. All five members of the line (Manning, LW Chase Winchester, RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson, and Ds Dominic Sanchez and Tuomas Nurmi) are among the league’s top 10 in goals, assists, or both.
“We’ve got a goal-scoring machine over here,” said New York coach Preston Rivers. “It’s a real thing of beauty. In New York we like to win, but we especially like to do it with style and flash. That’s what these guys have got. Brock’s got the total package, and the fans love it.”
SHL Digest: We’re here talking with Harvey Bellmore of the Dakota Rapids. Harvey, thanks for talking with us.
Harvey Bellmore: Sure, no problem.
SHLD: Let’s start with your reputation. You’re well known around the league as a goofball. Some of your teammates say that you “elevate silliness to an art form.” What do you think of quotes like that?
HB: To be honest, I’m honored. I work very hard at being a joker, and it’s nice to see my work is getting recognized.
SHLD: We’ve heard stories about all kinds of practical jokes that you’ve pulled on your teammates. If you had to pick one that you’re most proud of, what would it be?
HB: That’s hard. It’s like trying to pick your favorite child. But I think it would probably be the one I pulled on Flyin’ Ryan [Airston]. It was right after you interviewed him about his bunny ranch.
SHLD: Sure! That was one of our most popular interviews.
HB: Well, the day after that interview ran, I filled his locker with carrots and put a big stuffed bunny on his stool. An ordinary prankster might have stopped at that, but I took it to the next level.
SHLD: What did you do?
HB: I was in cahoots with the clubhouse man, and I had him replace the nameplate on the back of his uniform so it said “BUNNY BOY.” Naturally, none of the guys said anything about it, and he actually took the ice with the Bunny Boy jersey on.
SHLD: That’s hilarious!
HB: Yeah, all the guys on the bench, and even Coach Engellund, were biting their lips so they wouldn’t crack up. Finally, late in the first period, a bunch of fans behind our bench shouted “Nice jersey!” and started chanting “Bunny Boy, Bunny Boy.” That’s what finally tipped him off.
SHLD: Was Ryan mad about it?
HB: He was pretty burned up about it at the time, but he got over it. He wound up getting the Bunny Boy jersey framed and it’s hanging up in his house.
SHLD: Sometimes your pranks wind up backfiring, though. We heard a story about a joy buzzer. Can you tell us about that?
HB: Oh, yeah, that one. Earlier this week against Washington, I was wearing my joy buzzer on the bench, and I was buzzing guys while they were tying their skates or drinking Gatorade, things like that. Well, with a couple minutes left, Ryan scored the go-ahead goal, and he skated by the bench to celebrate. I gave him a big slap on the back, forgetting I still had the buzzer on. Ryan thought he was being shocked and collapsed in a heap. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, or I would have been in real trouble. As it was, Coach made me clean up the locker room after the game.
SHLD: Incidents like that aside, do you think that your jokes and pranks are good for your team?
HB: Absolutely! I think it’s great for morale; it keeps us loose and helps bring us together. I think even Coach appreciates it. He calls me a “goofy punk,” but he’s usually sort of smiling when he says it.
SHLD: Your team is in a tough division this season, with Michigan off to a great start and Anchorage always dangerous. Do you think you’ve got a shot to compete?
HB: I sure hope so. I mean, we’ve got a lot of great scorers, from Ryan on down. We haven’t been lighting the lamp as much as we’d like, but once we figure that out, we’ll be as dangerous as anyone. I’m going to work on raising my prank game to the next level to try to inspire the team.
SHLD: Well, thanks for your time, and good luck with the rest of the season!
HB: No problem! I’m always glad to talk about my artform.
(Editor’s Note: At the conclusion of the interview, Bellmore held out his hand to shake. Upon shaking, we discovered he was wearing his joy buzzer. That smarts.)
Who’s going to win the SHL’s Eastern division? Who knows? If the first three weeks of the season have proven anything, it’s that there’s no clear favorite.
“Maybe, instead of beat each other up for 60 games, we should just pick the winner’s name out of a hat,” said Washington Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle. “That would probably be just as fair.”
Reagle’s Galaxy were the division favorites coming into this season after essentially going wire-to-wire last season and pushing the champion Anchorage Igloos to seven games in the SHL Finals. But much like the Igloos, Washington has struggled to stay above the .500 mark. Unlike the Igloos, however, the Galaxy haven’t had to deal with any major injuries.
So what’s plaguing Washington? Offensive malaise. While RW Jefferson McNeely has bounced back from a disappointing season to be an elite scoring force, LW Casey Thurman has gotten off to a slow start (5 goals, 11 points).
The primary culprit, though, has been the Galaxy’s third line. Last year, the line was a secret weapon for the Galaxy, providing a consistent offensive presence. This year has been a different story. Washington lost LW Todd Douglas and C Drustan Zarkovich in the expansion draft; their replacements, rookies Henry Van Alpin and Barry Sullivan, have struggled badly. Van Alpin failed to record a point in 10 games, and has been a healthy scratch in three straight games. Sullivan, expected to be a strong two-way force, has posted only 1 goal and 2 assists so far. The current points leader on the third line: stay-home D Bill Corbett.
“Obviously, we’ve had some growing pains with the third line,” said Reagle. “If we can get them producing the way we expect, I think we can start to pull away.” So far, though, they haven’t. Their 8-6-1 start has them on top of the division by a single point.
If any team in the East was expected to challenge Washington, it was the Hershey Bliss. They stumbled to a disappointing third-place finish last year after a major injury to star LW Lance Sweet sank their season. This year, though, Sweet was back to 100%, and the team seemingly strengthened itself on both ends in the offseason.
The result? So far, not much. Hershey’s 6-7-2 record puts them fourth in the division, three points back. The “Love Line” – the famous first line that won the fan’s hearts last season – is off to a so-so start after providing the bulk of the Bliss offense last year. Neither Sweet, C Justin Valentine, nor RW Christopher Hart leads the team in goals this year; all three trail rookie C Spencer Kirkpatrick, who has 7.
At the other end of the ice, the leaky goaltending that bedeviled the Bliss last year remains a problem. Hershey dealt last year’s starting netminder, Riley Lattimore, to Anchorage and handed the crease to 21-year-old prospect Buzz Carson. It hasn’t worked out so far, as Carson has posted a 1-5-1 record and a 3.67 GAA. Like Lattimore before him, Carson is in danger of losing the starting job to veteran backup Milo Stafford.
“Obviously, we’re not happy with what we’ve seen in net so far,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber. “It’s like biting into a nice tasty chocolate bar and getting a big squirt of lemon juice. A burst of sour in the middle of the sweet. We’ve got to get better.”
With neither Washington nor Hershey taking control, the door is open for some surprise contenders.
Last season, the New York Night finished in second place more or less by default with a 28-29-3 record. Their high-caliber offense was undermined by a near-total indifference to defense and spotty goaltending. This season is largely the same story – the Night are first in offense and last in defense once again – but despite being outscored on the season, their 7-6-2 record has them only a point behind Washington.
Tied with New York is the Hamilton Pistols. The Pistols were widely perceived to be writing off the season as part of a rebuilding effort, but had a surprisingly strong first week and remain in the hunt. Powered by a brilliant performance from their potent first line and a comeback showing from goalie Brandon Colt, the Pistols remain stubbornly above the .500 mark.
Even the expansion Quebec Tigres, whose offense has cratered after an injury to Zarkovich and who have slid into the cellar, are only six points behind the first-place Galaxy.
Will Washington and Hershey right the ship and take control of the division? Will Hamilton and New York be able to spring a major upset? Will Quebec be able to keep up? Anything seems possible in this wide-open division.
The ever-optimistic Reagle sees a bright side. “Look at the NFL,” the Washington coach said. “For years, they’ve managed to sell widespread mediocrity as thrilling and competitive. We can do the same! Tune in next week for As The East Turns.”
Three weeks into the SHL’s second season, the Michigan Gray Wolves are off to a strong start and are threatening to leave the rest of the league in the dust. In a year that has largely been defined by parity so far, Michigan is the shining exception to the rule. The Wolves have posted a 12-3-0 record to date, a mark that’s left them seven points clear of the rest of the league.
“We came into this season on a mission,” said C Hunter Bailes. “Sitting at home for the playoffs really stung after the year we had. We knew that as strong as we were [last year], we needed to step it up a notch. And so far, we’ve really done that.”
Many of the Wolves give credit for the team’s early success to new coach Ron Wright. Wright, who coached the Hamilton Pistols last season, took over in Michigan after Martin Delorme left to become the inaugural coach of the Quebec Tigres. So far, the Wolves have been deeply impressed by Wright’s deep knowledge of the game, his fanatical work ethic (he frequently sleeps in his office, and is always the first one in the clubhouse even when he doesn’t), and his apparently bottomless drive and intensity.
“We thought Martin worked us pretty hard in practice last year,” said D Frank Mudrick. “But Coach Wright came in and showed us we didn’t know from hard.”
Wright smiled when he heard Mudrick’s comment. “The first day of training camp, I told them: ‘I promise you, you’re going to hate me right now. I’m going to push you to the limit, and you’re going to curse my name. But come the spring, when we’re the ones holding the Vandy, you’re going to love me. I’m pushing you now to pay off later. If you can buy into that, we can do business.’ And they’ve all bought in, from the stars on down.”
Wright’s hard-driving style proved a poor fit with the more easygoing Pistols, but with the Wolves, he found a team hungry for a championship and willing to work hard for it. “I was prepared for some pushback,” said Wright. “I figured some of the guys would think I was a slave driver, or tell me to stick my drills where the sun don’t shine. But [the players] bought in from the start. This is the most committed, professional bunch of players I’ve ever worked with. As a coach, it’s a joy.”
By all accounts, Michigan is a force to be reckoned with. Last season, some around the league criticized the Wolves’ style of play as one-dimensional. To those critics, the team was winning by turning games into bloodbaths, slowing the pace of play with their aggressive defense and trying to eke out wins in low-scoring games.
This season, Michigan’s defense remains first-class (they’ve allowed only 26 goals, an eye-popping 14 fewer than any other team in the league), but their offense has stepped things up. Last season, the Wolves scored fewer goals than anyone except lowly Saskatchewan. This year, their output (46 goals) is solidly in the middle of the pack, led by Bailes, whose 9 goals place him in the league’s top 10.
“Last year, everyone said we were a goon squad and didn’t know how to play honest hockey,” said Bailes. “Well, they can’t say that now. We’re strong at both ends.”
Although Wright and his players are winning plaudits now, skeptics wonder whether the Wolves are setting themselves up for a case of déjà vu. Last season, Michigan rocketed to a 13-3-2 start and looked like a strong bet to go to the championship. However, they were soon passed by the Anchorage Igloos, who never looked back on their way to the Western flag and the league’s first championship. Will history repeat itself?
Bailes is adamant that it won’t. “Everyone acts like we choked, or that we went flat down the stretch,” the center said. “Well, that’s crap. We fought Anchorage hard all season, and we barely lost out at the end. We had a great year, but they were even better. We don’t expect this to be a cakewalk, but we know we’re better than we were last year.”
While the Wolves surge, the Igloos stumble along, hurt by the loss of C Nile Bernard to injury. Wright cautions that the Igloos’ 8-6-1 mark isn’t a reflection of their ability. “I know that we’re not seeing the real Anchorage right now,” said the Wolves coach. “This is our chance to play strong and build up as much of a cushion as we can. Because I know they’re going to get right, especially once Bernard returns. I’m expecting a dogfight all the way.”
It remains to be seen whether the Wolves can keep up this blistering pace all season, or whether they can dethrone the Igloos as Western champs. But if Wright and his men fall short, it won’t be for lack of trying.
“We won’t be outworked, outclassed, or outhustled,” said Wright. “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in effort.”